Russia part 1: Arrival
Those who know me also know I love planning. It’s not just that when you plan you get more things done but also because it enhances my experiences: I look forward to them while I plan, then I enjoy them and finally I feel good when the plan is completed. And that is exactly what happened with Russia: we had been planning it for months, making excel sheets with dates and fuel consumption estimates, exchanging emails with Evgeny, our handler from MAK aviation, securing a special visa for me, telling everyone we would be in Russia on August 1st, and all of a sudden that day arrived and we landed in Pskov (ULOO), our port of entry into the biggest country in the world that would be our universe for an entire month.
We flew into Russia via Poznan, Poland (EPPO) where we arrived on July 31st, only 3.4 hours after leaving LFPN in the Paris area. Europe is so small! and the 40 knots tailwinds made it even smaller.
We enjoyed this flight very much, for different reasons: first of all, it was fun to listen to the controllers’ changing accents, French, Belgian, German and Polish, and secondly because we were very happy with the solution we had found for our faulty manifold pressure sensor. In several previous flights, the manifold pressure (and the power measure along with it) had been varying erratically and we wanted to find a service center to change the sensor. We did not have a lot of time however. The Cirrus Toussus le Noble center could get the part quickly but they did not work on weekends and we had to have it done on that Saturday. The Poznan center could do the work on the weekend but if they ordered the part it would be at least 7 days before they received it because of Polish customs. So we mixed and matched: asked Toussus le Noble to order the part, picked it up with the security guard that Saturday and had it installed the same evening at EPPO airport. No delay, thanks to Kasia and team.
A third reason for joy was that our Australian earthrounder friends, Tamra and Amir, were waiting for us in Poznan with their Vision Jet N16AT. We had agreed to travel through Russia together. The last time we saw them was in March 2020 in Argentina when they stayed at our ex-house. They had started traveling a few months before and have not stopped ever since, we are beginners compared to them😊
With Tamra and Amir at the Poznan Aero Cirrus Training Center just before take-off
Before landing in Pskov, we flew over all three Baltic states, passing seamlessly from one country control center to another (more accents!),
and we knew we were in Russia when the controller started giving heights in meters, wind in meters per second and altimeter information in QFE. We had been warned about this and immediately started using our mental calculation skills to process all of this: multiply wind information by 2 to get windspeed in knots, multiply meters by 3.3 to get feet, set QFE on the altimeter when heights are given in meters and QNH when altitudes are given in feet.
We had never heard of the city “Pskov” and our real destination was Saint Petersburg, but it has an international airport where entry formalities are allegedly easier than in the Imperial capital. Upon arrival, about 5 people came to the plane among which one doctor and 3 border control officials with green uniforms. The doctor took our temperature and checked our vaccination status, the customs officials asked us to unload the whole plane and open most of our luggage. We do not speak Russian and their English was very basic but we understood quite clearly what they wanted us to do. They were mostly interested in any pharmaceutical products we brought, looking carefully through our first aid kit and toiletries. Not sure what they were worried about, but they did not find anything and about 15 minutes later we could put everything back in the plane and were invited to board an airport car that took us to the terminal entrance. The entrance was so close that the officials who were on foot arrived before us, but protocol is protocol: only employees are allowed to walk airside. And we did not want to mess with Russia. The country has been associated with KGB, spying, cold war and gulags for so long that it is difficult to relax in the presence of officials, especially since they have very large caps.
Once inside the building, the immigration officials studied our passports for what seemed like a very long time but finally let us through, me with my brand new visa and Alex without since Argentines are exempt.
We were led to an office behind an Asian looking curtain where the only woman among the customs officials who had welcomed us asked for the documentation of the aircraft and delivered a temporary import permit until August 31st. Our entire communication happened via Google translate and it went quite well. We had also relaxed a little by then because there was a little girl in the office, the official’s daughter probably, it was summer vacation after all, who made the whole experience more human. Using the few Russian sentences I knew, I asked for her name -it was Sasha- and later commented on the cat she was playing with. I said “koshka” but she immediately corrected me: it was “kot”, sorry….
Once the airplane and we were cleared for entry, we were led to another room where various people took care of us, offering drinks and Avgas, before our departure to ULLI (Pulkovo airport) in St Petersburg. Tamra and Amir joined us there and since there was no food, Alex and Amir went to visit the shiny food truck they had seen outside. Yes there are food trucks in Russia, just like everywhere else and this one sold hotdogs next to a Soviet looking mural: the best of East and West.
Meanwhile, Tamra and I were browsing Booking.com for accommodation in St Pete’s and discussing with the employees in the office because there seemed to be some confusion about our departure time. The discussion was four-way and involved the employees, the tower, an interpreter and us. We had delayed our flight plan due to a passing thunderstorm between ULOO and ULLI but apparently no one knew exactly how to proceed. When Alex and Amir came back from the hot dog truck, we called Evgeny who was flying his helicopter at that very moment but managed to fix things in such a way that we could take off to St Petersburg minutes later.
