From the [AR]vault: This story was originally published on June 8, 2015.
The Tupelov Tu-154 is a classic airliner that many AvGeeks admire, but unfortunately it will no longer be able to fly with-in continental Europe. I was lucky enough to snag a seat on the last flight, a Tu-154M on Belavia to Minsk (MSQ).
You see, many in Europe were getting upset with the rare Soloviev D-30 engine gracing their passenger airports. The noise and the environmental impact did not make many friends. It is too bad, because it’s not like the 737-800 is replacing the Tu-154M on a one-to-one basis with every airline operating them at a speed comparable to that of light anyway. Why even bother other than to make a point?
My friend, who happens to divide his time between Paris and Minsk, runs an aviation enthusiast tour company and asked if I wanted to join a group to give the Tu-154 a send-off from Europe. I packed my things and ended up in Geneva (GVA) on May 29th, 2015.
After a reasonable sleep in an airport hotel, I made my way back to Geneva airport to check-in for my Tu-154M flight. You can always tell when it’s a flight almost entirely filled with AvGeeks, because the majority of the passengers were either already in line or arriving at the airport. In fact, so great was the demand for early check in that the two agents seemed to have resigned themselves to operating prior to their assigned hours. It also helped that the tour group commander was standing adjacent to them and radiating an aura of motivation.
After check-in, it was time to find a way to get a decent photo of the aircraft landing. No luck. There used to be a great observation deck in Geneva, but it was turned into an upscale champagne bar. We asked if that champagne lounge was still open. Nope. We looked for a window of any decent stature and clarity, to no avail. The lovely T-tail streaked past our window. Disheartened, we made our way through customs to utter bedlam. You see, when you do not charter a plane entirely for yourself, other enthusiasts less enthused by the idea of spending a lovely weekend in Minsk were also able to book seats.
It seemed as if almost every AvGeek in western Europe, especially Switzerland, had descended on the gate. Worse, it was a bus gate – so there would be no time to get an unobstructed cabin shot if I had fought my way to the front of the boarding line. Squished into the last bus, as if some kind of sardine, we made our way to the hardstand, to a chorus of ramp staff taking pictures of the aircraft with any camera they could find. It is always nice to feel like a rockstar, even if there are a hundred other people on the bus.
Upon arrival, more chaos — everyone wanted to get on the plane, but everyone also wanted to spend an eternity attempting to photograph it. When the first person spotted in Belavia garb made his way around to the passenger-facing side of the aircraft, he was mobbed with fans. At first, I think the bewildered flight engineer had no idea as to why everyone wanted his photograph, but by the end, he was thrilled. As he should be; the Belavia uniform is very stylish.
After what felt like a battle to even get to the staircase, I made my way up. If only to take my traditional boarding shot.
Two friendly cabin attendants were posed for photographs. It was impossible to capture their extreme bemusement.
Once on board, it was clear the level of absolute perversion that was going on to some of the visitors who had made their own way onto the plane. Not sure how clearly you can see in the photo, but one man had not only a head-mounted GoPro, but also a chest-mounted camera. I love the Tu-154 – we know this. I am an authority on the aircraft, but even I would never watch a shaky headcam video I took. I would wear it if I wanted to look extremely hardcore, but damn son — spend the money on model Tu-154s; you can look at those and smile.
I made my way to my seat, 13F, to discover that the outer and middle seats were already occupied by a camera person and a reporter from the Belorussian network STV. One of them looked a bit like a gangster; the other looked like a more attractive version of “Snow White” from the Russian film Ninth Company. I’ll let you figure out which was which. The answer will not surprise you.
Anyway, after speaking with my seatmate for a bit, I learned that the flight from Minsk to Geneva was her first time on an airplane. She was, at best, whelmed by the experience – but could understand why people would love it.
I was on another Tu-154, which is quite exciting, but I was distracted by the lovely Marina seated next to me. Yes, I am married – but that doesn’t mean I’m dead.
