Back in the day in the early 1990s, the cheapest way to fly from Europe to Asia was on Eastern bloc airlines. Polish Airlines (Polskie Linie Lotnicze-LOT)) was one option, while Aeroflot was another. After the Berlin Wall came down LOT, previously known as Aerolot and one of the oldest airlines in operation, began moving back to using Western aircraft, while Aeroflot still had a stable of Soviet-designed and built planes and was cheaper in price. So Aeroflot it was.
At that time Aeroflot was the largest airline in the world by fleet size. They had a complete monopoly over the Soviet Union airspace and routes. In fact, it was said that for every eight passengers up in the air flying in the world at any given time, one of them was flying Aeroflot. In the end it was a trip on a major global carrier like none other I’d experienced.
Aeroflot (“Airfleet”) started life under the Bolsheviks in 1923, when the country first declared sovereignty over its airspace. The name “Aeroflot” was officially adopted in 1932 as the name for the entire Soviet Civil Air Fleet. The following year, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Congress set out development plans for the civil aviation industry as part of one of their Five-Year Plans. Expanding Soviet air capacity changed as it had to, during the Great Patriotic War when all resources turned to military functions, with repercussions for life in the Soviet Union including transport, for years to come.
A trip from London’s Heathrow to Bangkok inevitably went through Moscow, where there was to be a stopover of 10 hours. From there it was about 3,000kms in a straight line to Tashkent, the capital and largest city of what is now Uzbekistan, then onto New Delhi before setting down at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, where there’s a golf course between runways. Ten hours in any airport waiting is too long but the stopover at Sheremetyevo International Airport would prove to be exceptional. One because some passengers were presented with the opportunity for an impromptu tour of central Moscow at night and another, as I got a first-hand introduction to unusual and even unique aircraft as well as boarding Soviet Union-style: first in, best-dressed, no seat allocations, no boarding pass, and a free-for-all. If you failed to board, I was told by two seasoned fellow travellers, oil workers in matching combat desert boots, you had to wait for the next flight the next day and do it all again, possibly with the same result.
At Heathrow I was surprised to find us boarding the Aeroflot flight from the tarmac through a single central door on what I think was a Tupolev Tu-154, a swept-wing aircraft with the engines located high up at the rear of the plane. The Tupolev was an astonishing aircraft. Designed in the 1960s, it was one of the fastest civilian aircraft in use, and the workhorse of Soviet air travel until retired in 2010. It’s estimated the Tu-154 carried half of all passengers ever flown by Aeroflot, over 137 million people per year during its commercial use.
The Tu-154 headed out at high speed over northern and Eastern Europe en route to Moscow over lands where much of the history of modern Europe has been written. The territory that lies between central Poland and, roughly, the Russian border, covering eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics, is what historian Timothy Snyder referred to chillingly as the “Bloodlands”. Somewhere down there on the plains of Eastern Europe is a sign and a town that illustrates changes wrought on this land over time by external and often brutal forces.
Kovno has a long and complicated history, its citizens marked with the characteristics that enabled them to survive, like many across these lands. Kovno was called by its Lithuanian name Kaunas. Its nearby neighbour renamed Wilno, since it had been declared Polish territory, rather than Vilna, the Russian name before 1917. The Lithuanians themselves preferred Vilnius, which at times ran a poor third; but has endured to this day. There, alongside the Moscow road, is a historical marker that reads “On 28 June, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way with 450,000 men.” Then, on the other side, approached from the east, was a different message: “On 9 December, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way with 900 men.” Another sign has figures going east of 600,000 in the Grand Armée but only 600 returning west. They went to Mother Russia, and they mostly didn't come back.
Passing below at subsonic speed were lands once of the Teutonic Knights, the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem. Founded in what is now modern-day Israel in 1192, beaten in battle by the Poles and Lithuanians in 1410, much later outlawed by Nazi Germany, but still going today as a charity. Later these lands were dominated by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at its height in the 1700s, all 1,000,000sqkms of it. Known too, as the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; and there were others. But none of this was in the in-flight magazine, there wasn’t one.
Sheremetyevo International Airport was originally built as a military airbase but converted into a civilian airport in 1959 and named for the nearby village and railway station. The airport I saw had been upgraded for the 1980 Summer Olympics, including construction of a second terminal begun in early 1976. To get the job finished in time, the Germans were called in to deliver project management and construction capacity. Fitting really, as Soviet aviation began life back in the 1920s as a joint venture between the Soviet Union and Germany, flying German aircraft.
Aeroflot issued all transiting passengers with meal vouchers, redeemable at restaurant counters inside Sheremetyevo terminal. Options seemed limited, “horse meat and rice” as someone summed up the fare on offer. Aside from the hub of Aeroflot and gateway to one of Europe’s great cities, Sheremetyevo was famous as having the cheapest duty-free shopping on the continent. A bottle of vodka could be had for the price of a beer in the UK.
Later in the evening, with all entertainment options exhausted, there was a surprise call for interest in a tour of the famous sights of central Moscow. For the generous sum of USD10 per person, hard cash only, a bus would take all willing and able into Red Square along the main road leading into the city, the Leningradskoye Highway.
Our guide, a middle-aged woman explained from the front of the bus, that Moscow was built in a series of concentric circles, eight of them, each circle marked by a major road. I was struck by the number of grand buildings in the city, the wrought iron bridges, the detail, the effort. This was a statement, as was London. In World War Two, Moscow burned as it had done under Bonaparte, the city being largely of wooden construction. But this was permanent; it was magnificent.
Moscow’s Kremlin (citadel or castle), a walled complex of domed cathedrals and palaces which dates to 1156, is not unusual our guide told us, as every Russian city has one. The Kremlin sits on Borovitsky Hill, rising above the Moscow River in the center of the city. Its first white-stone walls and towers went up in 1367-68. The Kremlin remains the official residence of the president of the Russian Federation but access to other areas within the walls has loosened considerably, depending on what Vladimir Putin dictates.
The Red square area once served as a marketplace, festival ground, gathering place and, during the Soviet era, a parade ground for displaying the might of a military superpower. In the Second World War, the Great Patriotic War, soldiers and newly commissioned tanks went from here straight to the front lines to face the Wehrmacht, which in a feat that was to astonish the world, the Soviet Union beat down. Lenin’s tomb lies along the Kremlin side of Red Square. The former leader’s embalmed body has been on view inside since 1924. But before our impromptu tour had begun, it was over. One of those magical moments you had to just be there for.
The plane from Moscow was an Ilyushin Il-86, the USSR’s first wide-body and the world's second four-engined wide-body jet after the Jumbo. It looked much like a Boeing 707, which was a narrow-body aircraft. The engines outwardly looked the same, but the fuselage was larger. The difference between narrow and wide body was, among other things, the number of passengers they could carry. Wide body jets came with two aisles either side of a centre row of seats, whereas narrow body planes had two sets of seats in rows either side of a single aisle.
Originally intended to enter service in tome for the 1980 Olympic Games, a target it failed to meet, the plane was a decade in development, a process hampered by a number of problem issues. There was the configuration of heavy jet aircraft issue, politically sensitive in the Soviet Union at the time. This centered on the underwing-engine US-pioneered layout which gradually became standard for jet airliners. Aviation scientists had similar issues in the West about the Boeing 747 after the military acceptance of overwing configuration with the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, forerunner of the B-52 Stratofortress.
There was the powerplant issue. The Il-86 project lacked a suitable engine, which was never resolved. The UK and the US had developed civilian jet engines where the bypass ratios, the ratio of the mass-flow of air bypassing the engine core divided by the mass-flow of air passing through the engine core, of 4 or 5 to 1. Soviet jet engines at the time were less half those in the West, probably due to their aircraft industry being geared for military production, where engines used afterburners.
