Russia (USSR) Trans Siberian Start-up, by Brian Burgess (1969-1972)

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When I was BEA Station Superintendent in Moscow, we operated three and later four flights a week to London, in reciprocal agreement with Aeroflot, who also flew the route.

By the end of 1969 BOAC and Aeroflot had begun talks about operating services between London and Tokyo via Moscow. This routing, overflying Siberia, would save a considerable amount of flying time compared with the existing service via Anchorage, Alaska.

I always remember the day the BOAC delegation arrived at Sheremetievo airport on board a BEA Trident. It was very cold and as they stepped outside the aircraft they were all dressed in heavy coats and wearing fur hats, obviously all hired from Moss Bros! The top brass from Aeroflot were there to meet and greet them.

This was the start of protracted discussions between London and Moscow. Nothing happened quickly in those days in the Soviet Union, and we were to see the BOAC delegation several times during the coming months.

The bilateral agreement was finally signed with due pomp and ceremony in Moscow in the spring of 1970. BOAC were to operate a twice-weekly service London-Moscow-Tokyo using a Boeing 707 aircraft. Aeroflot could also operate twice weekly with their Ilyushin-62. BEA would do the airport handling on behalf of BOAC. Aeroflot were the monopoly handling agent for all foreign carriers, but each airline had its own local representative to supervise matters. I went to London to do a weight and balance course, so that I could train our local staff to calculate the load sheet and other BOAC flight documents.

It was very tedious and frustrating dealing with the Soviet authorities, Aeroflot and the protocol department that looked after foreigners! We shared the town office in the Hotel National near Red Square and BOAC were finally allocated a small office at the airport. A new Land Rover was imported, resplendent in their logo. In those times any vehicle from the west and painted in the airline colours was very conspicuous and subject to vandalism - the windscreen wipers being particularly vulnerable!

The routing from Moscow to Tokyo across Siberia required meticulous flight planning as the navigation aids were extremely basic. BOAC posted a station officer to Moscow to prepare the flight plan. Due to the length of the flight it was necessary to change crews in Moscow, for which hotel accommodation and crew transport needed to be arranged – not an easy job.

The catering provided by Aeroflot at that time was not up to the standards we required. BEA carried catering for the return flight in the hold and changed it over during the turn-round, but this was not possible on the 707. All the dry stores were carried on board for the complete flight but our own catering was uplifted in Moscow. Regular shipments of frozen meals were sent from London and kept in our own freezer located in the stores. The usual last minute requests for changes from the cabin crew were not easy to accommodate!

Aeroflot were not able to provide engineering services, except for refuelling. BEA had its own engineer travelling with each flight, but this was not practical for a long haul service. Air India operated to Moscow with a 707 so their engineers were appointed to service the BOAC flights. All airlines had to uplift fuel at Sheremetievo and were very careful to monitor the quality of the aviation fuel provided, often with high water content. The Air India engineers did a very good job and worked closely with us.

The date for the inaugural flight was finally fixed for 2nd June 1970. Naturally, BOAC wanted to make a big impression in Moscow. In conjunction with the Embassy a formal reception was planned to launch the new service. Special food and catering staff were flown in from London. The reception was held in the National Hotel and many of the top Soviet officials were invited and greeted by the British Ambassador and BOAC delegation, together with journalists, the British business community and various embassies.

Champagne flowed, large quantities of caviar and smoked salmon were consumed and, many speeches made, which all had to be translated in accordance with strict protocol. A very glamorous occasion, which helped to brighten up the rather dreary Moscow in those days. There was enough smoked salmon left over to brighten up our own parties for several weeks to come.

The inaugural flight from London arrived on time amid much meeting and greeting. Although BOAC had negotiated traffic rights Moscow-Tokyo, there were no joining passengers. Our transit passengers were in the lounge stretching their legs before the long sector to Tokyo and at the same time being carefully watched by the border guards to make sure none strayed to prohibited areas. Aeroflot removed the steps, Air India did the start-up routine and off went the B707 on the first trans-Siberia flight. We all gave ourselves a pat on the back and waited an hour to make sure the aircraft was on its way and was not going to return with a technical fault.

There were few, if any, diversion points on this routing so we had to be sure that the flight was proceeding safely before standing down and closing the office. The only diversion airfield was at Novosibirsk and BOAC had a spares pack positioned there – just in case of an emergency.
In time the operation became more routine, but there were always unexpected incidents.

Catering shortages were common, so that our catering officer had to use all his ingenuity to make up extra meals.

At any one time we had two crews in Moscow who expected to find the same level of accommodation and facilities as they would in any other BOAC station. This was definitely not the case in Moscow! We were the only western airline to operate a transit long-haul flight, so the authorities were not used to airline crews staying in hotels.

Rooms were very basic and restaurants hard to find. All crew members who came to Moscow needed visas and the protocol department restricted the number. This meant only a limited number of crew flew on the route. We came to know them quite well and eventually they came to know us and understand the difficulties of living in Moscow and experiencing the hard winter climate. The crew always included two Japanese stewardesses, who found it particularly difficult so we made a point of offering them all the assistance possible.

Generally the crew brought food off the aircraft and usually entertained themselves in their rooms. This was frowned upon by the hotel. There was a female attendant on duty on each floor; these were semi-affectionately known as ‘dragon ladies’. It was the job of the ‘dragon ladies’ to make sure that only those staying on her floor used the rooms. As is normal with airline crews there was a certain amount of visiting from room to room. The ‘dragon ladies’ eventually became more accustomed to our crews and with the help of a few goodies, like a bottle of brandy or jar of coffee, they learned to turn a blind eye!

With the start of the BOAC flights to Moscow our work pattern changed enormously. We now had a six-day a week operation at the airport and crews requiring assistance. Fortunately, the British Embassy were very helpful and sorted out any protocol difficulties if crew upset the system and they also provided the services of a British doctor should one be required.

London used to send over a weekly food parcel to supplement our very limited local supplies, as well as what could be obtained from the aircraft when it arrived from Tokyo. These were hard times in Moscow living under a very strict regime. We were all constantly watched and treated with caution. Sadly, we were not able to make close Russian friends, but the foreign community stuck together and made the best of life.

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