Preface: As I was stepping off my flight onto a hard stand at Domodedovo, I learned that Aeroflot was purchasing Transaero. What that will mean for Transaero is unclear at this time. What I can assume, however, is that Aeroflot’s dislike of oddball fleet types puts Transaero’s three Tupolev Tu-214s in extreme danger and that makes me sad. It also made the fact that I have now flown on a Tu-214 that much more important. The things that I had to do to get that flight — they might cause the standard AvGeek to go mad!
You ever wanted to do something really, really, really stupid? I call that a weekday. I am, more or less, Homer Simpson. I am the kind of person more comparable to a talking dog. The kind of person who will smash through a bay window just to shout “WHO WANTS LOTTERY TICKETS?!” This impulsivity and lack of self preservation gives me advantages that most do not have. Most people, when presented with the idea that if they want to fly on a Tu-214, do not immediately think the best option is to fly almost all the way across Russia in one day. They probably think that’s a bad idea. By the time they are saying all the ways it could go wrong, I’ve already paid.
I also managed to convince a friend to join me. It feels so cromulent to be part of an international gang of idiots. He also, in a fit of pique, decided to track down Transaero’s director of International Public Relations and tell her what our intentions were.
I think we confused her, but the good kind of bewilderment. “When we saw that two journalists had booked a round trip across Russia in one day, just to fly on a Tu-214, we knew they were serious” was the first thing she told us when we met her. Although I am not sure “serious,” was the word she was thinking… maybe more along the lines of “mental?”
Whatever the case, I cannot say enough nice things about how helpful she was. I’ve worked with many airline PR people and I’d say she was one of the best.
Russia, despite being a free country since 1991, still maintains a strong security posture. They want everything to be in place, everyone to do exactly what they ask, nothing to deviate from the mean. Pretty much the same as every other country.
The good thing is that Russians are used to this and rather than adopting the mantra of zero tolerance, zero thought, zero flexibility; they work around it. When Domodedovo told me that I needed different visas in order to gain ramp access to photograph our airframe, I was not happy. Then Transaero decided, instead, to get the Domodedovo press office involved and drive us out to the hardstand on a special Transaero van. Now we are talking.
I might visit airports with old Soviet metal parked, but it is not often that I am allowed to take photos. Curiously, the airport press man did nothing other than provide legitimacy. That really impressed me. I mean, who does that!? I guess it doesn’t matter. Our hardstand just happened to be right next to the Domodedovo aircraft storage area. Even three years ago, it made Victorville look empty. You could find any Tu-204, Il-62, Tu-154 you wanted parked there. Now there are just a few Domodedovo Airlines Il-62s, the entirety of their Il-96 fleet, an errant 757, and a few Tu-154s parked there. I think there might even be an Embraer 120.
After the tour, it was time to head to my aircraft, which is one of three Tu-214s operated by Transaero. It’s a strange plane. In some ways, it feels like a 757. Other ways, something older. Part Tu-154M, part Yak, and there are hints of Ilyushin.
You can see the strong Tupolev lineage in the sidewalls, the bins, the gasper vents. Make no mistake, while this plane was assembled in 2009, it is no Superjet. It just feels so much more authentic. Even better, there’s a huge air recirculation fan in the front of the business class cabin walls. It’s very loud and then add the avionics cooling fans, the APU, and assorted other noises and you know, even before start up, you are in for a good loud flight.
It also maintains the strangely nautical vibe you get on Russian planes. Perhaps, this is why the captain always addresses us using “корабль,” the sort of generic word for ship, boat, or vessel, as opposed to “самолет,” which means airplane.
Then we sat. An hour later, we were still the only passengers on the plane. Finally, a van showed up to take us back to the lounge. While the rest of the passengers were told there was a weather issue at our fuel stop in Nizhnevartovsk, we were informed that some engine and electrical work was done that would require a full engine run and sign off from both Tupolev and KAPO.
My suspicion is that the reason behind this difference in information is that through the years, since the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians have begun to fear their own aviation industry. They don’t want to hear there is a mechanical delay. In their minds, that means the plane is even more dangerous. The plane is not dangerous at all, of course, but perception is a hard thing to overcome and airlines are working on it.
Around three hours later, we were back on the plane. The doors shut, the engines started, and I have to say that the PS-90 engine is intense. It brings the noises of Soloviev D-30 combined with the high bypass fan of a Lotarev D-36. Sounds like a chainsaw. It’s amazing. I could use a couple for my front yard.
This was very much an expedition. Every Tu-214 flight in the Transaero network travels with two Tu-214 qualified mechanics. On our outbound flight to KXK, there was one old man who looked like he had fixed every Soviet aircraft since the Li-2, and another man who looked like Michael Chiklis and was always laughing. They weren’t even traveling in uniform. This, this is what I want. I am not kidding.
After speaking with the Tu-214 department director, I learned that these were the equivalent style of mechanics that you would find on Top Gear. They can fix anything that doesn’t require a complete engine change. If they were not valuable assets to the company, they would have probably been written up for uniform violations. Doing something like this, you want the best in every way.
Taxi was taxi. The best part is that, after dark, you can see the old-style beacon light paint the wings in conic sections as it spins past your quadrant of the cabin. So much better than the once-every-three-seconds red blip of a 787. LEDs? Eh.
Takeoff was beastly slow and impressively loud. The chainsaw went into overdrive, added a vacuum cleaner, and then there was the sound of the high lift devices. This is the loudest twin I have flown — which is saying a lot.
Around 41 seconds later, we were airborne and into a pathetic climb. Now, I know the Tu-214 doesn’t really have the range to go to KXK nonstop. Even though the first segment to Nizhnevartovsk was only around three hours, we were full of passengers returning to Khabarovsk Krai for the start of school. Somewhere around an hour after takeoff, we reached cruising altitude. I can only imagine how this thing would have performed had it entered service with the RB-211E4 option that was denied for political reasons in the mid-1990s.
