Fishing Lines

Best get high when you fly Aeroflot
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The Independent Online

Put a group of seasoned travellers together and, sooner or later, they will get round to swapping Aeroflot stories. My personal contribution concerns a trip to Russia in the late 1970s.

I was part of a pioneering group visiting to assess the angling potential. It meant flying Aeroflot. On the way, excited about exploring areas that few westerners had ever seen, we ordered champagne. It didn't go far between six thirsty hacks, so we called for another.

"But you've drunk the champagne," the stewardess said grumpily.

"What else do you have, then?" we asked politely.

"Vodka and lager," she replied.

In true journo mix-your-drinks spirit, we opted for lager. She brought out a six-pack. Well, you've guessed it. When we asked for more lager, she told us we had drunk that too. On the way back from Rostov to Leningrad, I followed our pilot up the steps of the plane. His feet were at my eye level, and I could see a huge hole in one of his socks. It's difficult to have any confidence in a pilot with a giant potato in his socks

With two 20-minute hops in Sweden a few weeks ago to my credit, I am a helicopter fan. Though noisy, they seem a lovely way to fly. Take-off and landing have a dreamlike quality. You wish you could fly. Suddenly you're floating in the air, not a snowman in sight.

The Swedish helicopter that took me across the Arctic Circle was pristine, with digital displays and a pilot who probably changed into new socks for every flight. It's a different story for adventurers who want to explore the wilder parts of what was once called Russia.

Some extraordinary salmon fishing awaits anglers. Catches of more than 100 fish in a week are commonplace. That attracts a stream of punters from all over the world – but helicopters are the only way to reach remote camps.

My friend David Profumo of The Field magazine wrote a harrowing account of one such trip to the river Varzina. The MI-8 helicopter crashed, leaving David with two broken ribs, assorted bruises and a Harry Potter scar. He wrote: "As we were coming in to land, we suddenly accelerated and were hurled to the ground. At the last minute, I realised what was going to happen. I saw the rocks coming up and I just had time to think: 'So this is how it ends'." It took 10 hours for him to be rescued.

The more people I talk to, the more horror stories I hear about Russian helicopters, many of which are of 1960s vintage and serviced with elastic bands. Such incidents are hushed up where possible. In fact, an attempt was made to get the Field story quietly killed, but Jonathan Young did what a good editor does in such circumstances.

Many travel companies with exemplary reputations run salmon trips, but they have to depend on local transport. You have to suspect that many of the pilots used will have holes in both socks.

As David concluded: "Next year, I thought I might just take the train to Frinton."