Flying the Lucky Tupolev

Airlinereporter-comRussia is a great destination for aviation history fans. Where airlines all over the world nowadays operate the same ‘boring’ Boeing and Airbus jets, many Russian airlines still operate some more ‘exotic’ planes. Similarly, many Russian airports boast interesting aircraft ‘graveyards’, showing planes that totally belong in aircraft musea. Taking a flight in Russia can lead to interesting surprises, like my story here:

In May 2014 I travelled to Russia and Kazakhstan to attend a rocket launch from Baikonur. A modern Lufthansa Airbus brought me to Moscow, nothing special. The domestic route from Moscow Domededovo to Baikonur Krainiy Airport is operated exclusively by an interesting airline, called Tulpar Air. This Kazan-based airline was voted ‘least punctual airline’ of Russia in 2010. Earlier this year (2014) Rosaviatsiya grounded the airline altogether, due to maintenance and crew issues with their mostly Yak-42 fleet. But regardless of Tulpar Air being grounded, I was holding a Tulpar Air ticket to Baikonur. As it happens, Tulpar can still sell tickets, but needs to rent planes with other companies that do have a valid license to fly.

On a nice sunny day I got on a bus at the modern Moscow Domodedovo Airport to be taken to my “Tulpar Air” flight. Wondering if they had rented another Yak-42, we were driven to the edge of the airport, directly next to the graveyard, to find that flight TY2261 was operated by an “Alrosa Mirny Air Enterprise” Tupolev Tu-154M. At that moment I had never heard of Mirny-based Alrosa Air, but somehow I was relieved to see a sturdy Tupolev, instead of the less respectable Yak-42.

Getting on board the Alrosa Tu-154M at Moscow DME

Getting on board the Alrosa Tu-154M at Moscow DME

The Alrosa Tupolev Tu-154M with registration RA-85684 was built in 1990 as ‘CCCP-85684’, flying for Aeroflot. In 1993 it was sold to Chitaavia, while its registration changed to its current ‘RA-85684’. In 1998 it went to Almazy Rossii Sakha which moved it to Alrosa Mirny Air in June 1999. It has been flying for this operator ever since. Alrosa Mirny Air is the largest operator of Tupolev 154’s in the world, with 7 out of only 53 remaining operational Tu-154 aircraft flying under the Alrosa colors today. Alrosa mostly services domestic routes in Russia, but it also flies internationally with its VIP versions of the Tu-154M, under the ‘Alrosa Avia’ brand.

Boarding the plane through the middle entrance. All other doors were open for ventilation purposes.

Boarding the plane through the middle entrance. All other doors were open for ventilation purposes.

View from the stairs onto the starboard engine and wing.

View from the stairs onto the starboard engine and wing.

The RA-85684 cabin is divided into three sections: two rows of 2+2 business class seats, seven rows of 3+3 economy seats, a galley and an aft cabin of 16 rows of 3+3 economy seats.

The RA-85684 cabin is divided into three sections: two rows of 2+2 business class seats, seven rows of 3+3 economy seats, a galley and an aft cabin of 16 rows of 3+3 economy seats.

The emergency doors at the last two rows remained opened for ventilation until the plane left. Not too comfortable for the passengers sitting there with a door in their lap!

The emergency doors at the last two rows remained opened for ventilation until the plane left. Not too comfortable for the passengers sitting there with a door in their lap!

Aft cabin seen from the last row.

Aft cabin seen from the emergency exit row.

This is the ventilation and light system. This is also the only in-flight entertainment on board...

This is the ventilation and light system. This is also the only in-flight entertainment on board…

Food service on the 3.5 hour flight to Kazakhstan was fine. All items disappear into a large trash bag after the food service. No need to do any dishes!

Food service on the 3.5 hour flight to Kazakhstan was fine. All items disappear into a large trash bag after the food service. No need to do any dishes!

In-flight picture over the wing and engine. The flight is super smooth, like with any modern airliner really...

In-flight picture over the wing and engine. The flight is super smooth, like with any modern airliner really…

Although our departure was delayed by about an hour and a half, we safely land at tiny Krainiy Airport, in the middle of the Kazakh steppe. A perfect flight experience really. Not too noisy, not overly shaky or otherwise concerning with the 24-year old plane. The only oddity happened when exiting the aircraft. Because the plane is tail-heavy, they deplane the rear passengers before letting the passengers in the front section out. According to the captain – on the PA – this is done for “aircraft balance reasons”. Anyway, when posting pictures of our plane on social media we were shocked to find this story as one of the responses:

 

In September 2010 the RA-85684 had been in a very serious accident...

In September 2010 the RA-85684 had been in a very serious accident (click to read the full article on the AirlineReporter.com website)

Apparently this story made headline news on many international channels, including this TV news report by Russia Today:

Fortunately we only read this complete story after we all got home from Baikonur safely. The return flight TY2262 was operated by exactly this same machine…

Aircraft arriving at Baikonur from Domodedovo, about two hours before our return flight to DME.

Aircraft arriving at Baikonur from Domodedovo, about two hours before our return flight to DME.

Flying the Lucky Tupolev back from Baikonur to Moscow Domodedovo. My seat in the forward cabin.

Flying the Lucky Tupolev back from Baikonur to Moscow Domodedovo. My seat in the forward cabin. In reverse order as with deplaning, to avoid tipping the plane, they board the forward cabin passengers before letting the rear cabin passengers on.

View over the forward cabin of the RA-85684. The eight business class seats are in front of the curtain.

View over the forward cabin of the RA-85684. The eight business class seats are in front of the curtain.

Getting off the plane at Domodedovo. Me posing with the 'Lucky Tupolev'.

Getting off the plane at Domodedovo. Me posing with the ‘Lucky Tupolev’.

The repaired and repainted nose, clearly indicating the aircraft type.

The repaired and repainted nose, clearly indicating the aircraft type.

The boarding pass, issued by space company Tsenki, is as exotic as the plane this flight is operated on. Handwritten, without passenger names...

The boarding pass, issued by space company Tsenki, is as exotic as the plane this flight is operated on. Handwritten, without passenger names…

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