Thursday, 17 January 2013

Flying on the Ilyushin 76 from Baku to Aqaba....A great flight.

My adventure on the IL76 started when I was advised by my crew scheduler that I was to position to Aqaba in Jordan to start my next series of flights. Though this was met with supressed laughter, why, what was I letting myself in for I wondered? This flight was to be conducted by Silkway, the ‘sister’ company to my own Silkway West, where I am Head of Training for the Boeing fleets.

Silkway operate a fleet of Ilyushin 76 and Antonov 12 cargo aircraft, whereas Silkway West operates Boeing 767-300 and Boeing 747-400 cargo aircraft.

I arrived at the crew briefing centre at Baku’s Heydar Aliyev airport in the early hours of the morning for a medical check and to meet the crew. A medical check is conducted prior to every flight for every crew member by one of the ‘resident’ doctors. This is generally a check of your medical documents, pulse and blood pressure, a requirement under Azerbaijan CAA regulations.

The crew were already assembled working through various documents relating to the pre-flight preparations. First impressions made me realise I was in for an adventure and I was immediately made to feel welcome by one and all.

There were the two pilots, both holding the rank of Captain, the most senior was the fleet’s Chief Pilot, an absolute Gentleman and one who was very proud and justifiably so, of his aviation career.

Pilots love to share their experiences and achievements and this gentleman was no different. He went to great lengths explaining his career, which started before I was born…….and I have been flying for 30 years! His career started on Russian gliders at an aerodrome South of Moscow in the early 1960s. Then progressed through types as diverse as the Antonov 2, now the world’s largest single engine piston aircraft; to the Antonov 12, Boeing 707, Tupolev 154 and his current aircraft type the Ilyushin 76. With him having over 28,000 hours of flight time logged, I knew I was in very experienced hands.

As well as the two pilots there was the Flight Engineer, Radio Operator, Navigator and a couple of Loadmasters. This would be flying by committee I soon realised!

Along with my Boeing 747-400 colleague, who used to be an Ilyushin 76 Captain himself, a gentleman whom was completing his Captain up-grade training with me; we boarded our crew bus for the short journey from our office below the main airport terminal, past the construction site of the futuristic new airport terminal and through the flight-line of aircraft on the eastern side of the airport.

On this flight-line were parked aircraft as diverse as the Antonov 12, a four propeller engined cargo aircraft. Modern Airbus 320 and Boeing 757 passenger aircraft belonging to Azal Airlines the national carrier of Azerbaijan who had just taken delivery of their first Airbus 340-500 all of which were also awaiting their crew’s arrival.

The most interesting type illuminated under the glare of the floodlights was a lone Beriev Be-200 amphibious aircraft, parked alongside a Silkway Ilyushin 76 and a Tupolev 154, the latter which I believe used to be operated for the transportation of senior political dignitaries.

On arrival at our aircraft we were met by various ground staff, loadmasters, engineers and dispatch personnel. I have flown many aircraft types in my career but none bore any resemblance to the aircraft ahead of me. A high winged four engined jet aircraft likened to a large Bae146 but hopefully much more powerful. A nose which I couldn’t help but associate with the head and mouth of a very large whale and a rear section which could be compared to an early design for the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Strangely, the design seemed to work and in my opinion she was a fine looking aircraft.

The forward door was open with a functional set of steps which led to the main cargo deck behind the crew compartment; however what attracted my attention  was the whale-like totally glazed lower compartment which now housed the navigator and in the aircraft’s previous life as a military aircraft, the ‘bomb aimer’.

The two forward entry doors, one on either side of the aircraft were hydraulically operated and could be opened during landing to assist in aerodynamic braking when operating on ‘short’ runways; I could only imagine the noise and vibration this would cause!

On climbing aboard with my luggage, which was worthy of an achievement award on its own, I quickly realised that this aircraft could tell some stories. The cargo was loaded and tied down securely, stretching to the rear of the main cargo deck where this section could be opened and a ramp lowered for ease of on and offload both when airborne or on the ground.

Overhead there seemed to be a series of winches and pulleys which seemed to be more suited to a freighter sailing the seven seas, amongst which were located various pipes and tubes which could have come from a World War 2 submarine. The smells permeating this area consisted of grease, jet fuel, sweat, adrenalin and adventure; this was a real aircraft no hint of air freshener or cabin crew perfume; yes this would definitely be an adventure for me too and I couldn’t wait!

