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Sunday, September 11, 2011

My stint as a stewardess (flight attendant) for Aeroflot Russian Airlines

Recent article in Yahoo news reminded me of my flight attendant stint when I was 18.
I must say, it was absolutely the BEST job, the one that I really truly liked and was willing to do forever. Alas, it wasn't meant to be: I only had it for a few months. But, boy, was it fun!

I've been dreaming about that job for years. I'd see flight attendants in town, in their blue uniforms and think of how great it would be to travel everywhere. Back then stewardess job was very much romanticised and everyone thought it was so glamorous. It wasn't actually,as I found out later, but I still loved it and had a lot of fun doing it.
Everything was owned by the government back then, including the only airline Russia had-Aeroflot.

Although airport itself was about 45 min drive out of my hometown, local Aeroflot Headquarters building was right in CBD.
One sweet summer day I went in there: I wanted to know how one would go about applying for a job (as jobs were not advertised in newspapers back then).
I was told that initial interviews/auditions for flight attendants were held on the 20th of every month.
Dressed in my best "professional" outfit (white blouse with high ruffled collar and navy blue skirt), I was at the door on the 20th at the appointed time.
I was ushered in a room where a "panel" sat: 4 men and 1 woman. They asked me various questions about my education and background and gave me appraising looks. At the end of the interview I was told to wait in another room.
After about 20 min wait I was called back and told that I was "pre-selected", BUT... I needed to undergo a medical/vision examination to determine whether or not I was fit to fly.
I was so excited! My dream was within my reach!
Next few days proved really trying,though, as I had to see various specialists in different clinics and undergo  numerous X-Rays. I almost didn't make the cut because of my chronic sinus problem: apparently if you had persistent sinus infections, you were axed. So I asked one of my girlfriends to undergo X-Ray for sinuses under my name: I was on pins and needles during that time,afraid to get caught, but it worked! I was in!
I was told to come and fill out the paperwork at HR office. That's where I hit another snag: the legal age for the job was 18 and I was only 17. But I pleaded with HR woman, pointing out that I was going to turn 18 within a month-she agreed to let it slide.
The day I got issued my brand new uniform was the happiest day of my life. I couldn't wait to start working.
We (newbies) underwent a three-day training program and then were assigned to "seniors" for probation period. Basically, it was like an apprenticeship, where we learned "on the job". However, if we failed the "final inspection" by one of the senior flight attendants when the "training period" was over, we could still loose the job.
I don't know of anyone who failed,though,as the job is really not a rocket science. The hardest part was to try and get everything done in a limited time frame that we had, as back then Aeroflot was not a modern, sophisticated airline it is now and lots of tasks had to be done manually.
As I've said, I loved the job, but only was able to do it for a few months: I was actually full-time student then and, as I got started in the beginning of the summer, it was fine until Sept, when I had to attend regular day-time classes at the Uni 6 days a week. I was still holding on to the job until Oct, when my Mom literally locked me out of the flat one day when I got home after a flight and demanded that I go back and resign,as I was missing way too many days from the Uni.
But I do have some interesting stories to tell :)

First was my brief love affair with a pilot: how could a stewardess career (however brief) exist without one,right?
His name was Tofic, he was half-Azerbaijani,half Russian (mixes are always so hot and sexy, both male and female). He was a First pilot, a Captain, much older than me, about 17 years my senior (back then I always went for older men). He was married to his second wife (ex-stewardess herself) who was heavily pregnant and worked at the main Aeroflot office at the time. In retrospect, he just wanted to get laid (wife's heavy pregnancy  was not conducive to that), was flattered that he could get "barely 18" girl into bed and I found the whole thing really exciting. It was my first "proper" affair with an older,married man. At no point did I have visions of us getting serious at any stage: I was just swept away with the novelty of it all.
We flirted, then I made an effort to get flights which he was piloting, then we ended up on the "overnight" flight (long flight, where the crew gets to a destination and spends the night in a hotel,returning to home base the next day) and, of course had some steamy sex, made even more exciting by the fact that it was "wrong" and "prohibited".
Sadly, I could never join a "mile-high" club with Tofic :/, as he was,in fact a FIRST pilot-he couldn't leave the cockpit for long.
We did have some "standing up" sex at the front door of his hotel room: it was a small enclosure with the door leading to a main hallway and another door leading to the room. The crew was in the room and both doors were closed, but unlocked, so anyone could walk in on us at any time-oohhh,that was so exciting!
On one of the "overnight" trips we went camping and him and I "did it" in the tent, in a sleeping bag, while his second pilot was snoring right next to us.
That affair lasted a few months even after I quit the job, but then kind of  fizzled out all by itself (natural progression of things).
I did hear from Tofic again, 2 years later, when our town was under siege (see "How I survived the war" post). He actually made an effort to locate me and offered to get me out of town-his crew was planning to,basically, hijack the plain and just get "out of dodge". Extreme circumstances is where you find out who your REAL friends are,that's for sure.

