Russia (USSR) The Security Guard, by Peter Richards (1976)

Winter can come early in Moscow and in October 1976 I was part of a flight crew who had to position on BEA to Sheremetyevo airport in order to be available to operate the Boeing 707-336B G-AXXZ from Moscow to Tokyo the following day. As we arrived, blizzard conditions were passing through,we landed safely and after tortuous exchanges with the Border Control, finally got on to the coach for the long trip into Moscow city and the Ukraine Hotel. There was nothing worth reporting about our night stop this time, but the next day we were told that the flight from London would be delayed due to bad weather. This trip was a 707 crew plum fixture as it went from Japan to Hong Kong, then to Thailand, on through India to Dubai and then home some 10 days later.

We were eventually told we could go out to the airport and the timing for this was critical on crew duty hours. Putting us on duty too early meant that for the long sector east we would not have much spare time for handling any contingency that might arise. In the briefing room, we heard the dulcet tones of our incoming captain calling up to give his arrival time and then adding the cryptic comment ‘Oh and we’ve lost the captain's external glass from the number 1 window’.

This was an immediate ‘stopper’. He was in the latter part of the descent when he called and the glass had shattered as they flew through hail. Our engineering cover at Moscow was handled by Air India and the mechanics went into a huddle and then emerged with beaming faces. ‘We have captain’s #1 window spare in our stores. We can change this here and then you can go, but not today, maybe tomorrow’. I was a bit dubious about this and asked if I could come and check the part numbers and also the condition of the window; so I was taken to the stores and there, sure enough the numbers matched the requirement. But looking at the window, I was a bit bemused by the fact that the glass was a sort of yellow colour. ‘Is this colour all right? I asked. ‘How long have you had this here?’ ‘This is standard spare from Boeing’ came the swift reply, so I called the outgoing captain and asked him if he would come and have a look too. He duly looked at the window and the mechanics held it up to the light so that he could look through it. ’Oh, I can use that’ shrugged the laid-back captain and we went back to the office. Given the length of the delay, we had to return to the hotel and as there were now two crews there, a wonderful social occasion.

The Air India guys got stuck in and then disaster struck, as, with the old window removed and the flight deck open to the elements, more blizzard snow fell. They had to abandon the aircraft until this stopped and then dig their way on to the flight deck to start work again. The old Boeing 707 was a wonderfully forgiving aircraft and with suitable heaters and blowers running they soon had the job done and the pressurisation check too. Thinking we would be going soon, they fully re-fuelled the aircraft. We were then called and told the bad news that as most of the remaining passengers had managed to get away to Tokyo on JAL or SAS, the eastbound flight had been cancelled. So now we had the task of flying an over-weight aircraft a relatively short sector to London at way over the maximum landing weight.

I began to do my external check of the aircraft and was accompanied by an AK47 wielding youth of pustulous countenance who slavishly followed my every move. One of the checks I had to perform was to check that the aircraft battery, located in the nose landing gear bay, was both present and secure. There were two ways of doing this check. The quickest way was to turn on the electrically driven hydraulic pump switch on the flight deck and thus have the power to close the doors of the bay when the check was done. This saved a double trip up and down the access stairs and was a ‘common practice’. The doors were opened and closed by a handle stowed in an access panel by the external power receptacle and had a cunning safety device included in it. To open the doors, you pulled the handle down and then slid it into a ‘bayonet socket detent’ guarded by a spring-loaded locking plate. So two hands were needed to ‘unlock’ the handle from the down position. All the time the doors were open, you could hear the hydraulic pump groaning to pressurise the system.

The blizzard had covered the tarmac area with a thick covering of hard packed icy snow, that an army of ladies in the most appalling clothing were vainly trying to shift by hand tools. The guard is on my heels and I open the nose landing gear doors, struggling to keep my balance on the uneven snowy surface. The guard dives past me into the now open wheel well and in so doing knocks my right arm and thus dislodging my hand from the control lever not yet in the locking detent and so spring loaded to the ‘Up’ position

Simultaneously three things happen. I fall and in so doing cannon into him, flattening him - the hydraulic pump senses the drop in pressure and goes into hyper drive and the doors close with a thump above our heads. He picks himself up and cocks his AK47. I shake my head and go back up to the flight deck and turn the pump switch off, the correct way to do this check. I am shaking like a leaf and the captain asks me what's wrong, so I tell him. Then there is an interruption as an officer walks on to the flight deck. ‘Your engineer has assaulted my soldier’ he says. ‘No’ says the captain ‘He actually saved his life. If my engineer hadn’t done what he did, you would have had a decapitated guard. Peter will show you what happened. Peter, I will be on the intercom, so go and put the headset on by the nose wheel and when safe to do so I will switch on the pump’

So I take the officer along with me and the guard trundles along behind him. I go through the same drill with the handle and this time, as there is no hydraulic pressure to deal with, the doors slowly open and as a safety precaution I disconnect the door actuator arms too. I show the officer the witness marks on the snow of scuffed feet and prone bodies and also the battery in its small stowage on the front right hand side of the bay. I mime the way I fell. Then I put the headset on, reconnect the door actuator pins and tell the captain all is OK to pressurise. Using two hands, I release the handle from the lock and close the doors and the officer jumps out of his skin as the doors slam shut in a second with a very audible ‘whump’. ’OK English. I see the problem’ and turning to the guard he lets out string of Russian that makes the poor boy's ears burn I guess, as he slowly wanders away. ‘You can go’.

With a ‘phew’ in my heart, we do our checks and get under way. Somehow we manage to burn enough fuel to keep the landing weight within maximum and arrive at Heathrow at dusk. There we find a signal waiting for us. We are to take minimum rest in an airport hotel, already organised, and then catch a 747 passenger flight direct to Bangkok and pick up the rest of our trip from there. I turn to the co-pilot and he grins. ’My girlfriend works in crew scheduling’ he chortles.

© Peter G Richards FRAeS

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