I was given a brief tour, shown the galley which consisted of a sink, water bottles and catering boxes; then the toilet facilities which I decided I wouldn’t need to visit on this flight……Then led to a recess behind the navigator’s station where I could stow my luggage.

I couldn’t help myself and had a peek inside the lower forward ‘glass bubble’ and was amazed at the myriad of equipment, some I recognised and some which were completely alien but they were all of dimensions which would not be found on a modern flight-deck. There was a device which resembled a checkout till from a supermarket but which was in-fact a rudimentary Flight Management Computer, programmed by the navigator for the route which they were to fly. This I believe was directly linked to the aircraft’s autopilot system whose controls could be found in the cockpit to the right of the Captain’s seat. There were also gauges for the fuel system and a series of large pieces of equipment located forward and overhead, all inscribed in Cyrillic writing, which were now no longer functional as they harked back to the days when this was again a military aircraft.

I was told that there were so many pieces of old military equipment onboard that should they be removed the loss of weight would have a detrimental effect to the ‘balance’ of the aircraft, so it was deemed better to accept the weight penalty and keep them onboard.

Down here the navigator was directly connected to the flight deck through the aircraft’s intercom system and he had his own headset to facilitate this. To the side of his seat he also had access to all the required Jeppesen maps and charts.

Turning around and trying not to bang my head or legs on the aircraft’s metal structure I climbed up a series of metal steps and entered the crew compartment located behind the flightdeck. There was a table and a row of three seats, which would later be a perfect location for off duty crews to drink coffee and play cards. I decided to stay here out of the way, whilst the operating crew settled themselves in and liaised with the groundstaff, there was a lot of activity going on all conducted in the local Azeri language and what seemed not to dissimilar to a rush for the best seats!

In the rear of the flight deck and on the right hand side sat the radio operator with his own equipment panel, to his left sat the flight engineer whose own panel was located on the rear flightdeck bulkhead and also on a panel located directly behind the captain’s lefthand seat. The rear panel was explained to me as housing the Russian equivalent of circuit breakers but were in fact on/off switches protected by movable Perspex panels.

With all the pre-flight preparations completed I was invited to sit on the jump-seat located behind the captain, I searched for my harness and realised that this fell under the options not taken up section of the aircraft flight manual, no problem!

With little formality the captain spoke to the ground-crew and the pushback commenced. The flight engineer leant over me selected switches which I assumed related to the fuel system and then using selectors located in a covered box on the overhead panel started all four engines in turn. It appeared to me that the entire start sequence was actioned by him, with just the pilot’s monitoring his actions and the indications displayed on the round dial engine gauges located between the pilots on the forward instrument panel.

With engines started and the various switches set to their correct positions, the radio operator contacted the Baku ground controller and requested taxi clearance. With clearance granted to taxi via the inner taxiway, designated as route 8 we were to join the main taxiway at intersection H for runway 36’s holding point on taxiway A.

The flight engineer advanced the thrust levers whilst the captain steered by using a tiller located amongst various equipment and switches on his left side. It seemed that the flight engineer was also responsible for selecting the necessary engine power during taxi procedures, as well as selecting the flaps to the required setting for take-off. With a quick check of the brakes by the captain we were soon turning onto the main taxiway and reached the runway’s holding point. With the radio operator changing to Baku’s tower frequency we were cleared to line up on the runway.

With all checks completed we were given take-off clearance and the flight engineer advanced the thrust levers, after what seemed like 30-40 seconds the captain released the brakes, stable engine thrust had been confirmed and the flight engineer advanced the thrust levers to take-off power.

Forty five seconds later the captain eased back on the control column and we were airborne. I could only imagine the view which the navigator must have had, located in the forward glass bubble as the runway centreline lights disappeared under his seat to be replaced by the street lights and houses below. Not akin to a Disneyesque fairground ride I surmised, especially when we started to turn towards our initial fix of SAGIL and a climb restriction of FL90 or above, due to terrain.

My adventure had started and already I had what seemed like a thousand questions to ask.

Part 2 to follow soon!