Russia had a lot of small planes in circulation back then. One of those was YAK40. It was very basic plane used for shorter,"local" flights. Several times pilots let us,stewardesses "steer" the plane-it was real steering,too,as everything on it was manual. One time the pilot actually let me sit on his lap during the take-off and, literally,pull the plane up off the ground (all I had to do was pull the "wheel" towards me). Looking back, I realise how dangerous it was (I had absolutely no clue what I was doing), but that's the beauty of being young and inexperienced: you don't really grasp full consequences of your behaviour (that pilot and I were putting not just our lives, but the lives of about 20 other people in danger).

Another type of plane, TU134, was a bit bigger, but fleet of those was much older and in a very sad condition. It,too, had "manual" steering. I was in the cockpit once during the take-off (blatant violation of the rules) and the pilot was this really short guy. As he started to pull the wheel towards him to lift the plane off the ground, I noticed that he was slowly standing up, trying to get proper leverage (those planes had no hydraulics). By the time we reached cruising altitude, the pilot was standing up fully, just like a captain of a ship. The whole thing looked hilarious to me; I could barely contain my laughter :).

Working a flight on the same type of plane once, I was in the kitchen, sitting on the bench,feet propped against the stove;often times we'd put extra passengers on flights in exchange for bribes,as tickets were sold out for months ahead and we gave up our "crew" seats and violated all aviation safety standards by sitting or even standing without seat belts during take-off and landing. The plain was taking off and I heard this creaking noise: it sounded like the plain was coming apart at the seams! I held my breath and prayed fervently that it holds up, as it was old and there is such thing as "metal fatigue".. It held :)

The best and biggest plane in Russian Aeroflot fleet back then was TU154. Those plains were newer and nicer. Still, they had their problems. Many times Russian ingenuity of the pilots saved the day.
Like that one time when we were approaching Moscow... We started our descent when, to my great amazement, I saw the 4th pilot (also known as "flight engineer") run into the kitchen. This was highly irregular,as all of the crew was needed at the cockpit to execute the landing.
Without saying a word, engineer pulled all the fuses from our kitchen stove and rushed back into the cockpit.
Landing went without a hitch and, when all the passengers left the plane, we were told that the whole instrument panel went dark during landing (there was electric short and all the fuses were blown)-we lost all navigation. Instead of panicking, engineer demonstrated some quick thinking by using kitchen fuses!

Another time we just barely took off when the First pilot rang the kitchen: apparently, one wheel of the landing gear was stuck midway and we needed to burn all the fuel before we would try to "belly-land". Back then it was not customary for a captain to explain the situation to the passengers: it was our job as a cabin crew. We tried to delay it as long as we could, but a few started getting alarmed when they noticed that we are just cruising around the take-off city on a low altitude.
We explained the situation, told passengers not to panic and stay seated with their seat belts on. Of course, not everyone listened. We had to keep everyone calm for the next 2 hours and people were getting antsy.
It was nerve-racking. At one point I noticed some guy getting up from his seat and reaching into overhead compartment. I've had enough: I swiftly went over,pushed him into his stomach, which effectively forced him  back into his seat and told him to "sit the fuck down and don't move". He did as he was told-I think I looked really scary..LOL..
Ultimately, the landing ended up being drama-free;almost in the last minute the gear went un-stuck.

