Russia part 2: Moscow and Yekaterinburg (last cities in Europe)
Before describing the second part of our Russian crossing, I need to share an important piece of information to be celebrated: I am writing this post in Sandpoint, Idaho where Alex and I are taking some time off from traveling because we have technically completed the full round-the-world circle in Coeur d’Alene on September 10th. We had landed there on April 16th, 43000 kilometers, 4 months and 24 days earlier, before our Greenland crossing, before our European and Russian journeys, to meet Tom and his family who were circumnavigating westwards in D-IDEE (and are already back in Germany).
Now we just need to go back to Buenos Aires to complete the second, more oddly shaped, “circle”.
But first things first: we left Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport (ULLI) for Moscow-Myachkovo (UUBM) on August 4th. This simple statement sounds easier than it actually was. Apart from sending us documents to print, our handler Evgeny from MAK aviation had also given precise instructions to enter back to the airport from the street side. Pulkovo is a large airport with many commercial airlines, meaning that there is a lot of security and you can’t just show up and say “let me through, my little plane is airside on перрон 4”. Indeed, while we were waiting for transportation the day we arrived, we had at least been able to find out that the remote parking spot where they had put us and our Australian friends’ N16AT jet was called “Perron 4”, no connection whatsoever with the popular Argentine ex-President of course😊
The instructions Evgeny had received for us were to enter through a special crew door at Gate 27 on the right of the airport entrance. Unfortunately, neither one of us (Tamra, Amir, Alex or I) could find anything that looked like an entrance on the right. We started to ask around but no one seemed to know exactly where to send us foreigners and we ended up with conflicting information. After having been in and out of various entrances, through security and back several times, we were guided to a door on the far left of the airport where we saw crew members of other -real- airlines going in and out. Inside, we explained our situation for the nth time, with hands, feet and Google translate, but the lady at the control post would not let us through, despite our pilot shirts, crew cards and documents which we had printed especially in St Petersburg the night before (we had no idea what they said of course because they were in Russian). After some time, a man with basic knowledge of English approached and we explained again that we were crew and wanted to go to our airplanes. While he was making a call to the airport operations manager, we had also called Evgeny so that he could speak to the control lady. Following a long, animated and loud discussion in Russian, she finally let us through and another large bus pulled up on the other side of the building to take us to Perron 4. Alex and Amir took pictures of Russian planes during the whole ride while Tamra and I were wondering how Evgeny had managed to convince our Cerberus.
In the bus (courtesy of visionjettravel)
From the bus
From the bus
We later found out that she had never seen a foreign crew at her domestic crew entrance and could not get rid of the idea that foreigners should go through customs and the international entrance. This is actually not very surprising since General Aviation is still nascent in Russia (even for Russians): there are very few foreign general aviation airplanes on the territory, and all of them need a special permission from the Ministry of transport. This “CAA permit” for LV-GQF had been secured by MAK aviation prior to our entry, our number was 668 290721 as you can see on the Flight Plan to UUBM that Evgeny had prepared for us.
Both airplanes were still sitting safely on the remote Perron 4 and we took off shortly after for a 3 hour flight which brought us two small surprises and two big ones. Just like it happened upon arrival, we lost GPS signal a few minutes after departure (apparently President Putin was still around…) and we asked for vectors again which were given in a very professional and clear manner until the signal was back. Then, at point NIRGI (the second one on the flight plan, after airway T873) we were asked to climb to 13000 feet due to a military restriction. We complied but explained we had no oxygen and they got us back down to a more breathable level after less than 10 minutes, all in excellent English.
St Petersburg from the air
And then came the big surprises:
N16AT flies about twice as fast as us (and 3 times as high), so we usually only hear them on the radio during the beginning of most flights, until they switch to the next frequency. Suddenly, we heard Amir ask the controller what his altitude and speed was. This was a little strange and we wondered why he was inquiring about something that should be easily available on his screen. The controller replied and when N16AT requested the same information again shortly after, the controller asked if everything was OK. And it wasn’t: Amir explained that he had lost all his sensors ….and the controller very professionally asked what assistance they needed. Amir declared a PAN PAN situation (i.e. a state of urgency that does not pose an immediate danger to anyone's life or to the vessel itself, as opposed to MAYDAY which is an official emergency that would trigger immediate priority from all services to handle the situation) and we heard the controller competently indicate N16AT’s speed and altitude information from his radar every few minutes until we could not hear the conversation anymore because they had switched to the next control center. We called N16AT a few times through the internal 123.45 frequency we were using to chat between us to check if they were OK but we did not get a response and we didn’t want to distract Amir who was clearly in a difficult situation. We just hoped we would find them safely in Moscow.