Negotiating the delay
The flight to Pskov had been our first steps in Russian metrics, our flight to ULLI became our first in low flying! This second Russian flight had already started in a peculiar way: we had been given a clearance for 4000 feet and had already climbed to about 3000 feet when the controller asked us to “climb to 1000 feet”. We were very confused and believed that the controller meant 1000 meters (we had read that Russian controllers are in the process of changing from meters and QFE to feet and QNH) but even after several exchanges we could not really clarify the issue so we stayed where we were, not sure whether it was OK or if he really meant 1000 feet. After a few minutes, the controller asked us to descend to 300 meters (1000 feet), so apparently there was no confusion in units, we were simply instructed to stay super and surprisingly low. There did not seem to be any cities around there so we were not sure why we needed to be so close to the ground but we complied and took pictures of the beautiful forests everywhere around us.
As the journey progressed, the controller asked us to report at waypoints we did not have in our flight plan. The first two times, we requested she spell the names because we could not find them but at the third waypoint, she anticipated our ignorance and spelled it out loud before we even asked. This is just one of the examples of the professionalism and helpfulness of most air traffic controllers in Russia which we have constantly witnessed throughout our trip.
Suddenly, about 10 minutes before our destination, we lost GPS signal, meaning that the plane did not know where to go and neither did we of course….We were later told that GPS signals were sometimes scrambled when President Putin traveled (apparently he was in the area that day!). This was the first time it happened to us so we immediately asked the controller for “vectors” which he started to give us but after a few minutes he transferred us to another control center (maybe he was worried about this unusual situation, in English, with a foreign aircraft? or maybe it was just not his area anymore?), in any case, the next controller asked us to climb to 2500 feet just before the airport (vs the 1000 feet we had been maintaining for almost an hour…) and then vectored us back down in a dive through thunderclouds with rain to the runway which we only saw at the very last moment. A true roller coaster ride, and our first day in Russia was not over yet.
After landing we were instructed to follow a “follow me” car which took us all the way to the very end of this relatively large airport, it seemed like we were going to the end of the rainbow!
When we got there the car left but we recognized N16AT, Tamra and Amir, so we were not alone, however there was really no one else except a few helicopters (did they think we were helicopters? or spies?) and we did not know where we were or how to get to the airport exit which was definitely too far to walk to. At some point a fuel truck stopped so we thought we were saved but it turned out the driver could not take us to the terminal because it would get him in trouble. After another 15 or so minutes, a security guard walked up to us and was able to arrange transportation in the form of a huge bus that took the 4 of us to the exit. Free at last, to go to the two adjacent «apartments at Solyanoy» that we had booked in the city, where we met our super friendly host Anna. After a few exchanges via Google translate, we found out where the supermarket was and which restaurants were still open (it was 9 pm by then) and promptly enjoyed our first dinner in Russia, with a great sense of accomplishment and eager to discover our new habitat.
Saint Petersburg is always among the Top 10 most beautiful cities in the world and although I had been there before, I was really looking forward to exploring it again because my previous visit had been too short, as are most business trips, and I had great memories of this grandiose, historically significant, water surrounded setting. Our apartment was close to the Summer Garden, so that was our starting point for a GPSmycity walking tour which took us all around under light rain until the afternoon when it started pouring so we hurried back to our adjacent units (without taking the intended boat tour) where Tamra volunteered to make dinner for us all: we did not need a lot of convincing! We brought vodka and the amazing sugar-glazed fruits and red-pepper we had bought in the delicatessen store, combined with Tamra's soup, it was a real feast.
Church of Spilled Blood
Around the corner from Hermitage and the Winter palace
We walked along Nesky prospekt and went to the Singer cafe inside the House of Book (originally built in 1902 to be the Russian branch of the Singer sewing machine company)
Close to the Fabergé Museum
World famous Fabergé eggs and other luxuries, especially made for the Tsar
Inside Elisseeff Emporium
The box that held our sugar-coated delicacies
Still full of the previous’ day sights, we continued to be amazed the next day when Sergei, a Russian ex-pilot whose contact Alex had received via his Argentine pilot group, took us on a ride through the city, much beyond the boundaries of our walking tour. We stopped at a new neighborhood called “New Holland” which looked like a gentrified shipyard, then visited a spot from which you could see 7 of the 372 bridges of St Petersburg over 3 of its 90 rivers, drove by many more bridges, the fortress, the bronze horseman, Vasilyevskiy island and hotel Astoria where I took a picture for my parents who stayed there in 1967 (which by the way means that they left my brother and me at home alone in Warsaw when we were only 4 and 1 years old…if I had known that before this trip, I would have complained about it).
The bronze horseman
Chilling in front of St Isaacs
The ship-symbol of St Petersburg
Another beautiful orthodox church (women need to cover hair and wear skirt inside, luckily scarves and skirts are supplied)
Catherine the Great
Sergei also took us on the new Neva freeway, an amazing engineering achievement, and to one of his favorite restaurants, offering Caucasian specialties with views on the river. During our whole tour, he educated us about the city, about Russia today and about his family’s life experiences, in particular during the horrendous 872-day Nazi siege of Leningrad between 1941 and 1944. Where sugar factories, candy factories or warehouses were bombed, his family (and many others) would fetch the soil underneath in buckets and take it home and suck on it to remove any sugar that may have soaked into the soil.
The prominent Gasprom tower
Thank you Sergei, you are the best!
So much the best, that when we needed to print documents for our departure to Moscow the next morning, he took us to a print shop and to finish the tour, suggested a short journey on the metro which is almost as famous as Moscow’s for its luxury. We were soon going to be able to compare.
In the print shop
In the metro!