At the same time, my other option for this flight was with RusLine on a Bombardier plane, but the tickets were both more expensive and the flight schedule wasn't as convenient. So Grozny Avia was a no-brainer – it was both better for us in every way, and we got to support the local economy, as Grozny Avia is based out of Chechnya.
Grozny Avia flies out of Vnukovo Airport, where we arrived on the Aeroexpress. When we got there, there were only a handful of people at the check in stand, and I was beginning to hope that the plane would be empty, which is quite common for regional flights in Russia.
Next to the stands there was a group of military personnel wearing camo and holding firearms. This was a sobering reminder that I wasn't going on an ordinary sight-seeing trip. Chechnya has been in a state of constant conflict for pretty much the past 20 years, with the latest war officially ending only in 2009, and the region is still not fully secure.
"Don't worry," we were told by a company representative, when we asked what plane we were going to fly on, "if the engines are knocked out, this plane can glide to a landing." I asked for a window seat and headed for the gate.
Vnukovo is being expanded, and at the time of this flight, extensive excavations were ongoing. Perhaps I was just lucky, but the airport was almost deserted, with few people and empty cafés and shops. Needless to say, I made it through security and to my gate in very good time. If Vnukovo is always like this, it would be a great airport to fly out of. The only drawback is that the Aeroexpress train only stops there once an hour, so you have to plan your timing carefully.
We were shuttled to the plane. My group boarded through the back:
There was also a ramp at the front, and some of the passengers were taken there:
Going up. My nostrils were immediately assailed by the distinctive and familiar smell of a Soviet airliner. I don't know what causes it, but it's invariably present on every Soviet plane, no matter the make and model.
I took my seat and looked around. The plane was completely full and this was the second flight that day, so I guess Chechnya is quite a popular destination. The flight attendants asked me not to take photos, but I think this was only because they didn't want their picture taken, not because of any particular company rules.
There are a little under one hundred Yak-42s still in service, in other words about half of the total number produced. They’re still economically viable to employ and are noise certified for flights to European airports. Grozny Avia has 4 planes, or about 5% of the entire Yak population.
The cabin of the Yak is slightly narrower than that of the Tu-154 (Russia's other major passenger plane) so while it has the same 3x3 seating layout, the window seats are noticeably cramped.
If airplane seats were numbered fr om the tail, my seat would've been 1A. It was bad enough that these seats were pressed up against the restrooms and so didn't have reclining backs, but the view out the window was blocked by the turbine. (On the first photo of the review, you can see a reflection of the window in the turbine.) The only word I can come up with to describe the experience is "interesting". Of course, I had no view of the ground whatsoever. On the other hand, it was kind of interesting being up close and personal with the turbine. Definitely not something you will experience on a modern Airbus or Boeing.
The landing slightly made up the discomfort of my seat. It was smooth as a hot knife through butter. I don't even remember the last time I experienced a landing so smooth. Kudos to the Grozny Avia pilots for that. Considering that most aircraft accidents are due to pilot error, it's better to fly on an old plane with a first class crew than a new Boeing with a green crew.
At the airport we were greeted by the portraits of Putin and Akhmad Kadyrov. This is a disturbingly common sight across Chechnya. Sort of a localized personality cult. It reminded me very strongly of North Korea or Turkmenistan. This is not some quaint Middle Eastern tradition, either, where they like to pay homage to their elected leaders. All of this is being imposed from above, I feel. I'm not going to go into how un-Christian, un-Islamic, and frankly just inhuman that is. The Kadyrov clan is at least somewhat loved and respected in parts of Chechnya; Putin, I'm not so sure about. At some point I wondered whether if, in a hypothetical universe wh ere Chechnya had been successful in attaining its independence, there would also have been portraits hanging there... And if so, whose portraits would they be?
Putin got a whole two portraits. There was a second one on the air control tower. Good choice, I'm sure the view is better from up there...
Finally, someone from the security staff noticed me taking photos and pointed out a sign that forbids it; those are his fingers in the photo. However, he wasn't particularly insistent or belligerent about it. Overall, it wasn't a big deal during my trip. Besides the two aforementioned episodes, we took photos of whatever we pleased without incident. This was rather strange, as Chechnya has been a war zone relatively recently and security is much tighter than the rest of Russia. Yet, you're much more likely to be hassled for taking pictures in a Moscow train station.
Having picked up our baggage, we left the airport. (I almost said "went through passport control". Throughout this trip I got the feeling that we were in a completely different country, and I was not the only one who had this impression.)
Above the entrance is a quote from Akhmad Kadyrov: "My weapon is truth, and before this weapon any army is helpless."
On the other side, the terminal building was adorned with a big portrait showing Ramzan Kadyrov, the current ruler of Chechnya, with a Boeing about to land on his head:
Across from the airport there was a mosque, to the left of which was the pick-ups and drop-offs area. We loaded our things into a taxi, a Mercedes minibus, which for the next few days would be our home, and headed for the hotel.
The next time I saw Grozny Airport was five days later. We left on the morning flight. The check-in stand reminds me of a registration desk at a Russian hospital. If I hadn't taken the photo myself I would've thought that the woman with glasses had a stethoscope hanging around her neck:
Recently, I heard in the news that the airport is going to get renovated. That's strange, because everything looked pretty up-to-date to me. Even many large Russian airports (like Krasnoyarsk or Nizhny Novgorod Airports) look like shacks compared to this one.
On the airfield was the very same Yak. Another Moscow flight (in the background) was taking off a little ahead of us. Besides the one-two daily flight to Moscow from Grozny there are also international flights: a weekly flight to Kiev, and also occasional charters to Turkey and, during the Hajj, to Mecca.
This time around I got a good window seat, but the weather wasn't cooperating so I only managed to take a couple of photos.
Some sort of extraction facility, probably oil, on the outskirts of Grozny.
The Yak-42 has perfectly round windows, which nowadays is a feature found only on corporate jets:
The landscape around Stavropol:
Descent over Moscow, and a smooth landing.
Soviet aircraft boneyard at Vnukovo:
Disembarking from the plane:
In Vnukovo I always feel slightly nostalgic. When I was a kid, the company Vnukovo Airlines, which is long gone now, operated flights to and from my hometown of Norilsk. With my parents, I was a frequent flyer, so the airport is familiar to me as the back of my hand. On the second floor there used to be an arcade. I still remember my favorite game: you had to look through a "periscope" while shooting torpedoes at enemy ships. The arcade has since been replaced with a baggage claim. We picked up our things there.
Time to head for the exit:
Vote for review: