So, the history of Russian aviation is a rich, exciting, arguably perilous one. And it’s told mainly through the story of Aeroflot, the USSR’s once gargantuan state carrier.
By 1967, Aeroflot was the world’s largest airline, amassing a fleet equal to that of the largest American carriers combined. Granted there was only one Soviet air company, in the planet’s most expansive nation, and many of its operations stretched the definition of things “airline.” Sharing the tarmacs with passenger liners were thousands of paramilitary transports, agricultural spraying craft, polar research planes and helicopters, all sporting the Aeroflot name.
To give you an inkling of how vast the Aeroflot network became, the passenger-kilometer output (standard gage of size: one passenger going one kilometer equals one passenger-kilometer.) of the airline’s Tu-154 fleet alone — just a single type amidst dozens — matched or exceeded that of many large airlines in whole. In 1990 Aeroflot’s passenger-mile totals approached 250 billion, slightly less than the aggregate of American, United, and Delta.
Then something strange happened. As the Soviet Union fell to pieces, so did Aeroflot, slowly parsed into, quite literally, hundreds of smaller airlines. Former directorates — regional, semi-autonomous branches of mother Aeroflot — became full-fledged airlines of brand new countries — places like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and the Ukraine. In Russia itself, after the breakup still the world’s most massive nation, Aeroflot further splintered into a legion of independents. If, last week, you were struck dumb by the unfamiliar names of Volga-Aviaexpress and Sibir Airlines, they’re just two of a long (and often unpronouncable) list of ex-Aeroflot fragments.
Aeroflot is still around, yes, flying on (with a garish new color scheme) as the more or less official flag carrier of Russia, employing a mixed fleet of Airbuses, Boeings, and home-made holdovers. With 101 aircraft it’s still the country’s most important player, though a fraction of its former size. Aeroflot hopes to join the SkyTeam alliance, partnering with the likes of Delta and Air France, in 2005. Who, twenty years ago, would have imagined such a thing? (For further reading I recommend — assuming you can find it — “Aeroflot: an airline and its aircraft,” from Paladwr Press. The book was compiled by R.E.G. Davies, curator of Air Transport at the Smithsonian, and exquisitely illustrated by artist Mike Machat.)
Airsafe.com, by the way, shows us 24 fatal air carrier losses in the former Soviet states since 1990. Examining data for North America during that identical span, we can count about 18 — the number varying with the standards for “crash” (employee killed by malfunctioning door; air taxi operations, etc.)
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.