Russia(USSR) - The Omelette Factory, by Peter Richards (1970s)

Breakfast at the Ukraine hotel in Moscow, used by the BOAC crews, was always the same. To pay for this breakfast, you were issued before you left London with a 1 rouble note, a curious piece of paper with the word ‘rouble’ written in all the Slavic languages. This was the only meal you would normally need to purchase on this route as dry stores were loaded in the galleys on the previous afternoon’s Trident for any evening snacks that might be needed on arrival from London , courtesy of BEA.

Breakfast was a slice of black bread of such density and consistency that you could have used it as a roofing tile. There was a glass of black tea served in a metal holder and on a sizzling hot plate there was a cheese omelette. This omelette was always of the same colour and consistency that meant that they had to be mass produced somewhere, so hold that thought.

The Moscow slip was all tied up in the route to Tokyo over Siberia and flown in the 1970s by a couple of BOAC 707-336Bs, G-AXXY and G-AXXZ. Other 707-336s could only manage this route if the forecast winds permitted it on the west-bound sector.

We had flown uneventfully all around the Far East and were staying near the old Tokyo airport at Haneda. You uplifted ‘super-cooled fuel’ and attempted to get airborne going west before the fuel warmed up and expanded in the tanks, to vent out of the wing-tip breather ducts. Hour after hour you trundled across the vast Russian landscape and gave position reports to the controllers in English, who translated this into Russian for the military controllers to advise what we should do next. They had to repeat back to us everything we actually said. There were several other airlines on this route, such as JAL, Air France and SAS. BOAC had invested heavily on the newest navigation technology known as INS (Inertial Navigation System), standard kit on delivery for the Boeing 747s and now retro-fitted to all the other long range types. But this meant that we used geographical position waypoints - and rapidly came to the conclusion that Russian maps were deliberately incorrect, as we always seemed to fly abeam every city we came across, so we would say so and then be told to turn one way or another, which we would of course have to comply with.

Right out there in the Siberian wastes is the city of Surgut, situated at the confluence of two rivers and which is now an oil town. From an altitude of 11,000 metres - you had to fly on metric flight levels over Russia and the aircraft actually had a metric altimeter as well as the standard ones, with the crews having conversion cards on their clip boards to assist them if required - Surgut was distinguished in those days by one thing, the big factory chimney. This chimney must have been well over a hundred feet high and from the top poured a column of smoke that always seemed to be blowing horizontally in the same direction. But the most consistent thing about this smoke was the colour which was exactly the same as the colour of our breakfast cheese omelettes! This had to be the source factory for our breakfasts! So the next exchange with ATC went like this. ‘Speedbird 996 Position Report’ ‘Go ahead Speedbird 996’ ‘Speedbird 996 passing overhead Surgut cheese omelette factory at flight level one one thousand metres at time zero niner five five and estimating position bla bla bla at one zero five zero’ ‘Speedbird 996 passing overhead Surgut cheese omelette factory at flight level one one thousand metres at time zero nine five five …..Speedbird 996, that is not an omelette factory!’ Turn right heading 285 and regain course immediately!’. So we had to comply. Then Air France chipped in with the same position report, followed by JAL. Suddenly the voice on the ATC radios changed and spoke ’All stations this is Soviet military radar and you will all maintain assigned track and refrain from comment about anything you see on the ground!’

We continued on our way but when we got to Moscow, the border guards at the airport gave us a real going over, delaying us at the airport for an age. Next morning I got up to go for my breakfast, taken at one of several cafes situated on alternate floors in the Ukraine hotel. When I arrived, I found I was not alone and there was one of the Japanese girls there before me. She introduced herself and asked if I would like to join her. So I did, and soon realised that she was not one of our BOAC girls but one of the JAL ones. She knew all about the ATC exchange as her flight crew had told her, and couldn’t make up her mind if we were mad or merely foolish. Having dined, we were asked to pay for our breakfast and I produced my bus-ticket sized 1 rouble note. My companion immediately told me to put this away and opened her purse to supply the waitress with what seemed a very small number of kopecks, (100 to the rouble) signalling that this was to pay for both meals. The waitress fumed and stormed out, never to return. So I had rumbled a scam against the BOAC crews, who had always paid about 3 times what the meal cost. I kept that rouble note and some fond memories for a long time.

©Peter G Richards FRAeS

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