Out of Moscow, Transaero goes all-out on catering. I am unendingly impressed by Russian airlines to start with, but Transaero took it to another level.
The menus are, of course, printed on high quality cardboard. There’s a spirits menu, a wine list, a tea menu, a coffee menu, a soft drink menu, and the actual dinner menu. Dinner choices consisted of one appetizer and three main course choices. I went with the chicken with a mustard sauce, Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes. It was simply outstanding; from presentation, to china, to taste. This is how all very long domestic flights need to be catered. No seven-hour nightmare marches with nothing but a cold breakfast box to show for it in business class. Give me this!
The obligatory fish appeared to be some sort of salmon. The fruits were nicely exotic, but all very popular in Russia. Pineapple, gooseberries, and kiwi. Sadly, despite all the hype over watermelon in Moscow, there was none. My only complaint is that there could have been more. Truly a fantastic meal.
Dessert was even more impressive. The flight attendants brought out each choice to show the passengers individually. I went with the coffee cake. Fantastic. I also, of course, had to try the “strawberry cream” tea. That may have tasted a bit too much like drinking a gummy bear.
One more surprise. There is a form of IFE on this aircraft after all!
Remember the really, really, old devices exactly like that from the early part of the last decade? It was one of those… I think. Either way, I never had any sort of AVOD on a Russian plane before. Shame I did not need it.
After that, it was time to recline about 150-160º and get some sleep. The pillows and blankets are comfortable, but not market leading. Still, with how rock-steady a Tu-214 is when heavy at a cruising altitude of around 33,000 feet, one can easily get some rest. There’s no odd squirrelly motions and almost unusual attitudes you find on a light Tu-204-100.
When I was awoken, it was time to put the seat back into the full upright position for our descent into Nizhnevartovsk for fuel.
Eerie is a way to describe the view on decent. There are numerous oil refineries, natural gas wells, and general oil production facilities. The sky is lit up with the orange glow of hundreds of burn off flares – some of them extending hundreds of feet.
The landing was exceptionally smooth, though. There’s not much to see at 3:00am in Nizhnevatrovsk. A few Mi-8s, a couple UTAir ATRs. No one is doing anything other than the local FBO waiting to get paid for around 8,000 gallons of TS-1.
We were not allowed to deplane, get up, or even use electronics (if anyone was watching). It made for an unpleasant sit. The fact we could feel the aircraft settling on its OLEOS and groaning as it gained mass more than made up for it.
Around an hour later, we were fueled, documented, and back on the runway. Shortly after rotation, I was back in my reclined position and fast asleep.
I was then poked by one of the flight attendants “[inaudable due to wake up fog] завтрак?”
Okay, so here’s the thing. I will always eat on a plane, but breakfast may be a bit of a misnomer for a flight that crosses almost all of Russian time zones to a city on the same time zone as Sydney, Australia. When I checked my clock it was around noon. Then again, I am not sure what the Russian word is for brunch.
I have never had a quesadilla that looked like that, nor served with Italian Arabiatta sauce before. Oddly, the combination was pretty good. Still have no idea what kinds of cheeses those actually were; perhaps I was thrown off by all the star anise they had been sitting with.
Even the apricot pie was nice. I think a better description would be turnover — whatever.
Around another two hours of napping later, it was time for our descent from ~38,000 feet towards Khurba Air Base. There is nothing around Komsomolsk-na-Amure, save for the Amur river and forest.
Komsomolsk-na-Amure in and of itself is bizarre. Built by Komsomol volunteers (hence the name) to be an industrial city that was hard to reach by foreign invaders, it was a center of Soviet military hardware production. If you go outside the city, there is an abandoned nuclear submarine factory. What remains of Komsomolsk’s bizarre and depressing past is KNAAZ, the factory where the Sukhoi Superjet is built.
On top of that, almost all of Sukhoi’s modern multi-role aircraft are assembled there. That, however, is at the airport in the northern part of the city: Dzmegi. Our airport was Khurba and it is scary. Why is it scary? Because the desire to take photographs is too strong! Why is that a bad thing? Well, Khurba is an active VVS base.
Unless you are a serious cold war historian- there’s nothing new there. Just… well… DO NOT TAKE PICTURES ON A RUSSIAN MILITARY BASE WHEN THERE ARE GUARDS EVERYWHERE! I choose to not spend my time detained by the Russian military, so you will not be seeing any. Legally speaking, the VVS even owns the passenger terminal. Oh, how I wanted to photograph the giant Soviet-era Komsomol mural on the decrepit terminal wall.
Even inside the terminal itself, it’s utterly perfect. Nothing there, other than the check-in computer, and maybe the x-ray/metal detector combo hasn’t been repaired since 1991. You will never find an airport quite this weird. Airports like Khurba really let you see how other former Soviet or Warsaw Pact republics got their design influences. I would not change that for a second. Even the business lounge, seemingly being an old crew ready room with a book about Vladivostok Avia.
One more thing. Komsomolsk-na-Amure is still a sort of sensitive area – if you want to go there, make sure you list the intention on your visa application. If you are foreign, they will want to inspect your passport and visa. It doesn’t take long, it’s just disconcerting to people not familiar to dealing with how things used to be. For the record, I stated that I was visiting on my visa application and it was approved. It’s better to be honest. That way the locals know you are allowed to be there.
Regardless of all that, Transaero is an amazing airline, and the Tu-214 is an amazing aircraft. The only thing I would change is to, maybe, add a toothbrush to the amenity kit. Everything else earns nothing but high praise.