Pilgrimage to Mashad
On board a Kazakhstan Ilyushin IL-62M
By Charles Kennedy
n July 24 2009, Ilyushin Il62M UP-i6208 was lost in a crash on landing at Mashhad at the conclusion of that day’s Aria Air IRX 1525. Four hours late and with Aria CEO Mehdi Dadpay onboard, they crossed the threshold at 200mph, and touched down in the second half of the 13,000 feet long runway. With smoke and sparks streaming from the brakes, the aircraft overran the far end of the runway at high speed, crashing through approach lighting, before demolishing the front of the aircraft on collision with the airport perimeter wall, 1,100 metres beyond the runway. The wreck came to a halt in farmland off the airport, nose section missing, squatting on it’s tail. The death toll was sixteen: two complete flight crews (one deadheading) of four men each, two technicians, two cabin crew, one sky marshal and three passengers (including Aria CEO Dadpay) were killed, bringing an end to Il62 operations in Iran after just four months, and the permanent grounding of Aria Air. This is a report from a flight on IRX 1525 just weeks before the crash.
Tehran’s old airport, Mehrabad, surrounded on all sides by the teeming Iranian capital and it’s 14 million people, used to be the gateway to the nation of Iran, but has been replaced by the new Imam Khomeini airport, 20 miles outside the city in open country. Today, Mehrabad only serves domestic destinations inside Iran (and Hajj flights, which carry Iranian pilgrims to holy sites in Saudi Arabia year-round). Iran’s domestic scene is probably the liveliest in the world, with a cosmopolitan mix of machinery operated by over a dozen airlines. The dominant types found on domestic routes start with Tupolev 154Ms in an eye-popping range of hybrid liveries showing a heritage of second-tier Russian carriers; A300s (B4s and rare B2s), Fokker 100s, Boeing 727-200s, and even the world’s last airworthy Boeing 707s.
However it was early in 2009 that, even by Iranian standards, an exotic bird – actually thought to be extinct – took to the skies. Aria Air, a small airline based in Mashhad, Iran’s second biggest city and on it’s eastern border with Afghanistan, was previously known for flying Tupolev 154M jets and Fokker 50 turboprops on domestic runs and to Dubai. Aria concluded a two-year damp lease (aircraft and flight deck crew) with Kazakhstan’s DETA, a supplementary operator based at Almaty airport, for the operation of three low-time Ilyushin Il62Ms. From an operational base at Tehran Mehrabad, this trio of Soviet-era longhaul quads started flying in April 2009, carrying holiday makers to Iran’s resort island of Kish in the Persian Gulf; and pilgrims, tourists, businessmen and government officials to Mashhad. In line with all Iranian domestic flights, the price of a ticket from a downtown travel agent was $50 each way.
I arrived at Mehrabad’s Terminal 4, home of Iran’s independent airlines’ domestic operations, where all check-in desks are “common use” – shared by all airlines. I found three desks assigned to Aria IRX1525, their 1pm daily Ilyushin flight to Mashhad’s Shahid Hashemi Nejad airport. After a short wait in a rapidly moving line, I was checked-in by an efficient group of two or three staff, who, despite speaking little English (in contrast to most Iranians), made it easy to just reach across the desk and point at the old fashioned seat map and claim a sticker for 29F, the very rearmost window seat. I wanted to experience the noise and power of the first generation Soloviev turbofans up close.
After proceeding through security, manned by bearded military men who appear somewhat intimidating but are always professional and courteous, I was in the airside lounge, a large seated waiting area with counters at each end selling sweets, nuts, toys and newspapers, with fruit juice stands dotted around, a smoking area in one corner, and common use boarding gates running the length of the lounge, served by buses. Alas the airfield is out of sight. All flights were running on time, with the usual cities appearing on the board – Mashhad-Kish-Shiraz-Khorammabad-Kish-Zahadan-Mashhad-Yazd-Tabriz... I passed the time by mentally matching an aircraft type to each flight, and it’s desirability to enthusiasts back home – Saha’s 707 fleet is the hottest ticket in the world for lovers of old jets, but also worth a glance are Iran Aseman’s immaculate ex-Air France 727-200s, Fars Air Qeshm’s Yak 42s, Eram’s pair of newly-leased ex-Condor 757s in the hot pink livery of Russian charter outfit Vim Air... Iranian airlines never stop being creative.
