Student travel-writing competition: Is there a pilot in the plane?

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The Independent Travel
I tripped over a ruck in the carpet as I was struggling up the gangway of the Aeroflot plane. Stretching out my hand to the back of a seat for some support, I remembered too late how foolish this was. Sure enough, the back of the seat flopped limply forward, hitting the one in front and setting off a domino run down the next four rows - and I fell in a crumpled heap on the floor.

All I was trying to do was get to my seat. I hardly dared to imagine my chances of survival in an emergency.

I sat down next to the window and stuffed some tissue paper around the frame to soak up the drips of water seeping through. Having found that one half of the clip on my safety belt was missing, I tried to banish thoughts of impending death by observing the other passengers who were piling on to the aircraft.

It was a small, internal flight and seated only about 60 people, but most of these had decided to take the country's produce-distribution problem into their own hands. A strong smell of ripe tomatoes, strawberries and cherries heading from the rich fields of Sochi to the Moscow street markets filled the plane.

Little by little, every spare inch of gangway and baggage rack was stuffed with brown cardboard boxes in varying states of sogginess.

The plane was full. And now, it seemed, we were being questioned by the stewardess. Clambering over the stacks of boxes, she eventually got to me. 'Are you going to Moscow?'

It was a bizarre question. I was, after all this effort, sitting on the Moscow plane. I had spent the last hour going through check-in, ticket control and passport control, where I had been asked the same question by dozens of officials. Surely no one could have slipped through?

But as I gathered from the scrabbling behind me, her suspicions were justified. A few disgruntled passengers left our plane and took to wandering aimlessly about the runway to find theirs - to Kiev.

I was just settling down to prepare myself for take-off when the stewardess announced the delay. We did not have a flight crew. But she would find one and be back as soon as possible.

Before I had worked out the punch lines of a few anti-Aeroflot jokes from the man sitting beside me, the stewardess was back. A crew did exist, she assured us, but they were not prepared to fly until they had finished their lunch.

Visions of our poor stewardess rushing around the Aeroflot works canteen, desperately trying to press-gang a few random crew members into giving up their afternoon to fly her plane to Moscow, kept me adequately amused until I heard the sound of footsteps.

The crew trooped on and disappeared into the cockpit, wiping their mouths and belching. We were off.

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