On our side, as we approached the capital, we experienced the lowest flight ever. We had thought our St Petersburg approach had been low but this was even lower. One hour before destination we were instructed to fly at 1400 feet, i.e. approximately 1000 ft above terrain. This felt like a loooong 130 mile downwind, very unusual. Closer to the city, where there were more and more buildings, it got worse: due to opposite direction traffic, we were requested to descend to 500 feet above terrain and the terrain was full of buildings! Just like when I pass a big truck on the highway, I stopped breathing to make myself smaller and lighter…. Alex’ attention was 1000% on the buildings, trying to fly between them when possible. After a few minutes that felt like hours, we finally were allowed to go back up to 1000 feet AGL which all of a sudden seemed like a great altitude! During this whole episode, we couldn’t really believe the instructions we were given, so we kept checking whether we had the conversion from feet to meters right, whether the controller really meant “altitude” (above sea level QNH) and not “height” (above surface level QFE), but he kept confirming, in very clear English, that we had it right. The video below shows what it looked like and I will let you imagine how we felt:
It was a good thing we had been warned by our guru earthrounder John Bone from Florida who had preceded us in July. He had had similar experiences above the city, so instead of having a heart attack while flying so low, we were just awfully stressed.
When we landed at Myachkovo (UUBM), Evgeny who is based in Moscow was there to greet us. After months of emails and whatsapp exchanges about itineraries and fuel needs, we could all finally put faces to the names. We did not expect to find Amir and Tamra at UUBM because we had figured they would go to the larger international airport (UUBW) where they would find more services to deal with their state of urgency. And that is exactly what they had done, but while descending their sensors started behaving normally again so they decided to join us at Myachkovo, flying visually (which is a little unusual for a jet). After they landed, they explained the situation and their distress in detail: the speed and altitude sensors were giving erroneous information, leading the autopilot to continuously “correct” attitudes which were incorrect, hence going up and down with regular “low airspeed” or “overspeed” warnings. Amir had continuously needed to disconnect the jet’s autopilot (that didn’t want to be disconnected!) and had continued the flight based on basic information provided by the foreflight App on his (much cheaper) iPad! Tamra gave a very accurate description of the experience in their blog: visionjettravel.com/Russia. I don’t know how Amir managed to stay calm…. In any case, he earned my full admiration.
The Myachkovo "terminal" :)
Happy to be safely on the ground again, we all relaxed for a while at the Myachkovo airport and chatted with Evgeny about the remainder of the trip before heading to Hotel Savoy, going for a sunset walk to the nearby Red Square and having dinner al fresco on Nikolskaya street.
And we even met Stalin on the way there !
My first visit to the Red Square was back in 1998 and I still remember how small Saint Basil Cathedral looked compared to what I expected. During my whole youth, the picture of Saint Basil had been the background of all news reporting about the Soviet Union, usually with a very dramatic tone. And one day I was there, in front of it, and it didn’t seem as threatening as it had appeared on TV.
St Basil Cathedral now the background for friendlier pictures!
And the street signs of the Red Square now co-exist with the international brands which have set-up shop in the GUM shopping center (ex-State Department Store).
Alex and I had both been in Moscow several times before and we wanted to go back to some of the places we had enjoyed including the Gorky sculpture park which had made a great impression on us.
Alex and I vividly remembered this "wall of victims"
as well as this "resurrection"
But there were also less somber sculptures
Could it be I was Russian in a previous life?
I also was eager to ride the famous metro again, so after Alex had abandoned Tamra and me at the sculpture park to check out one of Stalin’s Seven Sister high-rises and get a hair cut at GUM, I took Tamra on a tour of Mayakovskaya, Belorusskaya and Teatralnaya stations. I’m sorry for St Petersburg but the Moscow metro is definitely more impressive.
It looks like Muscovites start riding young!