Departure was published as 1pm, and as the hour drew near, it looked like a delay was brewing, but as the hands of the old analogue clock in the lounge hit 1, a pair of Aria buses parked in a bay, and a few minutes later, the screen above that gate lit up: IRX 1525, Mashhad. 150 boarding card stubs were torn off as the passengers were processed onto the buses, which swung out of the bay and towards the flight line. I craned my neck to spot our Il62, but in vain. Just Tupolevs and A300s. We kept driving, past the old international terminals and towards the storage area at the far end of the field, before turning into a small and somewhat secluded ramp. Before us were a pair of Il62s, the “blue” one, UP-i6205, and the “red” one, UP-i6208. Our ride to Mashhad would be ’08.
Like the Tu154, the Il62 is boarded through the centre door, ahead of the wing. Climbing the stairs while Kazakh and Iranian technicians and security personnel worked on the ramp beneath us, it was a delight to look rearwards and admire the old jet’s curves, the huge bullet fairing at the top of the tail, and the distinctive pair of podded low-bypass turbofans on each side.
Upon entering the cavernous galley, as big as a kitchen in a Russian farm house, complete with a large stainless steel sink, passengers were greeted by two or three of the six beautiful female flight attendants, wearing conservative but stylish uniforms styled upon the chador. Other flight attendants worked the aisles to help passengers stow their hand luggage and strap in.
While the cabin walls, overhead bins and seating was comparable on first glance to any modern jet, the choice of colours (shades of yellow and brown with elaborate Russian-influenced geometric patterns on bulkheads) and texture of the plastics (brittle, shiny) made it obvious that this aircraft was the product of a bygone era. Window shades pulled down to cover the whole window setting, and were tinted, rather than blind.
Soon, boarding was completed. While Iranians make polite and respectful seatmates, I still considered myself lucky to have two empty seats – virtually the only empty seats on the flight – between my window seat and the aisle in the very last row, 29. My seat was comfortable, if old fashioned, with some brown tape covering a tear in one padded armrest. Safety cards were all from Aria Tu154s, illustrating a rear exit that is not found on the Il62. Operation of exits is also quite different.
The aircraft was towed off stand about thirty minutes late, out into the airport proper, and for another ten minutes trundled half the length of the airfield, before parking for engine start. Each Aria Il62 flight carried at least two Kazakh technical crew with specialist knowledge and a supply of essential tools and spare parts. During start-up, one of the technicians stood in the aisle near the back, apparently just listening to the engine note as each engine rotated into life. Like the Tu154 safety cards, it added a sense of improvisation, a reminder of the somewhat ‘marginal’ nature of the operation, but the technician standing and his colleagues on the ramp seemed to be serious about their work.
After a short taxi with a safety demonstration in Farsi and English, IRX 1525 lined up on 29R, and stopped with brakes set. The engine note rose from an unobtrusive whine, up and up, to a piercing, deafening screech. Brakes released and the big jet bounded down the runway. One of the most exotic air journeys in the world – flying to the Shia holy city of Mashhad by Il62 – had started.
The IL-62 has plenty of guts
Performance on takeoff roll was impressive, and two-thirds of the way down the runway, the nose lifted and a shallow, accelerating climb began. The Il62 has been unfairly criticised for her shallow climb, which is misunderstood as a symptom of a poor thrust-to-weight ratio, but in fact the ’62 has plenty of guts. The shallow deck angle in the climb is a procedure intended to keep the huge horizontal stabiliser at the top of the tail clear of wake turbulence from the equally-oversized wings. And so a deafening low-level sightseeing tour of the densely-populated western suburbs of Tehran began, with flaps retracted early and the characteristic left turn to avoid high ground. If the shriek of four old Soloviev D-30 engines was hard to tolerate inside the cabin, the carpet of noise it laid down on it’s way across the city must have equally hostile.
However if it is true that the first few minutes in the back of the bus were ear-splitting, once the throttles came back to climb power a few minutes later, the noise quickly became more tolerable, and for cruise-climb up to 35,000 feet the engine note was no louder than the back row of a 737.
Twinkie-type sweet snacks
I put my seat back and enjoyed the smooth ride. A meal tray was served, consisting of a meat-and-cheese filled bread roll, and a range of Twinkie-type sweet snacks, with brands that do not appear in the West, and in flavours that do not occur in nature; followed by a service of a water bottle for everyone, plus tea, juice, and Iran’s heart-stopping local cola, Zam Zam. Like Aria’s choice of equipment, this offering compared favourably to any other one-hour, $50-a-ticket domestic flight anywhere else in the world.
On approach to Shahid Hashemi Nejad airport
The engine note dropped away to a whisper – top of descent. Trays and cups were collected by the hard-working crew, then seatbelts and seatbacks were checked. The view outside started to change from hard brown and mountainous to green and symmetrical. Roads, villages, then the sprawling outskirts of Mashhad came into view – home to over 3 million people, comparable to the populations of Armenia or Jamaica.
