A few days ago I made the journey to Geneva in Switzerland to join a special flight which would be a first for me, but evidently a last for Europe.
Belavia, the national airline of Belarus, are the last European carrier to operate the Tupolev TU-154 in scheduled service and had made a decision to cease flying the type on such services in favour of its modern equipment, such as the Boeing 737 and Embraer 175/195 which are much more suited to modern travelers, unlike the Russian relics that were so dominant until the early 2000s.
Whilst Belavia doesn’t usually operate its TU-154s to Geneva, or on many scheduled services for that matter, Friday 29th May had been chosen as the symbolic last flight where it would substitute the smoking tri-jet in place of the usual CRJ or EMB-175 equipment.
I checked in at 9am, with most of the passengers clearly there for the event, having booked (like me) through the specialist tour agency Merlintour, which has organised three previous trips to Belarus for oldjet fans to experience flights on old Russian equipment. Arriving at the gate in one of Geneva’s satellites, around 90% of the crowd around me waiting for boarding to be called had cameras around their necks and were chatting excitedly about the upcoming flight; a few regular passengers, clearly not expecting this, looked on bemused.
Eventually boarding was initiated. Our aircraft was parked at a remote stand and we were taken in two buses. Once there, passengers were allowed off ten at a time in order to give an opportunity to take some photos without crowding the ramp. The captain was stood underneath the nose, looking smart (and hot; it was 28 degrees out) in his full uniform, posing for selfies with anyone who asked.
This was a first for me. I’d never flown a TU-154, or any Russian jet, before. Our aircraft was EW-85748. It sat glistening in the sun with mountains as a backdrop. Although we all think of this classic jet as old, it was in fact built in 1994 and was younger than the Lufthansa Boeing 737-500 that taxied past as we took photos. But the technology, design and style was definitely old and, clambering aboard, the cabin felt like something from a bygone age. It was split into two sections, with old-fashioned designs on the walls, seats that didn’t look like they could withstand much, and the smell of a museum piece.
Because it took so long to board, we missed our departure slot. We sat for over an hour, with no air conditioning and a general hum from the APU that was louder than most modern jets at full thrust. Most agreed that this was not a problem, and any extra time on board was welcome.
We eventually taxied off under a water cannon salute by the fire service, and performed a sprightly, yet shallow, takeoff towards France. The noise was immense and the aircraft seemed to scream as she took flight. Soon we commenced a wide turn back over Lake Geneva, with those on the starboard side treated to fantastic views over Mont Blanc and the Alps. From my port-side window seat I had a classic view over the wing, which seemed more flexible in flight than it looked when on the ground.
During the flight the aisle became crowded. Passengers wanted to mingle and chat, and to have a look at the toilets and the view from the last window, which looked out on the engines. There were also TV crews from Belarussian stations interviewing the crew and passengers. The crew performed their duties as well as can be expected considering passengers were rarely seated, but as it came to the meal and drinks service we were told fairly sternly to sit down and shut up (I paraphrase), after which everyone had the choice of chicken or beef with rice, along with some sliced cucumber and a dry bun. Hardly nouvelle cuisine, but I was famished.
Drinks came afterwards – some kind of Russian Champagne knock-off, and brown water masquerading as coffee. We didn’t mind.
The flight took around 2 hours and 40 minutes, passing over Germany, Czech Republic, Poland and Belarus. The engines whined down around 20 minutes before landing, and we made our way around the south of Minsk. The gear was deployed quite a way out, evidently to help slow the beast down. Landing was on runway 31, and was as smooth as can be, but again the engines went into a screaming frenzy as reverse thrust was deployed.
A slow taxi past the modern terminal took us to a remote stand where, again, fire tenders were waiting to create an arch in salute to the last flight. My first and second water cannon salutes in one day! Outside, more TV crews were on the ramp to capture the moment.
Following a brief ramp tour, Belavia’s Commercial Director, Technical Director, and the pilot from our flight, took the opportunity to present the airline’s history, and future vision, and talk about today’s flight. It was confirmed that as more new aircraft join the fleet, the three remaining TU-154s would be retired, likely by September 2016. Between now and then, they will operate only charters, such as taking mining groups to Siberia, or holidaymakers to Bulgaria.
The flight was definitely over too quick, but a real experience. The atmosphere on board was fun and both the crews and organisers from Merlintour were completely understanding of, and prepared for, what a bunch of aviation enthusiasts would want – namely lots of opportunities for taking pictures, videos, and clambering about all over the aircraft. I think it’s great that a carrier like Belavia would embrace such an opportunity when they could simply want to talk about their new aircraft and quietly put away their old ones.