Taking an Antonov from Bucharest to Qatar

The Land Rover of the Skies

Airlines do a great deal to convey a feeling of safety to their passengers. This includes keeping planes spotlessly clean, flight attendants well-groomed and safety instructions perfectly choreographed. The look & feel on board leaves little room for doubt as to the airworthiness of the aircraft and its staff. But here I am at the airport in Bucharest, standing in the shadow of an Antonov AN-124 … and asking myself: Can this thing really get off the ground?

With its nose and tail hatches open, this legendary flying machine looks like a gargantuan, squashed pipe with an incredibly thin exterior. The paint is peeling, the inside worse for wear. Everything is completely exposed: cables, wiring, insulation. The repair and maintenance equipment is stowed where there is room in the cargo compartment, next to the Ukrainian flag. Hammers, screwdrivers and assorted spanners – a standard DIY toolkit. Is that all? It doesn't inspire confidence.

The Antonov AN-124, as I am told by a seasoned colleague, was first designed as a cargo plane for the Soviet military and built until the turn of the millennium. After the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet army sold off several AN-124s. Today, commercial and civilian operators deploy most of them in charter-based international transport where, due to their huge cargo capacity of up to 150 tonnes, they can perform Herculean tasks. Another advantage: the AN-124 does not need a regular runway for takeoff or landing. A flat stretch of land – like the African plains – will suffice, my colleague tells me. Following four crashes in recent years (including two during attempts to land in the savannah), there are still 40 Antonov AN-124s in service. Not that I needed to know this.

But as we aren't travelling to Africa, I climb aboard this artefact of an aeroplane early on a Sunday morning after prolonged discussions with the Romanian authorities (“This is not a boarding pass!”). In the meantime, the pilots are ensuring that our cargo is correctly stowed and fully secured. We are delivering a complete laboratory for analyzing ammonia to a fertiliser factory in Qatar. I help the crew load our provisions for the journey. An adventurous-looking suspended ladder leads up to the cabin. This too is reminiscent of a military museum, conjuring up memories of bizarre films like “The Hunt for Red October” and “Dr Strangelove – How I learned to love the bomb.”

Our “flight attendants“ divest themselves of their navy blue boiler suits, don comfortable shorts and lie down on their Spartan bunks without a word. Bob, the flight manager and the only person on board who speaks English, quickly packs away a few souvenirs, including a remote-control combat helicopter, and points me to an empty seat. I am given very brief instructions on how to use the oxygen mask. I am grateful for small mercies.

In conventional planes, Bob explains, the oxygen supply lasts until the cartridge on the mask is empty. Depending on body size and breathing rate, he says, it sometimes runs out after seven minutes but sometimes after just three. However, in this military aircraft, we were conveniently connected to the plane’s own oxygen system, so I could breathe freely as long as we were in the air. “Finally, a bit of cheerful news,” I think to myself.

The last time the plane unexpectedly lost pressure was six weeks ago, Bob confides. If it happens again, he says, I should do what the crew does. If they run around and pull at handles protruding from the ceiling, I should simply follow suit. “Hmmm. That’s less comforting,” I muse. The plane fires up its engines, rolls forward and takes off with a thunderous roar. Somebody offers me ear plugs.

The 14-man crew of this Antonov works three months at a stretch. During this period they circumnavigate the globe countless times and transport the most incredible equipment: gigantic turbines, entire lorries, military hardware. Incidentally, the German armed forces used Antonovs when they pulled out of Afghanistan.

“We are stupidly in demand,” Bob tells me. He lives near Stansted Airport outside London and has been working for the Ukrainian airline for 20 years. In his view, it’s the ideal job: “Because I have no boss up here,” he says, an expression of amusement on his face. His job is to organise everything: he negotiates with the local authorities, caterers and hotels. He supervises all the processes, manages the bookings and pays the bills. In short, he does the works. Even deciding on the route seems to be part of his remit. He shows me an email to that effect. I needn’t worry about flying over ISIS territory on the way from Bucharest to Qatar, he adds. We will be taking a detour over the “safe parts” of Iraq – and for that matter, of the Ukraine as well.

Available in case of emergencies: a standard toolset plus the Ukrainian flag as a talisman.

The other men hail from either Russia or the Ukraine. All short-haired or with shaven scalps, they are powerfully-built specimens of mankind. Their main work is on the ground, loading and unloading. Basically they don’t talk at all, not even among themselves. I am dying to ask how the war on the home front has affected the crew’s mood. There are so many things I’d like to know: How can anyone get enthusiastic about this back-breaking work? On the move – from time zone to time zone, country to country: is that really what freedom means? Is a normal life – i.e. on the ground – even possible in this job? What is it like to be welcomed at every airport in the world by aeronautical aficionados who gather to marvel at your plane? And how do you solve the unavoidable day-to-day problems that come from being squashed into a 15-square-metre space furnished with a few bunks?

Bob is the only one I can ask. But now is apparently not a good time. He tells me to focus on my provisions. ”Eat something,” he commands. “Enjoy yourself!” My lunch package, which he organised shortly before takeoff, consists of a fish and seafood platter, a generous plate of cheeses, fruit salad with fresh berries, loads of sandwiches, rolls and baguettes, a selection of croissants with and without filling, assorted small biscuits and baked sweets, a can of cola, another of Fanta and a litre of apple juice – not to mention the aluminium-foil wrapper containing a dinner for heating in the on-board oven. For afters there’s a big tub of Bavarian yoghurt with fruit and a bar of chocolate. More than enough for the entire crew – but they are all similarly supplied.

Bob turns out the light in the cabin. He takes off his shoes, trousers and shirt and stretches out on one of the old bunks. I spend the rest of the six-hour flight in the dark. Occasionally I head to the toilet in the back, where a folding chair is positioned next to a small window. There is a fantastic view, with snow-covered mountains bordering an ocean. Where are we? Unfortunately, I can’t ask Bob right now.

Despite a desert storm, the touchdown is so smooth that I can’t even feel it. Our descent is accompanied by none of the discomforting changes in pressure that are so familiar from commercial flights. I suspect that an Antonov produces the same decibel level cruising along the runway at 30 kph as it does in mid-air. The crew immediately sets about unloading the cargo. Bob, clearly refreshed after his nap, issues me a document (“Declaration of Health“). He says it will help me at Immigration. If it doesn’t work, I can call him anytime. They will be here until tomorrow. Then the Antonov will chug onwards like a robust old Land Rover – to Dubai, where its next mission awaits.

And I would climb aboard again at the drop of a hat, even without the choreographed safety instructions.

Frank Haas is head of brand strategy and communication at Gebrüder Weiss and editor-in-chief of Atlas.

No armrest, no belt: a window seat in the Antonov.
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