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Riding on a Russian Plane

Only once in my travels did I manage a ride on a Russian plane. It was 1986, just before Chernobyl, and I was going from Moscow to Leningrad, as it was still known, with my mother. Though I was safely home by the time of the Ukranian meltdown, for years afterward I’d embellish things by stretching the dates of my vacation to include the accident, which made for exciting made-up stories at parties.

It was snowing like crazy on the ramp at Sheremetyevo, and I’d been trying to guess which ship it would be. I’d crossed my fingers for an IL-62 though a Tupolev or a Yak would be fun. It ended up a Tu-154, its distinctive profile emerging from the snow as the workers marched us onto the apron. I could make out the Aeroflot livery, just as I’d seen it in those books in junior high, understated and vaguely military: the blue cheatline; the winged hammer and sickle; that iconic “CCCP” along the center nacelle. (Who can forget those letters from the sweatshirts of the old Olympic hockey teams, or from the ICBMs of the 60s and 70s — the Cyrillic “SSSR,”)

Aeroflot was never known for its inflight pampering, and the babushkas served us a cup of tasteless, urine-colored apple juice and what appeared to be a hamburger bun stuffed with newspaper.

Next to me sat a Muscovite about my age — a blond haired kid with a jawline like the villainous commie boxer from Rocky IV. This was ’86 remember, the arms race still raging (kind of), and my seatmate was aghast at the novelty of encountering an actual American. He’d never met one before, and was thrilled to shake my hand and try out his English. Like me he was on holiday, eager to take pictures of the frozen Neva and ice-covered Hermitage up in Leningrad (or drink himself silly on cheap champagne, like most of the tourists I encountered up there.) He’d just gotten a new camera, and he took it from the overhead bin to show me proudly. At least I think it was a camera. Oversized and clunky, the device looked like a blender held sideways. He kept calling it “my apparatus.”

Our high-altitude détente continued all the way to Leningrad. “I can show you of America,” said my friend, and with that he took out a piece of paper. Beaming, he proceeded to draw me a picture of the World Trade Center, accurately placing the north tower’s huge rooftop antenna. Pointing to the buildings he said, “One hundred and ten stories!”

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on 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 Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.