Alex and I saw and experienced so much during our month in Russia that I did not realize my previous post about Moscow and Yekaterinburg was very, very long, even though it “only” covered two of our thirteen stops there. My intention is to make this post shorter, which is not an easy task because our flight to Novosibirsk was eventful and upon arrival we got together with our Russian friend and Ipsos colleague Elena who shared captivating stories about the country’s (and her own) history.
We left the Gold 1905 Boutique Hotel in Yekaterinburg early on August 8th and headed to the USSS airport for our 753 nautical mile flight to Novosibirsk. We were feeling confident that it would not be too difficult to reach airside because Alex -forewarned by the St Petersburg airport episode- had taken pictures of the crew door through which we had exited two days before and explicitly asked the Customs Officers who had escorted us out how we should get back in. Based on their instructions, we assuredly headed for the said crew door behind which was a security post, only to be stopped by the security agent who would not let us pass without an escort, despite the fact that we could easily walk to the plane. In hindsight, this was quite understandable because USSS is a “real” large city airport. While we were thinking about how to find an escort, Alex remembered that we had promised the Custom Agents that we would show them the import documents for the airplane upon departure. As luck would have it, there was an international departure entrance right outside “our” crew door with a phone number on it to call Customs if they were not present. Alex dialed and after several attempts succeeded in explaining that we were leaving and that they were welcome to come and stamp the document. And obviously they would have to escort us to the plane to do so! Minutes later, two customs agents joined us at the crew door, spoke to the security agent at length and escorted us to their office on the other side of the metal detector and the X-ray machine through which we properly passed all our luggage. I’m not sure why but we stayed in the customs room for about 15 minutes. Initially, there were only two officers there but soon three others appeared. They seemed to know we were foreign because one of them addressed us in German, so I started chatting with him, explaining who we were and how much we had enjoyed their city. After a while, one of them asked us to follow him and we boarded a van that took us to the plane. Alex promptly opened the door and extracted the customs document so they could check and stamp it. They complied and left, apparently satisfied, while we went through our checklists and prepared the flight. We again had the feeling that we were such oddities (a general aviation airplane from Argentina in Yekaterinburg) that most people did not know what to do with us but they were all very curious and friendly and so were we, so in the end we all tried to make things work, especially since we had everything in order: proper import document, proper permit for flying in Russia, proper flight plan thanks to our handler Evgeni and also, I believe, proper attitude. What we did not have is knowledge of the Russian language and/or someone on the ground, be it an FBO (Fixed Base Operation) like they have in the US or an agent like we had in Brazil where at each airport someone was there to meet us: airport staff assigned to general aviation or a person appointed by the handling company. By now, we have learned that the larger the airport, the more you need help. (This is not unique to Russia by the way, we had some issues in Nantes, France also but because we speak French we ended up solving them by ourselves).
Just before departure we asked for our clearance to Northern Novosibirsk (UNNG, formerly known as UNCC) and found out that they had rerouted our flight, through different way points and a lower altitude. It was not a big change so we did not question it and modified the plan on the MFD screen accordingly. After take-off, we realized that the changes had been made to keep us out of the clouds, exactly between layers, but the top one was very thin, in the blue-est, brightest cloud environment I have ever experienced. A gift from the controllers. It was so bright that I had to wear my sunglasses and, despite it being minus 7 degrees Celsius outside at our altitude, I stripped down to my short-sleeved pilot shirt and placed the sunshades on my window: it gets awfully hot in the cabin when the sun shines directly into it.
The only disadvantage of being between layers is that you cannot see anything on the ground. I have no idea what the landscape looks like between Yekaterinburg and way point ABITI, where we were transferred to Novosibirsk control, and even in ABITI, the cloud base was barely broken.
Despite not seeing the ground, I was not bored at all: it was interesting to see the countries we were close to -Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan (here the Yekaterinburg taxi driver was from), Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan-
and since we had lost GPS signal several times in Russia, I had started to take MFD-screenshots of all the way points with their headings and estimated times of arrival, so that we could navigate with that information if the GPS failed again. It just needed to be corrected for wind drift, so as we progressed, I wrote down the actual headings versus the theoretical headings to estimate it. For example: to go from OGTON to LUKAS, the magnetic heading was 083 degrees (i.e almost full East, like most of this trip, which is why I always have the sun on my side of the cabin…) for 37 minutes, and then from LUKAS to ABITI it is magnetic 073 degrees for 3 minutes. Because of the wind, the airplane was heading 086 degrees between OGTON and LUKAS, so I wrote that down and knew that we would probably need to head around 076 degrees to find ABITI if we lost GPS. We had also installed a back-up GPS on the dashboard, so Alex thought it was a good moment to make a video explaining all our equipment: the red back-up GPS, the orange in-reach tracker and the black satellite phone. Unfortunately, he was unable to record the sound track so now you can see a silent-video of me with sunglasses in a super-bright sky, demonstrating our electronics…
With all this math, time passes quickly, especially since there are also lunch and deviations to deal with. At some point, the controller warned us about large cumulus-nimbus clouds 5 kilometer ahead of us with tops between 23000 and 26000 feet. We had no other choice than to go around them and requested a diversion of 10 degrees to the left, which was granted. Once we were almost back on track, and just about to report “on course” again, the controller called saying “I have observed you are ready”. It doesn’t get much more pro-active than that!
