Dr Strangelove I presume...
All images ©Doug McKinlay
First published in Business Traveller Magazine
Not long ago hopping a flight to Kabul wasn't just a matter of going online and booking a seat with a recognized airline. Indeed most commercial carriers gave Afghanistan as wide a berth as possible. But that didn’t mean being at the mercy of the RAF, hoping for the chance of getting a lift on an air force transport. There was another way. Yes it's unscheduled and yes it's beyond the pale of pretty much all the world’s civil aviation authorities. But there is a very specialized group of airmen – primarily ex-Soviet air force – who, showing a cunning entrepreneurial streak, scooped up decommissioned heavy lift Ilyushin-76 cargo aircraft at the end of the Cold War and effectively became the white van men of the skies.
This would be my transport for three trips to Afghanistan, before switching to commercial aviation.
About as long as a 747, the Ilyushin-76 is twice as fat, making it look more like a giant flying hippopotamus than an airplane. On my first flight out the hold was so crammed with freight, more than 50 tons, that all I had to sit on was an old army cot at the back of the flight deck. And you can forget about seatbelts, the closest thing available is to grab hold of some metal shelves that are bolted to the fuselage. Shelves that are crammed full of ancient electronic equipment. There are wires and knobs everywhere. It’s all cathodes and transistors, not a digital readout to be seen. Even the radar screen looks manual. The whole thing seems to have been lifted off the set of Dr. Strangelove. I half expected the captain, his co-pilot and the navigator to turn in my direction and all be Peter Sellers.
For this particular flight the crew was Belarusian, all ex-Soviet air force. Once the empire collapsed they turned a commercial hand to what they knew best – flying cargo, whatever it is, to wherever it’s needed. In this case 50 tons of foodstuffs destined for American forces stationed at Bagram air base.
Other than the captain, co-pilot and navigator the crew also consists of a loadmaster, his helper and a mechanic – this is the guy who really keeps this behemoth airborne.
Prior to taking off I followed Vasilly – the mechanic – on his pre-flight walk around the aircraft. He checked the flaps and the ailerons, he inspected the tail and even looked in each of the four massive engines, but what interested me most were the threadbare tires. There was so little rubber left on some that I could see the steel belts showing through. When I asked Vasilly when he changed the tires he said in that dry Slavic way, “When they blow up.” To which I asked, when was that likely to happen? His response, “Usually when we land.” I didn’t ask him any more questions.
The Ilyushin was the workhorse of the Soviet air force. It wasn’t only used as a cargo plane but also as a bomber. In that incarnation the distinctive glass bubble mounted under the nose cone was where the bombardier did his business. As for my Ilyushin it’s where the navigator sits, but it’s also a great spot to watch the changing terrain below, an angle no civilian aircraft could ever hope to offer its customers.
All images ©Doug McKinlay
Three hours after take off from Arhus airport in Denmark we hit our cruising altitude of 38,000 feet. With the sun setting behind us I could look over the captain’s shoulder and see the sky ahead slowly turn from cobalt blue to velvety black. After a surprisingly good meal – sadly though no wine to be had – the crew settled into the quiet routine of the flight. With little else to do, some sat writing letters, others checked instruments while Vasilly read a pulp novel that pitted Stalin and Hitler in hand to hand combat. In such cramped quarters finding a bit of solitude can be difficult. For some of these guys the flight deck must have felt no bigger than a tin can.
In order to turn a profit the aircraft has to be on the job 24/7, meaning the crew gets little time off. Some haven’t been home in months, for one or two it’s been more than a year. From Afghanistan, however, they were all scheduled for a needed break.
After an uncomfortable few hours sleep I woke to sunlight flooding the cabin. We were less than 60 minutes from Kabul, the crew busy preparing for our landing. Even though the airport is supposedly secure, controlled by Afghan and coalition forces, the crew still only has a window of four hours to offload, upload and get airborne; no point in taking any extra risks.
But, as luck would have it, I couldn’t be in more capable hands. Yuri, the pilot, has a lot of experience in Afghanistan. During the Russian occupation he flew more than 300 missions. When I asked him what kind of missions they were, he just smiled and went back to piloting the plane.
With less than twenty minutes until touchdown Vasilly asked if I wanted to watch the landing from the glass bubble. Never having experienced such a landing I was quick to say yes. I’m still not sure if that was the right or wrong thing to do.
As we approached the airport, and still flying at about 20,000 feet, the captain put the plane into a steep dive and corkscrewed toward the ground, a necessary manoeuvre to avoid ground to air missiles apparently. I could feel the g-force press heavily against my chest. From my angle it looked like he wouldn’t be able to pull level. The only two words I could think of were bug and windshield. But at the last minute Yuri came out of the dive and made a short, fast landing. I was definitely shaken and stirred, but seriously impressed.
Following handshakes all around it was time for me to leave. With one last goodbye to Vasilly, the laconic mechanic, his parting advice was, “Whatever you do, remember, don’t stray off the tarmac.”
“Great,” I thought. “Landmines.”
By Jay Miller: Interesting story. I worked with an NGO in Kabul in 2006/07 and we too used Ilyushin 76's to bring in supplies and personnel from the UK. Quite the experience.