Arctic Does not Forgive Mistakes (Part 2)

Arctic Does not Forgive Mistakes (Part 2)

On 1 March, Russia’s Arctic Aviation marked the 90th anniversary since 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.

(Ending of story)

... Menshikova (Ageyeva before her marriage) called this tragic episode a lucky coincidence, because it was at that time that she, a 20-year-old girl, started a romance with the flight attendant Vladimir Menshikov. Right before the flight, Svetlana Karelina made a concession to a request from her friend Nelly Kaznacheevskaya to replace her on the flight to Magadan. However, for some unknown reason, Vladimir, who would later become her husband and the father of their son, persuaded Svetlana to skip that flight.

The disaster was investigated. According to the report, it was caused by "the failure of two engines, which, for a given flight weight (50 tonnes) and with a visual flight, did not require an emergency landing, with the propellers in a position of free-floating vanes. The committee also concluded that the IL-18 had had normal controllability until the forced landing. So, the cause why the pilots made an emergency landing is still unknown. Perhaps, there was a fire on board, or the propeller of one of the two failed engines was not streamlined. Landing on ice in the specified location could have been due to inability to continue further flight. The professional skills of the crew allowed them to make the right decision under the prevailing conditions. Landing on the shore was not possible due to the difficult terrain. There was no rescue equipment on board such as warm clothing, sleeping bags, signalling equipment, etc."

In one word, as is usual in most cases, the blame was placed on the crew. Svetlana Karelina strongly disagreed with it. To this day she still has questions about the investigative process, and even more questions about the organisation of the rescue operation.

“To my thinking, it was done unprofessionally at the time. I know that the crew, trying to land the aircraft safely, did not reach only hundreds of metres into the smooth ice. The plane landed on the shore ice. The crew enormously hoped to be rescued. However, the investigators were looking for them not in the sea but on the mainland. The whole area was divided into squares. A committee flying in from Moscow, listening to a recording of the crew-controller conversations, heard the voice of the flight engineer I. Murik reporting "landing on the se...". No further information could be received. They were not found until the sixth day. To my thinking, the crew acted according to the situation. If they had been found in time they would certainly have been awarded for the only right action and courage they had displayed in doing so.

Georges Shishkin, an Honoured Pilot of the USSR, agrees with Karelina’s opinion. At that time, he served in Magadan civil aviation department as an instructor pilot of Li-2, IL-14 and IL-18. According to his recollections, the problem in IL-18 was caused not by two engines failing one after the other as it was said in the conclusions, but by all four engines, while the mountainous terrain prevented the crew from landing successfully on the mainland. Sub-standard fuel which had been used at Schmidt Cape and had clogged all the engine filters caused the failure. That is why the revs started collapsing.

As it was daytime, the crew made a decision to land closer to the shoreline based on what they saw. They landed on the ice, moving through the ice drifts which destroyed the aircraft completely. While the ice was still holding it up, some people were able to get out.

“I heard about the crash while working in Pevek," Shishkin said. “From Magadan, immediately after the disappearance of the plane, all the aircraft were tasked to observe the alleged crash site while flying. However, we fly at high altitude where it is difficult to notice anything. We were doing the visual inspection looking for the red painted Arctic Il. Nobody knew that it had sunk. So, it was only the crew of the Mi-4 helicopter, sent to search for it four days later that finally managed to find a group of people on the ice. Unfortunately, all of them were already dead. It should be said that the flight mechanic was barefoot. His feet were wrapped in some rags. Apparently, he had given his boots to the women. The whole group of victims, trying to keep warm, was lying together. Later, it turned out that they had been writing notes until the very last moment. The organization of the search was faulty. The crew would probably have been saved if help had arrived on time. Why the An-2 and Li-2 planes were not mobilized especially given the fact that the pilots were allowed to fly at extremely low altitudes during nighttime? They could have made a tack flying around the squares from 50-150m. We would have found them in a day or two for sure."

"Every flight in Arctic latitudes is connected with risk," said Shishkin. "Therefore, the crews are carefully prepared for it, observing the strict requirements of aviation laws which, as it is known, were written in blood. Rigorous control should be fulfilled by all parameters, especially the quality of fuel. The Arctic does not forgive mistakes. Once I found myself in a critical situation where after takeoff I had to urgently return to the airport due to extreme shaking and vibration of all four engines. As it turned out later, the propeller spinners were literally clogged with kilograms of ice, accumulated during a multi-day stay at the airfield due to a prolonged blizzard."

On the anniversary of Arctic aviation expressed deep respect and gratitude to its workers for their courage and selfless serving to the career they have chosen once and for all. We also paid tribute also to those who did not survive to this day but remained faithful to this dangerous but indeed necessary profession.

On the photo: landing of IL-76TD in Antarctica (the current time)

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