This is your pilot slurring: Garbled message from cockpit sparks passenger rebellion

By Shaun Walker
Wednesday 04 February 2009 01:00

Spending 10 hours aboard a plane is never a particularly fun prospect, but it becomes downright terrifying when the pilot appears to be so drunk that he can't speak properly.

It has emerged that passengers aboard an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to New York were greeted by a welcome announcement from the pilot, Alexander Cheplevsky, that was so garbled it was impossible to tell what language he was speaking. They became so scared that a group of passengers demanded to see the man at the controls to check whether or not he was drunk.

Mr Cheplevsky refused to leave the cockpit to reassure the passengers, who were told by the crew they should either stop complaining or get off the plane. The Moscow Times, which had a reporter on board the plane, claimed that an Aeroflot representative boarded the aircraft and told the passengers it wasn't a big deal if the pilot was drunk.

"Really, all he has to do is press a button and the plane flies itself," the representative allegedly said. "The worst that could happen is he'll trip over something in the cockpit."

Unsurprisingly, this did not reassure the passengers, but the crew simply told them to "stop making trouble". The incident, on 28 December, was only resolved with the help of Ksenia Sobchak, a television presenter, who happened to be on the plane. She made a few phone calls and after a delay of several hours, the pilots were replaced and flight 315 took off.

The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that Mr Cheplevsky had been celebrating his birthday the night before, but the airline denied he was drunk. A spokeswoman for Aeroflot, Irina Dannenberg, accused the passengers of "mass psychosis" and said the airline would sue Ms Sobchak. The airline later issued a statement claiming the pilot may have suffered a stroke before take-off.

"I don't think there's anyone in Russia who doesn't know what a drunk person looks like," a passenger, Katya Kushner, told The Moscow Times. "At first, he was looking at us like we were crazy. Then, when we wouldn't back down, he said, 'I'll sit here quietly in a corner. We have three more pilots. I won't even touch the controls, I promise'."

Russians have something of a reputation for drunkenness in the air. Stewardesses on many Russian airlines turn a blind eye to the consumption of duty-free alcohol on board. In one incident in mid-2007, a flight travelling to Turkey from St Petersburg had to turn back after a drunken brawl broke out. Last autumn, special forces were put on high alert in St Petersburg after a Russian man on a Turkish Airlines flight to the city said he was hijacking the plane. When the aircraft landed, it transpired it was simply a drunken prank.

But an allegation of an intoxicated pilot is a worrying new development for an airline that has hired Western PR firms to help shed its Soviet-era image of rusting old planes, harridan-like stewardesses and poor safety.

The airline is already reeling from a crash last September of an internal flight run by its subsidiary airline, Aeroflot-Nord. All 88 people on board were killed when the plane burst into flames while making a second attempt to land in bad weather conditions. A report released this week said alcohol was found in the muscle tissue of the pilot Rodion Medvedev. Recordings reveal that Mr Medvedev, who was due to land the plane, handed over the controls to his co-pilot, saying: "You see yourself that I can't."

Winging it: Drunk pilots

* In December 2003, Virgin Atlantic pilot Richard Harwell tried to fly between Washington DC and London while drunk. The 55-year-old American was arrested shortly before he was due to leave Dulles airport after a security officer smelled alcohol on his breath. He was sentenced to 60 days in prison.

* In December 2004 Finnish pilot Heikki Tallila, 51, was jailed for six months after falling failing a breath test. The day before he was due to fly his Finnair jet out of Manchester with 225 passengers on board, Tallila drank six glasses of wine and a beer.

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