Monday, 16 April 2012


Ryanair may not be your favourite airline but compared to what the Russian carrier Aeroflot was like in the 1950s flying with the Irish company would certainly present a more attractive proposition. 

I have recently acquired a copy of a most interesting series of books by the respected American journalist of the 1930s to 1960s; John Gunther called Inside Russia Today who wrote a series of in-depth books that documented the social and political events in many countries across the world.

The Russia volume was written in 1957 and in it Gunther describes some of his flying experiences as a passenger with Aeroflot, the state owned airline. Some of his observations are worth recounting especially as much of what he said had me in fits of laughter.

"All civil aviation within the Soviet Union is, of course, a state monopoly: he explains."Aeroflot has no competition, except on flights outside the country, and is run by the Ministry of Defence. Flying in Russia is apt to be pretty rough. This is an understatement. It is extremely rough. It is also fun, and comparatively safe". 

 He continues by stating that as a general rule at the time Russian aircraft did not have seat belts. "This is because the Russian didn't like them" and that only seldom did anyone know when the plane was about to land and nobody bothered to extinguish cigarettes during take-offs or landings. There were no emergency exits on domestic flights and some planes had one seat that was fitted with a seat belt that the author presumed was used if a passenger was sick or for some "old fashioned crank" who required it. Some planes apparently had seats that were equipped with half a seat belt; the buckle end was there but the other piece was missing.

We learn that Aeroflot used newer, better equipped aircraft on international routes that had a stewardess that wore a uniform who handed out sweets and blankets to passengers. This was in contrast to those on domestic routes that carried a female crew member that did not wear a uniform who was disconnected from the passengers and seemed to be only there to inform the pilot if something went amiss in the cabin. She never left her station that, for some reason, was always the third seat from the front. The newer planes had carpets, were newly painted and the wheels of the aircraft were fitted with tyres that had tread.

Gunther said that although the baggage allowance was 22 pounds, he never experienced any checks and he and his wife carried well over this amount without ever being charged for the excess. Only the jet aircraft were pressurised and the propeller aircraft usually flew extremely low at treetop or chimney level. Sometimes they flew at 4000 feet but seldom higher. There would be a panel of instruments consisting of an altimeter and airspeed indicator in the cabin that were there to keep passengers informed. 

Meals were seldom served in flight but the aircraft on long distance routes would land every two or three hours so that passengers could be fed almost identical meals at each stop. Sometimes, they would have six or seven meals in a row on a flight across Russia. The planes seldom taxied up to the terminals at these stops and passengers were forced to trudge through the snow that covered the aprons to the terminal. The writer recalled how in remote places such as Siberia and Central Asia the facilities consisted of rough wooden buildings with a single wash bowl in the waiting room - although he neglected to mention if there were any toilet facilities. But he noted that there was usually a telephone on a table and next to this, for some reason, would be a 'flat iron' presumably so passengers could iron their clothes before the next stage of the flight. 

There were no flight announcements and if passengers were lucky they would be tapped on the shoulder while eating their meals by a babushka wearing thick padded clothes assigned to each flight to tell them the aircraft was about to depart. Passengers were often left behind and Gunther tells how he watched from the aircraft window as some unfortunate passengers ran along the runway to trying to keep up with the departing plane. These were picked up in an open truck and driven to the end of the runway where the plane was about to take-off. The door was opened and the pilot left his seat, and in the absence of a ladder, he physically dragged the passengers on board by their wrists.  If a pilot was friendly he would sometimes delay departure until he was sure everyone was aboard and if the stewardess failed to show up, one of the passengers would commonly be assigned the job. The author told of how the flight deck door was left open and couldn't be shut on one flight that he took. This resulted in it banging open and shut throughout the seven hour flight. 

In the absence of proper equipment, pilots would check the weather by telephoning the next airport along their route before deciding whether they would fly. But they would fly in weather that other airlines elsewhere would consider to be unfit. They carried very little extra fuel (just 6%) unlike in Europe or the US, in case they had to divert as the Russians felt there was no need. The margin was just enough to provide an extra hour during daytime - 90 minutes at night. Gunther reflected that the pilots, including many women, were very skilled and accidents were rare, although he did acknowledge that when a crash did occur it was never reported in the press as it was not considered by the Russians to be of any importance. At the time the book was written it was the only country in the world flying full jets (the Tupolev TU 104) with a full load of 50-70 passengers on regular services. 

A British resident of Moscow, mentioned but not named in the book text, was said to have remarked: "If Russia didn't cover such a large part of the earth's surface and if there weren't so many Russians, this country would be one long laugh".

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