During the years that I've been photographing aircraft the Eastern-Bloc and the fall of the Iron Curtain passed me by, as during that period I was busy taking photos of bands playing in London and taking time-out from aviation.
As Russian equipment seems to be on the decline I felt that I was in a "now or never" situation with regards to a visit, and so a search for an itinerary was the order of the day as I've always had a soft spot for the Soviet designs.
Russia, or outside of Moscow at least, is generally not a place you want to visit from an aviation point of view without prior knowledge or at least an interpreter, so my quest to find a group to go with ended up being a pretty easy decision as lots of these trips involve five minutes at each airfield while the spotters simply bag the numbers.
Any trip with the inimitable Steve Kinder is guaranteed to be different - emphasis on the photos is in order and the fact that he has been coming to these parts for more than ten years also played a big part in my decision - plus he is a propliner nut, so a perfect combination!
The trip I chose was to Siberia because there were still many propliners around and also not many people choose to travel to those far off parts.
After a week in London it was time to meet Steve and one other member of the group, Howard, at Heathrow Airport for the BMI flight to Moscow. The rest of the group we would meet in Moscow and another great thing about this trip was that we were to be only seven strong.
Landing at Domodedovo Airport the first thing that jumped out was the amount of stored airliners scattered around the field. Also I was very surprised at the amount of western equipment taxing in and out - more on that later.
We went straight to the Aerotel for a night's rest before meeting again for an 08:45 start. We were due to visit Vnukovo in the morning but that plan was scuppered by the visit of President Obama, so plans were quickly changed for a full day at Domodedovo instead.
We met with airport representative Sacha at the airport employee security entrance, and, with airport passes sorted, we followed the click-clack of her impossibly high heels through the maze of corridors to the airside access where our minibus awaited.
The airport operations staff know Steve so well that Sacha concluded that he simply direct the driver and airport is ours for the day. No need for her to follow us through grass and mud; she can simply chat with our interpreter and red-tape expert Olga.
We started off exploring the various paved storage areas seemingly overflowing with Tu-154s and other classic Russian hardware. There was even the odd Boeing 747 and 767 surrounded by the always intimidating looking Soviet airframes.
Although the access was excellent the light that day was extremely tricky. There was a high overcast which at the time I likened to a huge softbox, but processing the photo later proved to be a real task.
Some of the more interesting aircraft included the various aircraft belonging to the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) which are placed strategically around the airport, close to the runways. These are used for swift response for disaster relief and emergency situations that require air transport or airlift capacity.
They are painted in a very smart colour scheme and all seemed very well looked after and clean. We saw Il-76, Il-62 and Yak-42 examples belonging to this government agency.
Luckily there are still some active propliners left consisting of An-26s and An-12s. We only saw one An-12 land and relished the opportunity to get some photos of it taxiing past us on its way to the Atran cargo ramp. As if by magic a tractor appeared between us and the An-12 and managed to keep an absolutely perfect pace so that it was always in the way of our photos. This would be the only moving An-12 we would see on the whole trip, and it was ruined by a farmyard vehicle!
We then had to take a two hour time-out for lunch back at the Aerotel. This pattern would continue for the rest of the trip, as it seems that breakfast, lunch and dinner times are THE most important items on the itinerary each day for Olga - however much we told her that we didn't mind missing a meal or two.
Back to the airport in the afternoon and we are allowed access to the Atran cargo ramp. This turns out to be a real bonus as no one has been allowed there for at least four years due to its close proximity to the taxiway and runway. The glorious sight of six An-12s awaited us, with two looking like they have become spares sources for the other four immaculate examples.
The game of trying to shoot the front row while keeping out of the way of taxiing airliners or some captain reporting us to ATC became comedic as we were herded back and forth in between movements.
Further down a track we spied some stored aircraft, and, after asking if we could photograph these airframes, Sacha seemingly gave up on the "nutters" constant requests and allowed us to walk the 400 yards or so without the minibus which wasn't allowed to drive there.
There we found a damaged An-12 titled as Sakhalin but with a Gazpromavia logo on the tail. There was also an Il-62M in basic Alpha Airlines colours but with small Airstars titles under the cockpit, an Air Union Boeing 737-300, an untitled Boeing 737-200 plus a Russian Air Force Mi-8 "33" blue.
The only part of the airfield that eluded us was the storage area containing the many Il-62s literally put out to grass. Because of a biz-jet parked on a remote ramp where we needed to go, we were told that until that aircraft departed we could not proceed due to privacy concerns. Comically this aircraft was a British registered example that's most probably been shot to death in the UK.
After another quick circuit of the other remote stands containing Tu-134s, Yak-42s and An-24s we set up camp close to the taxiway where most of the aircraft were passing through to depart. A nice pair of Yak-40s offered some elevated photo opportunities as the sun actually came out, but it seemed the UK biz jet would never leave.
We decided to ask Sacha again about the Il-62s, and to our surprise she said "yes of course." Maybe she didn't understand our first request, but we zoomed past the offending biz jet to the edge of the grass storage area. "Off you go, you have 30 minutes." Well we didn't need telling twice!