Between platforms at Mayakovskaya station
Aviation was all over the ceiling at Mayakovskaya
Inside Belorusskaya station
Just outside Teatralnaya station: The Bolshoi theater
While Tamra and I were underground, Alex found one of the Seven Sisters and captured Moscow along the Moskva river
We ended the day in Café Puskin where Evgeny joined us for dinner and shared many of his travel experiences as a helicopter pilot around the world , the most bizarre being a major bureaucratic challenge in Morocco. None of our bureaucratic episodes in Argentina, Brazil or Russia had so far surpassed his Moroccan anecdote (if you’re curious, Evgeny Kabanov’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org).
Walking around in Moscow again was a real pleasure but Alex and I were more interested in exploring new places, so we left on August 6th to Yekaterinburg, the last city in European Russia, aka the “third capital”. We had hesitated because the forecast showed light thunderstorms on the way but we finally decided to go for it. N16AT stayed on the ground because they needed perfect weather to fly and do some tests recommended by the Cirrus Vision Jet support center to better understand their sensor issue. They would join us later.
Myachkovo is a small airport so reaching airside and leaving was easy: we crossed the flying school building, checked the plane, requested to start the engine and off we were for the 5 hour flight to Yekaterinburg (USSS).
In line with what the Windy App had predicted, we had to avoid a few clouds on the way but other than that, the flight was quite uneventful and all communications from the controllers were again very clear and professional, in proper English. Evgeny had explained to us that ATC would put the better English speakers (sometimes even the supervisors) on duty when foreign aircraft were scheduled. We had a small issue with one of them only: we could barely understand his messages because there was a lot of static every time he spoke. However, when he communicated in Russian with the local pilots, there was no interference and his voice was clear. Alex’ hypothesis is that he was so nervous about his English that he spoke too close to the microphone, thus creating the static. We felt sorry for him and for the fact that we had to ask him to repeat several times when he was already so nervous, especially since there were a lot of waypoints in his area, so he had to speak with us often!
In Russia, even if you fly VFR, you are expected to follow all the points of your (required) flight plan and report at each one. Sometimes you end up reporting every 10 minutes, and there is almost always less than an hour between waypoints. Every time you pass one, the controller inquires about your “estimate” (estimated time of reaching) for the next one. This information is readily available in the flight plan on our MFD screen, providing of course we understand which point the controller is referring to, not always obvious since there are a few phonetic differences to get used to: Russians tend to pronounce “a” most letters “o” (Tango is pronounced Tanga) for example. When the waypoints are spelled out there is almost no confusion possible, but it does make the messages longer: “please report at oonara, Uniform November Oscar Romeo Oscar”. I don’t know if this regular reporting rule is only for foreign aircrafts but in a way, it is quite reassuring because you know at least someone knows where you are.
Just like everywhere else, the waypoints follow established airways and sometimes the airways are not straight lines because they go around restricted areas, thus making the trip longer and fuel consumption higher. Evgeny had explained that those restricted areas were not always active and that we could ask for shortcuts, in the same way as we could always ask for different flight levels than the ones in our flight plans. There was quite a detour on our route between Moscow and Yekaterinburg, so we attempted to request a shortcut, but this was not granted. The controller did not forget us though and at the very last moment he allowed us to cut a tiny corner: better than nothing.
After landing at USSS and following the “follow me car” to our parking spot, we were met by a small fuel truck with drums, especially arranged for us by MAK aviation. The truck had an electric pump which was a relief since our manual pump is a little cumbersome to put together and requires quite some muscle power to operate.
After refueling, we covered the plane for the night, booked a hotel while still on the parking spot, and since the truck had left and there was no one around, we headed for what looked like a terminal with our carry-ons in tow. After about 10 minutes, a van stopped next to us and two agents in green uniform stepped out. Alex was a little nervous about them because he had been taking pictures of military airplanes and tanks on the airport grounds (the Soviet paranoia is not easy to get rid of) but we kept calm while they were speaking Russian and broken English to us. We did not really understand what they wanted so we called Evgeny and handed the phone to the men in green. They were custom officials (of course! they had the same green uniforms and large caps as those in Pskov, why didn’t we notice that before?) and they just wanted to check and stamp the airplane’s temporary import document (they had no interest in the pictures which by the way Alex had quickly deleted during the conversation...). We had left the customs document in the plane and were already thinking we needed to head back but Evgeny informed the officials that it was inside the aircraft and suggested we present it upon departure. They were happy with that arrangement, invited us to step into the van and took us to the terminal where we ordered a taxi to the city.