Lunch on board (not much worse than commercial airlines)
Watching those cumulus nimbus!
Shortly after ABITI, we lost contact with the previous center and could not reach Novosibirsk control yet. We immediately received a call from Aeroflot 1307 acting as a relay to find out what our estimated time of arrival was at waypoint ML. It was clear during this whole flight that we were in good hands and very carefully being watched!
After 4 hours and 54 minutes, we landed in the small aerodrome of Novosibirsk North (UNNG, formerly known as UNCC), a private field where we would be able to get Avgas. The main airport is Tolmachevo (UNNT) and it was so close that their tower controller had accompanied us until we saw our little runway. He had recommended we do a low pass over the field before landing but we had the runway in sight so clearly that we decided to land directly. As we got closer, we started seeing cars on it, lots of cars, and some kind of construction in the middle of the runway. Alex overflew them and landed on the second part of the runway which was clear. What a fright! We now fully understood why Novosibirsk tower had recommended a low pass, even though we might have chosen not to land at all if we had seen the cars and constructions more closely. It turned out there was a driving school in the middle of the runway and only the second half of the strip belonged to the private airport.
From the taxiway we saw many people waiting for us, taking pictures and showing us where to park. One of the planes circled above us as a welcome. Among the crowd of mostly pilots, were Jan, the co-owner of the airport, Alex from Kamchatka who we met again when we were in that part of the country, and Ludmila, who spoke very good English, told us the history of the airfield which used to be main city airport but was now private, and drove us to our hotel.
The old Novosibirsk airport
By the way: John Bone was there also, in July and later in Kamchatka with Jan and the gang!
Ludmila even offered a night sightseeing flight over the city that evening but we already had dinner plans with our friend Elena who happened to be on vacation in the town nearby where she was originally from.
Elena took us to the Puppenhaus restaurant, where all dining rooms have dollhouse decorations. It was a very mild evening so we went all the way up to the picturesque terrace on the roof where we ordered smoked Siberian fish – after all we were now officially in Siberia.
She gave us some background on Novosibirsk, a strange city that was created from scratch less than 100 years ago under the leadership of Stalin to protect Soviet Industry and scientists from the Germans by relocating them from European Russia. It was built “overnight” in a very uniform Soviet style -which is why it is sometimes called “concrete city” and became the largest industrial center in Siberia. There is a special “Academic City” nearby that houses the renowned University as well as many scientists and students.
Elena was a 21-year-old student when perestroika started. She told us about the changes she perceived -first the “diky” (wild) capitalism in the 90’s and now an increasing control over the economy- and about the difference between her upbringing and that of her 18-year-old daughter. Just like all the other children at that time, Elena’s education was completely structured: in first grade, she became a little octobrist, a few years later she was a pioneer and at 16 she joined the Komsomol. That was just the way things were, she had never questioned it at the time; today, her daughter can probably not even begin to imagine such a lack of choice. Or how her great grandparents who were shopkeepers, and therefore bourgeois, had hurriedly left their city life to disappear in the countryside where they lived in precarious conditions, which became worse when Elena’s grandfather was killed during the war. But I can’t imagine that either which is why it was so interesting to hear it from our Russian friend.
We spent the whole next morning visiting the city. Along with lots of housing, factories, academic and administrative buildings, the soviets also endowed Novosibirsk with Russia’s biggest Opera Theater, the longest avenue in the world -Red prospect- and a majestic green railway station for the Trans Siberian. All that along the River Ob.
Lenin and other symbols
Aviation anniversary in front of the opera
Trans-siberian train station
Walking to the river (Google maps guidance can be risky!)
Bridges on the Ob
Our next stop was Krasnoyarsk (UNKK), only 359 nautical miles (665km) away and in the same time zone! Because his airport was not easy to find by Yandex taxi drivers, our new friend Jan had kindly offered to pick us up at the hotel and drive us to our plane.
Entrance to our hotel (Ahotels on Sovetskaya), a boutique hotel (8 rooms) inside a Soviet style building
The weather forecast predicted lots of cumulus clouds again, so we were prepared to navigate around them, but there was also a new variable: we were to expect smoke at arrival from the Siberian taiga fires.