This grassy area is very spooky, with makeshift hard-stands plonked down to support these airliners that will certainly never feel the air under their wings again. In amongst these majestic classics were a pair of Il-18s which have been here for at least four years. RA-75834 was last operated by Astair Air Cargo and UN-75111 by Tretykovo Airliners who used to fly out of Sharjah, UAE.
One of the most interesting Il-62s was at the edge of the storage area; Libyan VIP configured aircraft 5A-DKT has been here since 2006. It would be most interesting to see how this is kitted out inside and, if airframes could talk, I bet it would reveal some really interesting stories.
All in all, a superb day and first visit from my point of view. However, the economy in the West has affected the Russian airliner industry in unexpected ways as, with so many Western airlines withdrawing aircraft, manufactures have offered these surplus airliners at bargain basement prices with numerous Russian airlines ditching their once proud aviation industry for these cheaper, more efficient aircraft. Companies like Transero and S7 are now using mostly Western aircraft with only a couple of examples of Soviet built aircraft left in service.
Our next stop would be the far off region of Siberia which required an overnight flight.
I'd like to thank the extremely accommodating staff at Domodedovo for an excellent insight to this exciting airport which is an aviation photographers heaven.
4 June 2010
After the excellent ramp tour of Vnukovo we negotiated the traffic across town to participate in a late afternoon tour of Moscow's Domodedovo Airport where we were greeted with the usual chaos outside of the terminal.
It would be interesting to see what had changed here since I visited last year regarding the stored Il-62s and Tu-154s parked on the grass as I had seen many reports of aircraft being scrapped. First things first though as we would have to get airside passes and transit security via the staff and crew area in the terminal. We were early naturally, as Olga always makes sure we are in place well before time, so we spent time hanging around the entrance and making it look scruffy while the beautiful people of Moscow strutted by.
After 15 minutes we were greeted by a young lady in high-heels who introduced herself as our escort on the ramp. She was someone that none of us had seen before and we later learned that the usual staff that take us airside no longer worked at the airport. This was the first sign of trouble ahead as Steve and Olga have built up a very good relationship with the old staff, and they knew exactly what we could do and let us get on with the job. It was time to start all that from scratch as we were about to find out.
We alighted the bus airside but Steve was not allowed to get into the front cab with the driver, which is what usually happens. When this happens Steve can direct the driver where to stop, as the cab and the passenger part of the bus has no way to communicate between the two. Steve tried to explain that it would be easier if he rode up front, but he was greeted with a simple "no that is not allowed." Hmm this might prove interesting. We trundled off towards the maintenance ramp on the northwest side of the airport which is our usual first stop to take photos. There were lots of interesting aircraft on that ramp as usual but, as the bus got to the extreme north of the ramp, it simply continued on which caused lots of quizzical looks between us.
We continued on towards the business jet ramp at the extreme end of the airport which we already knew was out of bounds to us as photographers, but as were were here may as well shoot a few out of the window. We stopped at the end and got off the bus with more than a little confusion in our minds and on our faces. There was a Boeing 727 parked on a new ramp between the biz jets and the runway so Steve asked if we could shoot it. Our escort was unsure but didn't put up any resistance as Steve announced that we would walk to the opposite side of the aircraft due to the direction of the sun. 4K-8888 is fitted with winglets and is painted in a very smart colour scheme and is operated by the Government of Azerbaijan. Off we trooped aware of the black security car parked next to the aircraft and our escort trailing while desperately trying to make a phone call.
We reached the other side of the aircraft before the man in the car, who was probably sleeping, suddenly jumped out waving at us, while our escort tried to tell us that we couldn't take photos here. She had obviously just got word from the office that we shouldn't be on this ramp. We had already bagged the photos so we shuffled back to the bus. We then got a lecture that we shouldn't have been here. Well to be honest, the driver brought us here, she let us on the ramp, and this would never have happened if Steve was in the cab as he already knew where we could go. Great start!
We backtracked along the ramp and were then told that we were not allowed out at the maintenance area to shoot the aircraft there. We have always shot in that position and Steve was now becoming annoyed as this airside tour was becoming a shambles. We were finally let out on the east side of the airport to shoot some of the Russian built aircraft parked on the remote stands and looking over towards the grass area certainly looked much more more empty than last year, as the scrapping looks like it has begun. We were then told we couldn't shoot the stored aircraft even from a distance! This was the breaking point for Steve who told the escort that we might as well just leave the airport as all the places we normally shoot from were suddenly out of bounds but we were taken to a place that we shouldn't have gone in the first place. She obviously really didn't have a clue what were really were allowed to do and was clearly making it up on the spot.
Steve was so steamed by now that Olga made a call back to her office to talk to her boss who has all the connections in Russia. We shot some of the takeoffs and other parked aircraft and decided amongst ourselves that we'd had enough for today as we were due back here in two days. We retired to the Aerotel Hotel and reveled in the "gourmet" food that we come to expect from this establishment. It's a good job that they have a bar!