Since we were traveling East, we kept losing daylight. Yekaterinburg is UTC+5, meaning it is two hours ahead of Moscow (UTC+3) and three hours ahead of Poznan and Paris (UTC+2), so it was already getting dark when we reached our small boutique hotel close to Yekaterinburg’s “1905 square”, and the Serbian Tavern next to it where we were greeted by Sava, the owner, who immediately recommended what we should eat and drink and gave us tips on the city and details from his life (he had lived in Europe and in the US) over the course of the evening. He even shared a funny comment that one of his waiters had made about us: Alex and I were sitting next to each other on the restaurant’s sidewalk terrace so that we both could watch the passers-by and get a feel of the city. Alex on the left and I on the right. Apparently Sava had told the staff that we were pilots and one of them had joked that we had a professional deformation because we sat at the table like in the plane 😊 Since then, we laugh every time we sit next to each other for a meal: “shall we sit like pilots here”?
Armed with the GPSmycity App and Sava’s tips, we discovered Yekaterinburg for one full day: the City Dam and the Yeltsin Center along the Iset river, the 52nd floor of a high building for a great panoramic view, the Soviet-style ex-housing complex of the KGB agents, and of course the church of all Saints, which was built on the site where the former Emperor Nicholas II of Russia and several members of his family and household were executed in July 1918. To continue with the macabre, we also checked out the Black Tulip Memorial, a recreated cargo space of a military transport plane of the kind called “Black tulips” that used to transport the bodies of dead Russian soldiers back home during the Afghan war between 1979 and 1989. Each soldier’s name is engraved on the iron frame.
Yekaterinburg City Administration
City Dam on the Iset river (built in 1723 to power the industrial expansion of the city)
Along the City Dam
View of Yekaterinburg from the 52nd floor (the controversial Yelstin center, inaugurated in 2015 and criticized for distortion of historical events and propaganda, is on the left of the water, just before the bridge)
Yelstin center up close (after a nice walk along the river)
Ex-housing of KGB agents (on Lenin avenue)
In front of All Saints church
Inside All Saints Church
The Black Tulip Memorial
Sensing our curiosity for unusual tourism, Sava had also recommended we visit the neighborhood of “Uralmash” because it still looked exactly like it did in Soviet times, when it housed the workers of the Uralmash heavy machine production factory. The driver of the taxi we had ordered to take us there using the “Yandex” app (the Russian version of Uber) could not believe that we were interested in seeing that place, he kept saying that it was not for tourists and that there was a very interesting museum on the way which would be a better destination for us. His English was quite good so we were able to insist upon going to Uralmash and chat with him during the short trip there. He was from Uzbekistan and had learned to speak English in a Turkish school over there. Even though he had originally come to Russia for only 6 months, he ended up living in Yekaterinburg for 15 years because “life is much easier here than under the Uzbek dictatorship”. His four children were going to private schools -“public education is bad in Russia, just like in Uzbekistan”- and in addition he was paying for an English tutor for them, something his wife could not understand -“she is not very educated”-. After driving us around in Uralmash where we found dozens of soviet style apartment blocks, many of which seemed to be falling apart, he got excited by our interest and offered to take us to the Elmash neighborhood. He stopped at the place where he had been mugged by a group of children a few years before – he had to bite one of them to escape- and showed us two story buildings called “barracks” which were intended to be temporary housing in the period of Soviet industrialization but where families were still living today, each one in a single room. From what we understood, the kitchen and the bathroom were shared (in the past, the bathroom was an outhouse, not sure if that is still the case today). After passing a series of barracks, our driver clarified that he would not come to “this ghetto” at night. By becoming a tour of “how poor people live in this city”, our excursion had taken an uncomfortable turn, so we quickly requested to go back to Square 1905.
On an Uralmash streetcorner
Inside Uralmash housing complex
We had planned to leave early the next morning so we simplified our life by going back to the Serbian Tavern for dinner (instead of searching for “restaurants near me” and comparing ratings) and told Sava all about our experiences, after which we finished the preparations for our first Asian stop: Novosibirsk, about 753 nautical miles (1395 km) to the East and another 2 time zones later (UTC+7). Our days were being slashed!
PS: The pictures posted are obviously a fraction of what we have experienced and we travel faster than I write, but Alex has made wonderful videos of our trips (from the air and on the ground) which you can find on Youtube (search for Alex Gronberger) or via the menu on this website.