Out of Russia: The cow in the cockpit and other airy tales

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MOSCOW - How to respond to the likelihood that a 15-year-old boy - and maybe his younger sister - was at the controls of an Airbus 310 when it smashed into a Siberian forest last month en route from Moscow to Hong Kong?

Disbelief? Not if you have spent any time in the air over Russia. Foreign pilots and passengers, though, are flabbergasted.

The International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations rushed an envoy to Moscow this week to tell Russia to shape up. The International Airline Passengers Association went further. It stayed at home and recommended that everyone else do the same. Declaring all flights to or over Russia risky, even with Western airlines, it issued a blanket safety alert in Washington, giving a catalogue of horrors: 'Overloaded airplanes, lack of cockpit discipline, pilot error, ageing aircraft and even missiles fired at civilian aircraft in areas of political instability'.

The response in Russia has been altogether more ho-hum. Valery Eksuzyan, director of Russian Airlines, the international arm of Aeroflot responsible for the doomed craft, saw a plot to blacken the good name of Russian aviation. He also tried what was interpreted as off-colour joke. He told grieving relatives of the A310 crash that, for all he knew, 'there could have been a cow in the cockpit'. They were not amused.

Perhaps only a frequent Aeroflot flyer can understand what he was getting at. Was he trying to be funny or just honest? Chickens, goats and dogs are regular Aeroflot customers.

A few weeks ago I flew to Perm, a junction on the trans-Siberian railway best known for its prison camps and excellent ballet. The plane was a battered Tu-134 owned by the Sverdlovsk Engine Factory and had been chartered for the day to deliver a Mexican soap opera star to an army of adoring fans deep in the Russian hinterland.

Two hours into the flight I went to the toilet. The plane lurched to one side, bounced back and then did a terrifying approximation of a nosedive. I staggered to the front of the plane. Everyone was grinning madly. Maria, the Mexican soap queen, was flying the plane. As someone who trusts neither qualified pilots nor expertly maintained Boeings, I like to avoid Tupolevs flown by Mexican actresses.

The incident was later written up in Moscow News. What struck its correspondent as interesting was not that Maria was playing pilot. This was mentioned matter- of-factly: 'The commander of the craft invited the senorita into the cockpit and entrusted the steering wheel.'

Far more puzzling, the article suggested, was that 'the correspondent for the Independent adopted at this point the position recommended by Aeroflot for crash landings'. This is not exactly true. Moscow News was not there. Aeroflot's recommended crash posture is a tightly guarded secret: not once have I been on an Aeroflot flight that began with a safety demonstration. Nor is fastening seat belts a priority.

Aeroflot used to have 2,500 planes, a fleet since carved up between dozens of firms run on a shoe-string and a prayer. Aircraft are wonky, runways are pitted with craters, airports resemble cattle sheds, and fuel is so dirty it would choke a truck never mind a jet engine.

The one bright spot is TransAeoro, a new enterprise which, instead of flying corroded carcasses dumped by Aeroflot, imports Boeings - along with other novelties such as a ban on cattle and out-of-control drunks. (This is particularly good news for anyone who has watched a passenger commandeer the crew's intercom as one did on a flight I took from Moscow to Sochi, and announce, in between swigs from a plastic bottle of whisky, that the plane was being diverted to Siberia to collect his mother.)

There is nothing romantic about flying in Russia. But there is something strangely comforting in the Russian approach to technology. I first noticed it on visits to Star City, mission control for Russia's space programme. The place is falling apart. But Russian rockets still take off and Russian cosmonauts still come back safely. There is none of the techno-babble or starched formality of its US equivalent, Nasa,

Likewise with Russia's rough and ready aircraft. No frills, no courtesy. But they still fly, often more smoothly than anything made in the West. No one in Russia is dazzled by science or intimidated by machines. This can be reassuring. It can also lead to tragedy. Only in Russia could a 15- year-old be left at the controls. No one thinks this normal. But few are surprised. Izvestia, reporting this week on the shock caused abroad by the Airbus calamity, printed a front-page headline: 'Russian Roulette.'