Extensive discussion in media on the recent emergency landing of the Antonov AN-124 Ruslan jet at the Tolmachevo airport in Novosibirsk, western Siberia, keeps gaining momentum. The rescue of the crew can be explained by a miracle, as the jet already had engine problems during takeoff. Aviation experts underline the pilots’ excellence.
Stanislav Gabaraev, a former pilot of the Tbilisi aviation unit, also readily joined the experts' opinion. In an extremely tense situation that happened on board 37 years ago, he also managed to land the aircraft safely, keeping his head.
Justifying the Ruslan's skidding off the runway in Tolmachevo, Gabaraev explains this by the fact that the total weight of the aircraft was significantly bigger than allowed for landing, as fuel was not discharged in the air and there was much enough cargo. However, when the Tupolev jet with 57 passengers aboard he was piloting was on a return to the airport of departure, he also had to get down with almost full tanks due to weather conditions.
"I strongly believe," says Gabaraev, a pilot who had 15,000 hours flight time on different types of aircraft, "that the An-124 crew showed heroism in the conditions of engine failure during take-off."
What Gabaraev himself did on that day also fell within this definition.
In theory, the members of the Tupolev-134 crew led by Stanislav Gabaraev, now a pensioner, should celebrate the next anniversary of their second birth on November 18 every year.
"I could never imagine that something like this might happen to me," says Irina Khimich (nee Viktorova), at that time a flight attendant. "We were flying to Batumi [the second largest city of Georgia], but on approach to Kutaisi, we got into a storm front. We decided to return. When I entered the cabin to announce the information to the passengers, I got shocked. A young man with a grenade was standing in the aisle. Another guy fired a gun at a man sitting in front. As it became known later, seven hijackers from among the local gilded youth managed to check-in at the VIP lounge without going through airport security. They beat me up, and my colleague Valya Krutikova was dragged towards the cockpit. Seeing her face in the peephole, Zaven Shabartyan, the inspector of the Georgian Department of Civil Aviation, who was on board, opened the door. He immediately got five bullets in the face."
Battle in Cockpit
Two men burst into the cockpit. One pressed a revolver against Captain Gabaraev’s. The other ripped off pilot-instructor Akhmatger Gardapkhadze's headphones and poked the TT [Tulsky Tokarev model of soviet revolver] barrel in his face and said, "The plane is seized! Fly to Turkey, or we will shoot everyone!" The flight engineer Anzor Chediya tried to ask something but immediately fell down at point-blank shot. In this situation, the actions of Vladimir Gasoyan, the pilot-navigator, were decisive. The thugs simply did not notice him behind the curtain in his narrow workplace cabin. When he returned fire with a gun that all the crew members had at that time, he killed one attacker and then seriously wounded another. Then the initiative was taken over by the crew. The pilots managed to lock themselves in the cockpit by joint efforts. They turned on the distress signal and reported the attack to the ground. But the surviving hijackers continued to rampage in the passenger cabin threatening to blow up the plane if it did not head for Turkey. Now all hope for a more or less safe flight outcome depended entirely on Stanislav Gabaraev, the young pilot who had not even reached the age of 30. It was his first flight as the crew captain under the guidance of the pilot-instructor Akhmatger Gardapkhadze.
"I am not a psychologist, of course," recalls Gabaraev, "However, as a professional pilot I have always believed that my main task is not only to get the plane off the ground but also to successfully land it. At that moment, it was as always. All discussions about how to behave correctly under the circumstances begin later, after landing. Only then, when one realizes what happened in the air, one really feels a nervous chill. So did I. "
Trying to knock down and bewilder the hijackers, who thought that the crew was fulfilling their demand to head for Turkey, Gabaraev began the banking and pitching maneuvers. That was, of course, risky, because the plane was not adapted to the fly drills of this kind and might just fall apart. It was impossible to imagine what passengers were going through at the time but the bandits could not stay on their feet either.
Gabaraev managed to land the plane at Tbilisi airport. It was immediately “greeted” with volleys of automatic gunfire that were urgently called there. The mess on the ground continued until the Special Forces arrived from Moscow. Gabaraev and Irina Khimich, who jumped out of the cargo door on the lane, were also injured because of the indiscriminate shots. The bullet in Gabaraev’s right leg still gives pain to him in bad weather.