Next stop Chornoye MARZ.
6 June 2010
Dawn broke on our last day in Russia and we had a morning tour booked for Domodedovo before our afternoon flight back to London, which we hoped wouldn't be the disaster that we had two days previously.
Another wonderful "breakfast" at the Aerotel was had before checking out. This is the closest hotel to he airport and it's more than comfortable - nice clean rooms a couple of bars but the food really does leave something to be desired. You can find better eats in the wilds of Siberia believe me, if only they could fix this place. Anyway we walked back to the airport for the usual security formalities and identification badge issue, before walking via flight operations to our bus waiting airside. The conversation was a little tense understandably and we just waited to see where we would be taken.
First stop was the maintenance ramp which is where things used to kick off - so far so good. This is the area where we usually find the most interesting aircraft. We were driven to the far end and let off the bus where an immaculate Rossiya Il-18 was parked. Now sometimes these aircraft are off limits to photographers as this one is part of the government fleet, but who are we to pass up an opportunity like this in such fantastic light? I've found that the light in Russia can very often be very tricky but today the light was fantastic.
Along the line were a couple of Il-76s - one from the FSB, MChS Rossil and a new example for me an airframe from Alrosa in their usual immaculately clean colours. A lovely Atlant-Soyuz Tu-154 for VIP flights was also parked here with an MChS Rossil Il-62, a Tu-154 belonging to Zapolarye (now flying in Iran) and a Mi-8 in UTAir colours but devoid of titles. The single western aircraft on this line was a Boeing 737-300 in Air Union colours.
The taxiways with Tu-154s were mostly empty now and many of the Il-62s parked on the grass were missing presumed scrapped. We stopped next to the southerly runway runway and were told we could have a few hours here. We couldn't really be bothered with asking to around the ramps after the last visit and as they were using this runway to land an the sun was on our back, we decided to simply hang out here. There were lots of large steps scattered around so we used these to get a better perspective for the photos.
It was well over an hour before we saw a single Russian built aircraft movement and in the couple of hours we spent there there was only two Tu-134s. A pretty sad state of affairs it has to be said, and this combined with the new staff who seem to be very uninterested in helping us means it will most probably be my last visit to this airport. There really isn't much here to really interest me anymore with at least 85% of the aircraft now being cheap western aircraft due to our failed economy. What a shame.
Well that's the final part of Arctic trip. It had its highs and lows but I wouldn't trade it for the world. Russia is such an interesting place to visit aviation wise if you can get there.
24 June 2012
We were due to fly out of Moscow's Domodedovo Airport (DOM) today to finally begin out adventure in Siberia, but the weather gods weren't looking on us kindly.
Having finally found a decent place to shoot from at Vnukovo (VKO), our plan was to go back and spend the morning there, but driving rain put paid to that idea. With nowhere to hide and shelter, VKO was not an option.
We reconvened in the hotel lobby after a great breakfast and studied the weather forecast, but it was suggesting rain all day. It wasn't even good weather to go for another stroll around the city.
The rest of our party was arriving from all points in Europe for our afternoon flight out of DOM, so we decided to see if we could check-in early and attempt some photography from the airside part of the terminal, which we had done in the past. At least we'd be dry and have food and drink, even if the shooting wasn't good.
So our party of three checked out of the excellent Ibis Moscow Paveletskaya Hotel, which is conveniently situated at the confluence of both the DOM and the VKO Airport Express train routes, and made our way back to DOM.
We were due to fly on Ural Airlines to Irkutsk at 19:30, and surprisingly they allowed us to check-in mid morning. Result!
On the top floor of the terminal are a couple of vantage points that are relatively quiet, as all the gates are on the lower floors, and there isn't a lot of seating in the two small corridors that overlook the ramp, so there generally isn't any issues with hanging out and shooting.
It was a dull day for shooting, but luckily it wasn't raining on this side of Moscow, so our efforts didn't go unrewarded.
Every time I come here, the number of Soviet hardware movements goes down and down. During the seven hours we spent here we saw a sum total of three Soviet movements plus one from modern Russian times. Two Tu-154s, a single Yak-42 plus two An-148s… very sad and depressing.
The Alrosa Tu-154M (RA-85684) was the aircraft that suffered a complete electrical failure which resulted in a loss of all navigation instruments plus fuel pumps on 22 May 2000, and forced-landed at the abandoned airfield of Izhma. As the runway was so short, it overran by 200 meters into a wood. All passengers and crew survived. In September of the same year it was towed back onto the runway, repaired onsite, as ferried out on 24 March 2011. On 16 June 2011 it was re-delivered to Mirny and placed back into service. Truly a testament to the ruggedness of the way the Soviets used to build their aircraft.
There was some panic that we hadn't made it to the airport, as Steve Kinder our tour leader, was still waiting for us at check-in. He should have known better that we were more than capable of looking after ourselves and being on time for the flight. If only he'd just asked if we'd checked-in at the desk *grin*.photo/serial list]