There was the automation issue. Most Soviet airliners before the Il-86 had been designed to typically five-member flight crews, which included the need for navigators and radio operators. So a rapid programme of avionics development was mounted to enable the Il-86 to operate in most weather with a three-member flight crew, matching Western technology of the time.
There was the manufacturing capacity issue. Recovering from the massive dislocation of World War Two and the emergence of the Cold War meant rapid modernisation of the Soviet Air Force to keep pace with the Americans left limited scope for the expansion of commercial production, so they had to co-opt the Poles.
Then there was the airport capacity issue. There weren’t enough of them to the appropriate standard required for large wide-body commercial jets. Enter the “luggage at hand system” which if you ever flew on an Il-86 you would have seen first-hand. Similar luggage arrangements were also considered in the 1970s by Lockheed and Airbus. The Soviet solution to the airport capacity issue involved passengers loading and unloading their own luggage into and from the aircraft. Thereafter it was known as “the luggage at hand system”. A Soviet aviation journalist described this as: “One arrives five minutes prior to departure, buys oneself a ticket on board the aircraft, hangs one's coat next to the seat and places one's bag or suitcase nearby.”
Then the fun at Sheremetyevo began. There was no boarding call. There were no boarding passes, so no one had a seat allocated. Somehow word spread and people started pushing towards the automatic doors guarded by two female Aeroflot staff of herculean proportions. At that stage the two oil workers reminded me to get through the doors otherwise I risked being stuck in the airport until the next flight, when they’d be even more people trying to board. We all entered the plane, I remember thinking it was the local version of the Jumbo jet, it was big, through the underside of the plane. Then there was the scramble for seats. I mean it was chaotic.
Passengers were to deposit their luggage in underfloor compartments as they entered the airliner. You then walked up an internal stairway into the cabin proper. When everyone was on, the doors, in the cabin floor, were closed, the seats moved back over the top of the hatchway, and off you went. Our cabin crew delivered no pre-flight safety briefing and were barely seen. There was little in the way of cabin service as such. The crew disappeared behind a curtain and only reluctantly came out with soft drinks. This didn’t bother a group of Scandinavians. The started on Heineken in Moscow and finished much the worse for wear in Bangkok on Chivas Regal, courtesy of duty-free shopping in New Delhi. During take-off and landing they folded the back of the seat down and some sat cross-legged facing the rear without seat belts. The drunker they got the rowdier they became. They wandered the aisles looking for victims. Their behaviour annoyed everyone and at one stage a Muslim slapped the face of one. Not a mild slap; a full-blooded open hand blow, which sounded like a gun going off. I half expected an all-out brawl to begin.
We landed in Tashkent in the early hours in the pouring rain. I had not experienced a landing so quiet and smooth, as was the subsequent take-off. The bump on landing was so mild I had to strain to detect it. That Aeroflot pilot could fly. There’s not much happening at Tashkent airport a 2am on a Tuesday morning and we were crammed into a terminal building with no services open. On reboarding I half expected another free-for-all for seats but normal service was resumed or being Aeroflot, the lack of it. The flight to New Delhi was spectacular flying over the splendour of the Hindu Kush Mountains in bright sunlight across the “Stans”—all those countries of Central Asia ending in “stan”.
New Delhi provided an opportunity for the drunken Scandinavians to restock, not a welcome sight. By the time we got to Bangkok they were completely off their trolleys. We landed at Don Mueang to see Thais in pastel-coloured Argyle golf wear on the fairways between the runways teeing off. It had been a long journey and a relief to arrive. The next day, in a dive on Khao San Road, I discovered the drunken Scandinavians had checked into the same guest house, what passed for accommodation back in those days—a bar come restaurant downstairs, tiled floor so grimy you could scrape the dirt off, scruffy backpackers, and bar girls half asleep. On a later trip I discovered a stall in Khao San selling replica Aeroflot t-shirts, so I bought one. It had the Aeroflot logo, Russian language, and the English translation, front and back. I've kept it all these years as a memento.