Back in those days different areas of Russia were experiencing shortages of different goods/products. I think everyone knows about the toilet paper issue, as it was featured in many a movie..LOL..
There were other things. For instance, my hometown had shortage of meat and butter. Each family received coupons from local authorities: one per person, for a kilo of butter and 2 kilos of meat per month. We had to go to the grocery store and present the coupon and then purchase those. Although displayed in the cases,meat and butter were not sold without the coupons.
However, other republics/cities were not affected by those shortages. While I was a stewardess, I had a neat little business going, bringing cases of butter back home and re-selling it at a profit.
My Mom would inform our neighbours in advance, before I even got home from the flight and they would "put the order in" (how many kilos). It went really fast-I never had anything left over,as Russians like to bake and our baked good are very rich and require a lot of butter :)

Certain flight routes were more desirable than the others to both pilots and flight attendants. For instance, flights to Tallinn (capital of Estonia) ranked pretty high up there,as to us Estonia was almost "The West"-it was sophisticated,elegant and beautiful  with huge cafe culture (almost unheard of in those days).
One had to be friends with the roster-maker to get those flights,as they were limited and only "seniors" got them.
Tallinn was "overnight" flight, so the crew could really partake in the city,it's bars and restaurants.
Often times crew would get together in a hotel room after a night out,drinking. This usually ended in mass orgy (as it does :).
On one such occasion (I wasn't there), one of the stewardesses had a change of heart and refused the advances of the pilots. I don't seriously believe anyone was going to rape her, but everyone was really drunk (including said stewardess) and she ended up jumping out of the window (it was only second floor) and landing on a canopy of the hotel. She wasn't hurt at all, rather really embarrassed (she was practically nude).
This caused Estonian Administration Of Civil Aviation to lodge a formal complaint to our boss (the Head of Azerbaijani Administration Of Civil Aviation) and his brilliant solution was to cut out "overnight" portion of Tallinn flights for 3 months, as a punishment. We were all pretty pissed,as that "overnight" was our little treat and one of the perks of the job and everyone got punished because of two people's bad judgement while under influence.

I have to point out that although few of the pilots violated the rules sometimes (like flying while still hangover), Russian pilots were really well trained and skilled. They had to fly inferior  planes/equipment and they made it happen over and over again, dealing with emergencies "on the go".

Many years ago, when I lived in America, I watched a documentary about a plane that crashed due to malfunction of navigational equipment. The "black box" was recovered and recording of the conversation in the cockpit was re-played.
What happened, in a nutshell, was the plane was flying in a really bad weather,at night, with zero visibility. Somehow,gages malfunctioned and were showing the wrong altitude (pilots believed they were a lot higher than they actually were). At some point,all communication with the control tower was lost as well. As everyone was relying on instruments alone, pilots were executing a "blind" landing. They believed they were 1500 meters high. When they finally came out of the low clouds, it became apparent that they were only 500 meters high! They saw the ground rushing up at them.
What really impressed me was the Captain (the First pilot): while his "second in command" was screaming and,clearly,lost all control, the Captain just kept saying in a low,calm voice "it's OK,we're gonna make it. It's alright. Calm down.".
Understand that at that point, when he saw the ground and realised how low they actually were, he knew he was seeing his death,plain and simple. There was absolutely no way to correct the plane and pull it up-there wasn't time. No miracle could save the plane in that stage and, as trained professionals, pilots knew that in a instant (that's why the second one started screaming). Yet the Captain maintained his composure and tried to calm his "second" down. To me, it was truly astounding.

I did miss being a stewardess. I've applied for a job with Delta when I moved to US and was actually offered a position. But you know what they say about not being able "to step into the same river twice...
The money offered was miserable AND I had to move (permanently) from California to Newark and due to my circumstances back then, it just wasn't possible...

2 comments:

  1. I absolutely love your blog :) What a fascinating read.

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  2. A very interesting read. I am a first officer in an Airbus and although I enjoy my job, I do wonder what flying a Tupolev would be like. My best experience in a Tupolev was a Syrian Air Tu-134 where the good Captain let me jumpseat on a domestic flight. An exhilating experience to say the least. It is a pity that rather than going for an upgrade, these classic jets are being retired out.

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