On 1 March, Russia’s Arctic Aviation marked the 90th anniversary of its foundation. Back in 1931, the Soviet Union established the Communications Service, a unit which later became the Air Service. Soviet airmen went to the North Pole to help the wrecked SS Chelyuskin, a Soviet steamship reinforced to navigate through polar ice that became ice-bound in Arctic waters during navigation along the Northern Sea Route from Murmansk to Vladivostok. They were tasked to rescue its crew.
The history of Arctic and Antarctic exploration is full of dramatic events and heroism.
"It is difficult to tell about the flight conditions in which we were working,” Vasily Molokov, one of the pioneers of Arctic exploration and a Hero of the Soviet Union recalled. “The crew cabins were open, with only a glare shield of celluloid. In snowstorm, it was covered with snow. There were no wipers to clean it. I had to look sideways over the board, while it was sleeting and my face was covered with snow. In terms of instruments there were only speedometer, altitude indicator and compass on board. And that’s it. Not much for a blind flight. There was no radio on the plane. It meant that in case of an accident, the crew would be cut off from the whole world. Avoid the engine failure, be sure there’s enough petrol to reach the base – such were my biggest concerns. Courageous representatives of the air industry carried out high-latitude scientific research, led inspections in ice for many hours, escorted convoys of ships, and landed in remotest imaginable locations on silent drifting ice blocks. The harsh conditions always challenged them to operate at ten tenths and did not admit of the slightest slackness.
Possibly, the February 28 launch of the first Arktika-M satellite for monitoring the Arctic region from the Baikonur Space Center in central Kazakhstan, which is leased to Russia, was timed to coincide with the anniversary. There was also a medal specially issued for the day. The award is made for veterans, all those who contribute to Arctic aviation. Always ready to take off again for new discoveries and to save those who have got into trouble. To fly to the place where, as the Soviet song says "Again there is snow and fog on the shore, a night again unable-to-fly even for the moon..."
On the eve of the professional holiday together with the veterans of Arctic aviation we spoke about a special page of its dramatic history which they witnessed. This case is still not completely resolved. Svetlana Menshikova, who recently celebrated her 80th anniversary, gave us an interview. She recalled with bitterness what happened in her native 147th squadron of the Arctic aviation administration in the middle of the last century. By a happy chance, that day didn’t become the last one for her.
“I joined Squadron 147 in August 1960 as a flight attendant,” she says. “Back then, there were only two IL-18s [the Ilyushin Il-18 was a large turboprop airliner that first flew in 1957 and became one of the best known and most durable Soviet aircraft of its era.] At first, we flew IL14. There were N. Mazurina, the first flight attendant of Arctic aviation, and the girls who had just finished a flight attendants’ school, L. Yurasova, A. Krasavina, N. Kaznacheyevskaya and me. The flights to the North Pole from Moscow to Amderma to Tiksi started at the end of that year. Of course, I never forget my first landing in Tiksi. We arrived in Tiksi but the airdrome there didn’t have a high enough ramp for a new IL-18. Our resourcefulness and some flying experience helped. We brought a truck to the plane's door upon which we installed the ramp. Passengers successfully got off the plane. In general, the flights to the Arctic have left vivid imprints in my memory. Although a flight attendant's job is difficult, warm and friendly relationships in the squadron made all the hardships of this work much easier. Twice, I was forced to land on an IL-14 in Syktyvkar and Ukhta [the cities in the northeast of European Russian]. By the way, this type of aircraft had a paid buffet for passengers, food for which had to be purchased by the flight attendants themselves.
Back to what happened in the squadron at the time, there is an extract from the official report:
"On Tuesday, February 26, 1963, an IL-18B operated by the Arctic Directorate of Civil Aviation crashed in the Shelikhov Bay near the Cape of Areginsky (Emlinsky). A total of 10 people were killed in the accident. The plane was navigated by a crew from the 147th Flight Group consisting of Commander A.D. Karelin, co-pilot P.P. Savin, navigator R. V. Robinson, flight engineer N.I. Kupryakov, and flight radio officer I.I. Murik. Flight attendants E.A. Kupriyanova, V.S. Grishina and N.L. Kaznacheyevskaya worked in the cabin. At 02:29 Moscow time, the IL-18 took off from the airfield at Cape Schmidt. Its tanks contained 14.5 tonnes of fuel. At 03:38 Moscow time, the airliner landed in Anadyr, where 10 tonnes of meat were loaded on board. There were also two female passengers on the plane. No refueling was done. At 06:25, the plane took off from Anadyr airport and headed towards Magadan. ...Suddenly, at 08:45, the crew reported the malfunction of engine № 2 and asked for an emergency landing. The airliner then began to turn away from the route to the left towards the sea, descending at a vertical speed of 17-19 m/s. At 08:47:30, the crew reported: "Heading along the coastline. The altitude is 3,000m. Engines failed on one side," and then at 08:48: "Two engines failed on left side." At 08:50, at an altitude of 2,000m, the airliner turned left on a course of 210° towards fast ice.
At 08:52-08:53, the crew reported: "Making an emergency landing at sea." After that, communication ceased. At 08:54 - 08:55 Moscow time, an hour before sunset at local time, the IL-18, flying at 210° with retracted landing gear landed on the ice covered with ice hummocks, 2,700m from Aregchinskiy Cape or in some maps Emlinskiy Cape. The plane crashed into the ice drifts and sank. Separate wreckage, including the first, leftmost, engine was found on two ice floes in Emlinskaya Bay. The flight engineer, flight radio officer, passenger and one of the flight attendants managed to get out, but the flight attendant then drowned. The sky was clear there, and the air temperature was -18°C. However, the place of the accident was not found until several days later, when all the crew members had already died of hypothermia. Thus, all 10 people on board died in the crash."
On the photo: landing of IL-76TD in Antarctica (the current time)
(…to be continued)