With massive barn-door flaps extended from the trailing edge of the wing and loads of power to compensate, I wondered again at the amount of noise pollution below – although with the din of millions of old cars and millions of young people in the streets of Iranian cities, I have often thought Iran’s vintage passenger jets fit right in. Certainly, our Il62’s unmistakable shadow looked exactly right as it grew in size and clarity, rippling over the apartments, office blocks and domed mosques as we cut across the centre of the city, heading southeast on long finals for runway 14R at Shahid Hashemi Nejad airport.
The shadow reached out for us as we swooped over busy Highway 2, then the perimeter fence. A long flare was accompanied by the sound of reverse thrust engaging on engines 1 and 4 – outboards only on the ’62. After floating for several more seconds, the main gear kissed the tarmac. Despite the roar of full reverse, and the creaking of the airframe as the brakes were applied and held, deceleration was gradual on a long roll out.
Another sector at an end, the Il62 taxied towards the apron, joining a Gulf Air A330-200 being turned for it’s return to Bahrain, plus the usual Tupolev 154s and a pair of A300s – Iranair, Mahan. Aria buses carried the passengers to the basic but clean and functional terminal after a kind-hearted farewell from the cabin crew.
Sporting a faux-Pan AM livery
At the completion of my visit to Mashhad, I returned to the capital on the “blue” UP-i6205, the final Il62 built, rolled out in 1995 and commencing revenue service as recently as 1999 – sporting a faux-Pan Am livery complete with baby blue cheatline and meatball.
I was running late, and was last to check in. For some reason relating to my lack of punctuality, I was only able to procure a boarding pass, without seat assignment. On boarding, there were several of us without assigned seats, and were told to wait in the galley until boarding was complete. I asked the flight attendant who was finding us empty seats (there was no doubt they were there, it was just a question of where) for something near the front (to experience some contrast to the previous leg). Taken at my word, I was given row 1 – and like the outbound, I had it all to myself, on an otherwise sold-out flight.
A winch lanch in a glider
In contrast to the outbound leg, safety cards for the correct type at last; then the lack of engine sound. Even on takeoff, in the front cabin, the engines were effectively inaudible – we just surged forward, propelled by some unseen, unheard force. The only sound was the creaking of the nosegear beneath our feet which rose in frequency. After liftoff, the nosegear sounds ceased, to be gradually replaced by the hiss of the slipstream as the jet accelerated in the climb. The only comparable flying experience I have had is a winch launch in a glider.
Our silent, winding descent through the snowy Alborz Mountains, aboard one of the last examples of the Soviet Union’s first longhaul jetliner, is a memory that will stay with me forever. I wondered if the pilots were flying manually as we swooped between the snow-capped peaks; if my view was anything to go by, this was classic aviating, taken from the pages of Ernest K. Gann or Antoine de Saint-Expéry. We came in low over the massive expanse of Tehran, the sixteenth biggest city in the world, for a smooth landing back at Mehrabad on 29R. Due to ground congestion, we taxied around the domestic ramp, briefly back onto 29R, and then, nearly twenty minutes after touchdown, on to the remote parking area used exclusively by Aria’s Il62 operations, where buses waited to take us to Terminal 4.
These flights were a unique experience, and now impossible to repeat. Given that two complete flightdeck crews died in the crash at Mashhad on July 24, and Aria’s Il62 schedule only involved two roundtrips a day (Mashhad, one hour each way; and Kish Island, one hour forty each way), there were probably only three crews based in Iran by DETA, and therefore, it is a near-certainty that at least some, if not all, of the operating crew on my flights lost their lives. I also think of the cabin crew, who played no role in the bad flying that led to the disaster, but also lost two from their ranks.
Some observers of this exotic start-up in Iran were pessimistic about the safety of the operation, given the age and complexity of the aircraft, and the lack of local infrastructure for a type never flown in Iran before. I thought there was merit in that opinion, but close-up, the operation felt fairly solid; and the aircraft, while always hard to judge from the cabin, seemed to fly beautifully. My prediction was that this would work, for at least as long as Aria could get cheap fuel. The aircraft themselves would have been almost gratis, and the crew, with no other employment options on the Il62, would not have been on Swissair money either.
While there is no escaping the flagrent disregard for good airmanship demonstrated on the fatal approach and landing, these men were doing their best to make a living, presumably unable to afford or gain access to 737, 757, Airbus experience and ratings. With three low-time Il62Ms, they came up with a workable idea and were out flying, true to their own past, and providing for their families. There are no new lessons to be learned from the crash, only old lessons to be relearned – do not try to land if you are not stabilised on approach – but still, I think of my flights with Aria’s Il62 and the hard luck of the Kazakh airmen who couldn’t, in the end, make it work.