Once in a lifetime trip (hopefully)…

Trips are very much a part of being a Flight journalist. Paris, Berlin, Washington, we take those cities and their nations in our stride. But every now and then a trip comes up that offers an experience like no other.

To be offered a trip by the European Space Agency (ESA) to go to Baikonur Cosmodrome where Sputnik and Yuri Gargarin were launched into the inky blackness of space is not something you turn down. For us here in comfy western Europe that cosmodrome, deep in Kazakhstan in central Asia, is a trip out of the ordinary. Admittedly the trip was over the Christmas period, a traditional time for friends and family.

But answering the question, “What are you doing for Christmas?” with the words, “I’m going to Kazakhstan for a satellite launch for the new European navigation system”, results in a very satisfactory reaction including jaws dropping

And so with my friends and family’s looks of astonishment (and even envy) still foremost in my mind I boarded the Boeing 767 at Heathrow Terminal One to go to Domodedovo airport on 26 December, for what you might want to call the trip of a lifetime.

Arriving at the Metropol hotel, just round the corner from Red Square, Moscow was every bit the Christmas picture postcard – even if the Russian Orthodox Church does not celebrate it until 7 January.

At 0630 local time the following morning when we boarded the coach to go to Sheremetyevo Terminal One the snow still lay across the streets glinting in the street lamp light. We were told it was about -1celsius at Baikonur, which was good for a part of the world that normally experienced -20 at this time of year.

At Sheremetyevo the group of journalists and European Space Agency, European Commission and Surrey Satellite Technologies VIPs shuffled out to the bus that would take us a few hundred metres to the Clintondale charter aircraft, a Tupolev TU-134A with obligatory transparent nosecone.  

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Taking off at around 0900hrs we were three hours from Krainy airport where we would board another bus to take us into the former Soviet military base and legendary spaceport. The seatbelt light came on and we were told that we were descending toward the airstrip. In moments we would be in Kazakhstan. At least so we thought.

I felt the nose pitch up and it seemed that we were being held over Krainy, circling high above.

Then the bad news began. There was a snow storm over Baikonur, we were being diverted to another airport, 220km away. But in a few hours, who knows, the storm could clear and we would be back at Krainy. So we hoped.

With the seat belt light still on our Tupolev carried onto the unnamed airport. With the landing at this airport I was to achieve a first for Flight International. The first journalist to land in Kazakhstan, aboard a Tupolev TU-134A, but I went one better. I’m the first Flight reporter to land in Kazakhstan, aboard a Tupolev TU-134A, while in the toilet.

The stewardess said I was OK to go in, we’d had no descent message from the pilot, but when the engines (which are right next to the toilet) started a very variable whine I suspected something was happening. So exiting the ‘restroom’,  I peered out into the Kazak landscape but for how long?


The regional airport we’d landed at could not deal with international passengers, for legal reasons, we couldn’t get off the plane. Phone calls were made to the Moscow ESA office, brave attempts were made to get through to Kazak authorities even via the EC representation in Almaty. Meanwhile outside the refuelling truck moved into position.

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The snowstorm above Baikonur was not abating, it had become a race between organising a bus and removing legal barriers for our disembarkation and the need for the chartered Tupolev TU-134A to return to Moscow. Sadly, after two and a half hours, we lost the race. Strap in folks, destination Moscow here we come. And with that I settled back into my seat (see pic below) knowing I would not be getting to the Cosmodrome from which Gagarin became the first man in space and the US reeled at the shock of Soviet pre-eminance in rocketry with Sputnik.

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By the time we landed back at Sheremetyevo we’d spent ten a half hours on the Tupolev. I don’t think I need to experience that aircraft ever again.

Bussed to the nearby Novotel the following morning we watched the launch of the SSTL built Galileo GIOVE-A satellite likes millions of others on tv; but with the added fun of the television commentators regularly mentioning the “fantastic weather” at the Cosmodrome. With my stories filed by email it was time to get a taxi to Domodedovo airport for my 2045hrs flight back to London. Traffic’s bad I was told, it will take three hours, leave now. It was 3pm. After 10.5hrs on a plane that didn’t scare me. But it should have. My taxi driver with his non-existent English drove me through the outskirts of Moscow, its growing suburbs and all seemed well. Snow glinted in the fading sunlight.

Then we turned onto what must have been
AUTHOR: Anonymous
DATE: 01/09/2006 19:01:20
I had similar experience while working on a joint venture involving US,Russian,Ukraine,and Norwegian companies. Sea Launch, LDC. is a commercial satellite launching business currently operational from Long Beach, CA.

We were fact-finding an upgrade for the Sea Launch rocket engine. The vendor was located in the city of Perm (disignated as the “Gateway to Siberia”). No commercial flights were available at the time (1998) so we chartered a TU-154 from our Russian partner. We left Moscow, early one morning, in a blinding snow storm. Few, if any other aircraft were visible on the taxiways or runways. This aircraft still had a navigator position in the glass nose and I wondered at the time what, if any, modern navigation electronics were included in this model.

Interesting, those of us in senior management were seated in the “first class” section which consisted of one large wooden table on the left side and a small couch on the right. Thus, those seated at the table had either forward or rear facing seats. The “couch sitters” had seat belts but faced sideways. I always managed to sit in the forward facing, table side, for landings. Although seat belts were available, none of the Russians seemed to use them. The balance of the engineering team were seated in in conventional seating in the rear of the aircraft. During the flight, our take off fears were abated by lots of vodka toasting and excellent food served by the German crew.

Some hours later we were cleared for immediate landing at the Perm airport. The view from our forward windows showed that the local weather was even worse than Moscow and the pilot noted that some 30knot side winds would to add to the fun (perfect English no less). After an amazingly smooth touch down and roll out we gathered our personal items and disembarked through the forward airstairs and tried to remain upright in the glazed and ice packed parking area. Fortunately the terminal was but 50 meters or so but bone-chilling even with our newly acquired Russian fur hats.

The trip to the Perm factory was interrupted by a stop at a local out-door military museum. We were paraded by many artifacts of mobile weapons,small and large rockets and finally a stop at one particular item. The head tour guide turned to us and proudly pointed and announced “Gary Powers”.
Seems their Company was instrumental in upgrading the SAM that reached our highflier. Interesting way to “market” their abilities. They are very proud of their engineering accomplishments and I believe they are somewhat embarrassed that most of the noteable ones where related to military objectives.

The return to Moscow was “blue sky” all the way which allowed us to view a lot of forested country-side and all the fresh snow that covered the once muddy brown suburbs of Moscow.

Don Skoumal

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One Response to Once in a lifetime trip (hopefully)…

  1. yellownextwinner 18 March, 2007 at 9:58 pm #

    Hi everybody,
    most of the persons that I know get their vacation from their work in july august, but me, I have to work the whole summer. Now my so long waited holiday period is coming also for me. This year I wanna go to Asia. In these moment I have a travel website always opened to search for bangkok grand hotel presi
    . I am gonna arrive with the airplane to Bangkok and then I will choose how to go on. I am single, so the world is my oister.
    cheers everybody,

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