We were first due to visit Mirny Airport back in 2009, but less than a month before that trip, the Russian government decided to cancel our visit, with no real explanations as to why.
Mirny, in Eastern Siberia, is the base for Alrosa, or to give it their full name, Alrosa Mirny Air Enterprise, which flies a very varied fleet of aircraft and helicopters, both within Russia and Africa (Angola and Namibia).
Alrosa isn't just an airline, however; it's just a branch of the far larger ZAO ALROSA, which is a diamond company involved with the exploration, mining, manufacture and sale of diamonds. They're also involved in the natural gas and gold mining industries. ALROSA is an acronym taken from the full name of the holding company which is Almazy Rossil-Sakha, but when the airline name is written, it's generally as a word.
Alrosa's fleet is always immaculate, and almost never bears the hallmark black soot marks on the older Tu-134 and Tu-154 that you usually see. The diamonds on the tail of their aircraft are a big clue to what the company is involved with.
We departed Irkutsk on Tu-134 RA-65146, a late production example built in 1980, only four years before Tupolev discontinued the type. As usual the aircraft shot into the air like a fighter jet, and one hour and fifty-five minutes later we popped out of the clag, and landed at Mirny. Here we got a small glimpse of some of the fleet on the ramp.
After passing through security we found our small bus which was waiting for us, and our guide Natalie received a phone call from Moscow that she would need to talk to Alrosa's security chief at the airport. A few phone calls later, and she told us that she needed to go and meet with them in their office. So we just kicked around the airport, wondering what surprises would come from this meeting.
An hour later we were told that the pre-planned ramp tour had been cancelled, this time the issue was with Alrosa. The government had sanctioned the visit via their highest ranking aviation official, but way out here in Eastern Siberia, the local security can still trump Moscow with no repercussions. They see themselves as remote and independent from Moscow. So here we were yet again, another visit to Mirny taken away at the eleventh hour.
Before we adjourned to our hotel, we visited the mine close to the end of the runway. The Mir Mine is an old diamond mine in which excavations started in 1967 and completed in 2011. It is the second largest excavated hole in the world and sits at 1,722 feet (525m) deep and 3,900 feet in diameter (1200m). It's certainly extremely huge when you stand next to it! There's even restricted airspace around it for helicopters, as in the past, there have been accidents where they've been sucked into the down draughts created by the micro-climate.
The town itself is very reminiscent of Russia during the Soviet times, grey and dank, with hardly anyone on the streets in the evening. My guess is that the population is almost exclusively involved with the mining industry and are just here to work, as when we were landing there were many mines dotted around the landscape.
Walking around you begin to see diamond shapes incorporated into every building and all facets of the landscape. Road barriers, buildings, murals, company signs and more, which rams home the importance the city has had on diamonds, and most likely the reason that Alrosa is so coy about allowing anyone on their ramp.
The next morning was damp and wet, but we were due to fly on an Alrosa An-24 for our next flight to Yakutsk, but it soon became clear that there were far too many passengers for the little aircraft, although it was parked just outside our terminal.
We were bussed to a Tu-134, the same aircraft we had flew in the day before, which was a shame, as both the Tu-134 and An-24 were decreed to be out of service by the government at the end of the year, but who can ever complain about a flight in a Tu-134?photo/serial list]