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Irkutsk, Siberia, Russian Federation (UIII)

June 2012June 2012
July 2007July 2009

10-11 July 2009
Our alarm clocks are early today in preparation for one of my personal highlights of the trip, and one of the reasons I decided to come. Paul Filmer gets up early in part four of his trip to Siberia.

The first flight out of Ulan-Ude this morning is the one our group is due to catch, and yes, we are due to fly on an An-24! Am I excited? You bet I am! I'm awake before the alarm goes off at around 4AM, as with usual Russian efficiency, we are due to get to the tiny terminal at least two hours before our flight departs at sometime between five and six (I really don't remember the time). We catch the hotel KGB security guard asleep in a chair in the lobby, still wearing his old suit and tie from yesterday, before he wakes up with a start, cleaning his milk bottle bottom glasses to try to see what all the commotion is about.

Again we drag our western wheeled baggage through the dusty and cobbled streets to the airport. If we didn't attract attention on the way in the day before, we certainly did at this ungodly hour. We still can't see our mount, as the ramp outside the terminal is empty, so our aircraft must be parked in the gaggle of An-24s and An-26s we wandered around yesterday.

It's finally time to go to the departure lounge, which really means we walk from the spacious terminal into a much smaller room where there are not enough seats. Our bus arrives at last to take us to the aircraft. Well bus is stretching the description, as our transport is a pair of very old tram like carriages pulled by a tractor! Anyway as everyone barges through to be first to board this contraption, the wise amongst us knows the age old adage "last on first off" as most of us want a window seat and the flight is a free for all.

We take the bumpy ride to IRAero An-24B RA-93934 looking pristine in the dawn light. Annoyingly when we stop the front trams doors open and ours in the second one stay firmly shut. Panic kicks in and Steve spies the emergency door handle; a quick flick of the lever and we are able to reach the rear side steps almost at the front of the line where the stewardess is holding everyone back. Now the scene looks more like a rugby scrum with everyone pushing and shoving and no British queue anywhere in sight.

RA-93934 was one of the last to roll off the Ulan-Ude production line, and here she is sitting at her birthplace ready for us. We are finally allowed to board and I manage to bag a window seat and settle down for a flight I've always wanted to do. We spool up and trundle along the bumpy taxiway and before we know it we are airborne, and in no time we are cruising over Lake Baikal as the sun rises. "The Pearl of Siberia" as the lake is also known is the largest freshwater lake in the world and contains a staggering 20% of the world's surface fresh water. This magical flight is over far too soon as we descend into our next adventure that would be Irkutsk.

Again we need to walk only a short distance to our hotel, although this time it proves a little tricky across a very busy fast road with no pavements. We have a little time before we are due to go back for our tour and Steve remembers that there is an An-24 mounted on a roundabout somewhere close. We go for a walkabout but the old ARP403 Rework Factory is now closed and we can't even find any roundabouts - maybe it's been taken away and scrapped? We decide to continue our wander to peek over the wall at the nearby Military Technical School, where I feel like a spy shooting candid photos of Il-76s and Tu-22s. [photos]

It's finally time to go to the airport, so we put our lives at risk again crossing the road and enter via the old terminal. While Olga disappears to sort out our paperwork we hang around looking suspicious while marvelling at the old architecture in this building. Ten minutes later a large man in an even larger hat that looks like a boat walks quickly past us with Olga, red faced and almost running, in tow. This doesn't look at all good! It seems like the man who was supposed to show us around is not here and to cap it all off the airport has lost our paperwork! After another tense 30 minutes it seems this man will be our guide now. He obviously wasn't impressed and we suspect that he was looking forward to another day in the office with his feet up.

Irkutsk Airport is laid out very strangely. The main ramp outside the terminal was only being used by Russian jet equipment and a couple of Airbus' were parked on a remote ramp towards the runway. The An-24/An-26 ramp is up a hill even further from the terminal next to the rework facility, and there is also a military ramp at the other end of the airfield.

By the time we actually got to the An-24 ramp all the aircraft that were parked when we landed had flown away... bugger! We decide we should shoot the An-2 and Mi-8s that are parked near this location, and this is where we hatch our cunning plan. Steve instructs us to take as long as we can shooting these few aircraft in order to stall "Mr Boat Hat" as he is obviously just trying to hurry us up so he can sit in the office. We are hoping some An-24s will fly back in while we stall for time.

The ruse works to an extent as a couple arrive and we ask to go to shoot them. Begrudgingly he agrees but tells us we need to wait for the passengers to disembark and be bussed away. Of course this is fine by us as the more we stall the more chances we have to capture some more arrivals. After filling out boots with the current crop of Antonovs we direct our attention to the stored airframes in the ARP403 rework facility that are enclosed by a fence. "No" states our pissed-off guide "the facility is closed". We lose the will to live at this point, resigned to the fact that we have been well and truly screwed over.

