I came across this the other day, a short piece I wrote for the Sunday Times after reading about a terrible plane crash in which an Ilyushin transport plane was in mid-air collision with a Jumbo jet 60 miles north of New Delhi. At least 350 people were killed. It sent a shiver up my spine because shortly before I had traveled on one of these planes from the UK, via Egypt and Tanzania, to Congo.
This is me in front of the plane while refueling Cairo. For the landing, I climbed into the nose (bomb aimer’s pod) and watched the whole thing laying full length on the glass. Very exciting.
When I heard about the Indian air crash tragedy my first reaction wasn’t horror. I just wondered how it hadn’t happened before.
I travelled on an Ilyushin IL-76 from East Midlands airport to Goma in Zaire two years ago to photograph the Rwandan refugee’s plight. The flight, via Cairo and Dar es Salaam took eighteen hours. At the end it felt like it had taken 18 years.
Travelling with a journalist colleague and three aid workers, I boarded the Ilyushin in the late July evening. We said our hellos to the crew. There seemed to be about 7 of them but it was hard to tell as they were all moving around the vast plane, checking that the fork lift trucks, jeeps and boxes of equipment bound for Zaire were securely stowed. They all look hollow eyed and pallid. They were plainly tired.
The inside of the Ilyushin looked more like the interior of a boat than a plane. It had nautical style hand-wheels, pipes, cables, and ladders all over the place. It struck me as a cross between a combine harvester and a cargo ship.
It was loaded to bursting point. There were no seats, we were hitching a ride on an aid flight after all, so I jammed my cameras and myself in the 18 inches between a jeep and the unpadded fuselage and prepared for a long and uncomfortable flight. I just hoped the cargo was lashed down securely.
The crew were distant, though not unfriendly, and it was plain that none of them spoke any English at all.
The Ilyushin 76 was a shock compared to other aircraft I’ve flown on, cargo or otherwise. Where European and American planes use modern design for strength and lightness, the Russians seem to use crude metal. Brute strength is their virtue and their answer to western technology. I could imagine this thing limping home after a raid with large chunks missing, like an old ginger tom after a scrap, bleeding but unbeaten.
The four jets fired up, we taxied out to the runway and the engines screamed and vibrated. And screamed and vibrated. The Ilyushin accelerated like a channel ferry leaving port.
You could feel the power but with such weight to propel it gathered its skirt and ran more than accelerated. East Midlands airport has a long enough runway so that normally you’re quite high off the ground before the runway slips away behind. The Ilyushin staggered, shaking, off the ground just before the runway finished.
I settled in my slot and watched the naked control cables moving back and forth as the pilot forced the unwilling machine to climb.
The crew had looked tired before we started. I wondered how they’d be when we arrived in Zaire after 18 hours flying.
Some hours later we reached our first stop, Cairo. Dawn was coming up and I decided to take the bomb aimers position in the transparent lower nose section for the landing.
That was a mistake. Because we were so heavily loaded the plane hit the ground with such force that, laying prone on my stomach, it nearly winded me. I was grateful for those agricultural strength wheels, and we rolled to a halt after using most of the runway. The crew looked even more tired than when we started.
They broke out some packed food from a stack inside the plane and ate voraciously.
I spoke to one of the Cairo ground staff who told me that this plane, after unloading in Goma, would fly straight off to Saudi to pick up more cargo en route to Pakistan. From Pakistan to another country, and another. The Ilyushin can go to primitive airfields where western built cargo planes cannot because it has a fifth jet engine on the side of the fuselage. This is left running on the ground and provides power to keep the systems going and restart the main engines when required. More modern planes require ground support to do this which is not available in places like Goma. The crew went home to Russia only if they happened to be delivering there.
They were badly paid and needed to fly round the clock to make enough money to send home to feed their families. They travelled the entire globe, never changing any foreign currency, never able to leave the airfield compounds, living, eating, drinking and sleeping in primitive conditions on the Ilyushin.
Like the 18th century seamen who lived their lives on the ocean, these men are the latter for the landing and we looked at one another puzzled.
This was a small airport. As we approached we could see that the runway was too short for a plane this size. The pilot and co-pilot seemed not to have noticed or were unconcerned. Between the pilots’ seats was a bottle of gin.
As we were a few feet above the runway, one of the crew shouted and pointed in front, waving his arms wildly. Right across the middle of the runway was a wall of sandbags. It was a military airfield, probably in Rwanda, not Zaire.
The pilot hauled back on the throttles, the engines screamed, and we struggled enough height to just clear the sandbags. We looked at one another wide eyed, relieved and looked back to the windscreen to see the next obstacle, looming fast.
It was a line of trees at the end of the runway. The Ilyushin just didn’t have it in it clear these, and we hit them with a loud bang and judder of the airframe.
At this point I didn’t want to see what would happen next and went to sit on the floor behind the bulkhead. My colleague, Stuart, and the aid workers did likewise, all in separate parts of the fuselage.
I think we all felt the same. If the worst was going to happen we’d prefer to be alone with our thoughts and not see it coming. Having navigated to the wrong airfield, it was hard to see how the crew would now find the right one. The next half hour seemed to last forever.
Until we heard the jets throttle back. As we lost height I went back to the flight deck. In front of us was what looked like a Cairo car park. Massive planes parked at all angles, all over the place. And dozens of children playing on the runway.
As we approached, they scattered to the grass. I wondered if the undercarriage had been damaged.
It hadn’t. One thing about those dinosaurs of the air, they’re tough, even with parts of tree tops embedded in them.
We lumbered safely to a halt and the crew set about unloading. A few hours later they were on their way again.
The thought of these monsters plying the airways, tired, homesick crews, old guidance systems, heavily laden, is worrying. Are they serviced properly? Do the planes and their crews comply with modern safety standards?
For the sake of all travellers, I hope the enquiry into the Indian disaster finds out