Once the excitement wore off – holy cow… these seats are cramped!
Look, the Tu-154 can be an extremely-high-capacity aircraft. I get it. I also was not paying for comfort. If anything, I was paying for discomfort. Seat pitch had to be 27″ at best! Perfect in its own obscene way.
Did I mention it was hot in the cabin? Probably over 100ºF, but we’d be taking off soon and the cabin would cool off, right? As it was, the APU was screaming, but seemingly in vain. It kept getting hotter and then I realized just how far past our departure time we were. My phone buzzed and it was Jacob, AirlineReporter’s European correspondent. He told me we were facing a 90-minute Coordinated Time of Take-off delay due to understaffing in Poland. Great… another hour boiling to death.
After sitting out the remainder of the 90 minute delay, one of my favorite parts happened; engine start up.
That start-up was a beautiful concert of the three Soloviev D-30s. I always think that they have a sort-of vacuum-cleaner-meets-rotary-phone-ringing-tone to them. There’s no other sound like it!!
Soon, we made our way to Geneva’s runway. But first, the fire service returned to give us a water cannon send-off.
The take off was spirited, despite the fact we rolled for roughly 50 seconds. I am sure there was some secret noise regulation that demanded we heavily derate.
We began our ascent to 37,000 feet and there was a slight bit of mechanical turbulence on ascent, but it was nigh impossible to really notice or care about. The Tu-154 was designed with passenger comfort in mind. Almost to its detriment, really.
The original Tu-154 and Tu-154A both suffered from the problem of having their wings being almost too flexible and the alloys of the time being totally unable to handle it. Why were the wings flexible? To give a smoother ride of course (Sound familiar? The 787 touts the same benefits).
Those blasted attractive and attentive cabin crew began to make their way through the cabin and roughly, a half-an-hour after rotation, lunch (which was almost painfully Belorussian) was served. It was chicken with Kasha, some cucumbers, and a giant Belorussian chocolate bar (I think the brand was Vutosha – it had a strange green creature on the package). It was all very good. Just quite a challenge to eat, given the limited seat pitch. I felt a bit like a Tyrannosaurus.
The rest of the flight was spent either being interviewed by Belorussian media, or staring out the window marveling on the fact that I was on a Tu-154M yet again! Man I love that plane. It’s just so fabulously loud, stable, and fast. Everyone needs to fly on one. Yes, this was the last flight with-in Europe, but do not fear, there are quite a few other opportunities out there.
Then we started to descend into misty Minsk. Landing is more akin to an Il-62 without the gear dropping at 20,000 feet. Having said that, the gear does extend at a much higher altitude than most other airliners.
When I asked one of the technical crew why, I finally had my answer. The landing gear creates drag and the extremely robust landing gear can also be extended at a much higher speed than its western counterparts. It’s all about creating drag in fun and new ways to slow the plane down for final approach and landing. It makes perfect sense, once you think about Soviet-era design philosophy.
Landing was poignant, but incredibly smooth — literally greasing it in. The poignancy was because it will now be another few months before I get on another Tupolev – that always makes me sad.
To cheer myself back up; after landing, I made my way to the flight deck.
It’s rare to see a Tu-154 with all the latest and greatest navigation equipment installed, but then one must remember that Belavia is IOSA compliant!
It was then time to make my way off the plane to take a look at the exterior of Mink’s unique architectural terminal. The Minsk National Airport was built by the Soviets in preparation for the 1980 Olympics and in many wonderful aspects — it shows. It was a nice welcome to the final Tu-154 flight from continental Europe.
I’ll miss the Tu-154 once it is gone. It is sad to see it go, but at least it will still be flying around other parts of the world for quite some time (and hopefully with me on it).
Even removing the fact that I was on a classic Russian bird, I have to say that Belavia is a bizarrely good airline. I have come to expect that many European airlines to be lacking in routes like these, but they really came through.
On to the next adventure!