Suddenly a van arrives and a man called Anotoli jumps out and dispatches our long faced guide back to the terminal. Everything now changes, as it seems like Anotoli was supposed to be our guide in the first place. Calm is again restored when we ask him about the ARP403 rework facility, and with a quick chat with the man in the hut, the gates are open and we are given ten minutes. We don't need to be told twice and off we scamper like children in a sweet factory.

We were able to take a few backlit shots of the technical school beyond the old ARP403 rework facility. [photos]

As our new host is far more amenable we ask about shooting a couple of civilian Anotonvs parked at the end of the military ramp, where we explain that we will shoot away from the top secret An-12s and not be naughty boys. Everything is paradise as he agrees and we comply. We end up shooting on the whole airfield thanks to our new friend and leave with CF bards full and smiles on our faces.

So our morning at Irkutsk ends well after beginning to look like a total disaster. What plans do we have in store for the afternoon? The day will get even better in part 4.

25-26 June 2012
This has always been one of my favourite airports in Siberia, just for the sheer number of An-24s and An-26s that ply the local internal routes from this location.

After security formalities we were led straight onto an airport bus, and the words we always want to hear were spoken, "so where do you want to go?"

As we already spied some hangar doors open with an An-12 parked inside, it seemed sensible to go there first, just in case the doors were closed later. "No problem, let's go."

An immaculate Irkut An-12 was being worked on, with an IrAero An-24V on the opposite side.

With those in the bag, it was time to visit the main Antonov ramp. This is where the majority of An-24 services depart from. The passengers are bussed to this sloping part of the airport where there's always lots of activity, with aircraft in and out all day.

Although the amount of An-24s hadn't changed, the operators had, well kind of anyway. Gone were the Angara 403 schemed aircraft, replaced with aircraft devoid of the 403 on the tail. The 403 in the title was in reference to the ARP403 repair facility at this airfield, but it looks like they've dropped that part of the name now.

There were a mix of An-24 and AN-26s belonging to Angara, some of the aircraft were in this old scheme, minus the 403, and others were in plainer white colours.

As well as a representative from the airport who showed us around, we had a security guy who always seemed a little jumpy when any aircraft were heard running. After a while he got tired of being nervous and relaxed a little, as he could see we were capable of keeping the more non-airport savvy people with us in check. There were enough of us that had already travelled together in the past to make sure nothing untoward happened.

A couple of the An-24s even had names and artwork applied, which was a nice touch.

Just across the taxiway was an An-26, which I thought I'd seen on my previous visit in 2009, but, although it bore a similar weathered scheme, the IrAero An-26 was in fact a completely different machine. It might have looked weathered, but it was certainly in service. You can't keep the old Russian aircraft down!

We begged to hang around while another An-24 had a busload of passengers taken to it, and, with the help of our interpreter Natalie, who always did a great job of engaging in conversation to stall proceedings, we shot this aircraft taxiing out for another multi-leg journey.

Our next stop was on the east side of the airport where the helicopters were parked. But the first stop was an immaculate An-2 in Angara colours, and as luck would have it sun finally came out! Finally!

Another airframe with equally impressive colours was an Mi-8T belonging to UTair in a striking yellow, black and red scheme, although I'm not sure what the purpose of these colours were.

Three Angara Mi-8s ended our tour of this side of the airfield, one with a bunch of engineers chewing the fat about something that was up on one of them.

We weren't allowed to shoot inside the ARP403 facility, like we did on the previous trip. The old man guarding the gate was having none of it, even with the airport official and security guard with us, so we had to be content with shooting the backlit aircraft over the gate. Not ideal, but nothing had really changed since that last visit luckily.

There is a another An-24 ramp, a place that wasn't even being used during our last visit, and this hosted mainly UTair examples.

Here there was a truck hooked up to one of the aircraft, which I can only assume was providing ground power, although I'm really not sure of that.

The final part of the tour was to the top ramp that houses the small freighter part of the airfield. Here you'll find a bunch of An-26s awaiting their next assignment.

All were IrAero examples with one in an striking eggshell colour scheme, something I've not seen before. the colour didn't even match any of its previous operators, so why so different to the rest of the fleet, maybe we'll never know.

We shot a few newer jets while hanging around this ramp, and then it was time to go to the terminal to catch our Alrosa Tu-134 for our flight to Mirny.

So ended a couple of interesting days in Irkutsk, and yet another great visit to the main airport, with the added bonus of some extra access to the outlying technical school, which we didn't manage before.

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