I asked him, "Were you overwhelmed by the fear of risk when you were driving a heavy plane to the lane? The situation was on the edge of losing control – cabin depressurization, fire, and so on."
"I can't say that I was absolutely cold-blooded at that moment," Stanislav Gabaraev answered. "But I spared no effort. To be honest, it was only at hospital that I felt the horror of what I had experienced in the sky. I was almost in a state of shock. I believe that there are no people who are absolutely fearless. The main thing is not to let it hang upon you so that you could avoid mistakes."
Incidentally, the navigator Gasoyan confessed that he experienced even more horror by shooting a living person. But could this person be called a human being?
And What After That?
After the plane landed at Tbilisi airport, the emergency situation was generally resolved more safely than might be expected. The Special Forces unit from Moscow successfully coped with its task of releasing the passengers from captivity. However, the final point was reached only by dawn the next day. The results were as follows — terrorists killed Zaven Shabartyan and Anzor Chediya, the crew members, and two passengers, and the flight attendant Valentina Krutikova was brutally tortured. The navigator Plotko, who flew as a passenger, and the flight attendant Irina Khimich were seriously wounded and remained disabled. Terrorist Tabidze was killed in a shootout. The second terrorist Mikaberidze committed a suicide. The court sentenced all the criminals to execution by firing squad.
It is known that people who once experienced stress in flight then often refuse to fly at all. One might jump to the conclusion that this should also apply to pilots. But not in this case. As it turns out, neither pilot Gabaraev nor navigator Gasoyan resigned to being disabled in their younger years. Both recovered and passed retraining. They started flying the Tupolev-154 jets. Gasoyan and Gardapkhadze were awarded the titles of Heroes of the Soviet Union. Gabaraev was awarded the Order of the October Revolution and Irina Khimich, the Order of the Red Star. According to Gasoyan, the fact that Gabaraev was not given the Hero’s title was a great injustice. "At that moment, Stas [short from Stanislav], in fact, was a boy who recently got a pilot's license, and despite the monstrous situation on board he landed the plane cool-headedly and masterfully,” said Gasoyan. “And then, on the ground, he was shot in the leg in a gunfight.”
He expressed his dissatisfaction with this also when the photographer of the Civil Aviation industry magazine flew to Tbilisi from Moscow to make a photo of two heroes for the cover. Gasoyan flatly refused to be photographed without Gabaraev at that time. This is how the three of them appeared on the cover. By the way, Gabaraev had hard times once again when during the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict a missile was fired over Sukhumi, the capital of the unrecognised Republic of Abkhazia, at his TU-154 airplane. Despite serious damage to the plane, the crew acted with the utmost concentration, for which all of them were decorated with the Order of Vakhtang Gorgasal, the highest state award of the Georgian Republic.
A few words about the consequences of that tragedy. As soon as Georgia gained independence, a special commission was formed in Tbilisi, which had to investigate the emergency in the air again. Eight years later, in November 1991, during the presidency of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the Svobodnaya Gruziya [Free Georgia] newspaper published an expository article about how under the leadership of Eduard Shevardnadze a "senseless massacre" was carried out and young "freedom and independence fighters" who tried to leave the "empire" by plane, were killed. It was said that artist Giya Tabidze was killed, artist David Mikaberidze committed a suicide, actor Gega Kobakhidze, artist Soso Tsereteli, and doctors Paata and Kakhi Iverieli were wounded when the "imperial special forces" stormed the plane. However, there was no word about those who died at the hands of the bandits. By the way, when the hijackers were asked in court why they went for the murder because they might fly safely to Turkey on a tourist trip, the answer was, "We wanted to become world-famous." It is curious that Gega Kobakhidze, one of the bandits, played the role of Tornike, a grandson of the elderly dictator Varlam Aravidze in Repentance, a landmark Perestroika-era film directed by Tengiz Abuladze. However, in 1985, Abuladze was told to reshoot the episodes. In the new version, Kobakhidze was replaced by Merab Ninidze, a cousin of the star of Heavenly Swallows, a well-known film by Iya Ninidze. But it is a completely different story.