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Riding Russian Classics in Syrian Skies

By Jan Koppen
June 8, 2009

Jan Koppen returns with a trip diary from an exciting trip to Syria where he was able to ride two classic birds - the Yak-40 and the Tu-134.

Axis of Evil

When working for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, one is always surrounded by modern jets. Once in a while, the need to fly the OldJets must be fulfilled, but nowadays the choices are limited. Fortunately, at Syria’s Damascus International Airport (DAM), one can still see a good number of operational second-generation jets, and still hear the ‘scream’ of Pratt & Whitney JT8Ds, Solovyev D-30s and Ivchenko AI-25s of the venerable Boeing 727, 737-200, Tupolev-134 and Yakovlev-40. For us here in comfy Western Europe, a trip to George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ is out of the ordinary, but every now and then such a trip comes up and offers an experience like no other. Countries like Syria are have been branded as evil, dangerous and full of terrorists but, as I had expected to be the case, such a misconception could not have been further from the truth. Its habitants are friendly beyond belief and we felt at ease while wandering around. A bit of English is widely spoken and some words of Arabic from our part did the trick!

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Damascus International from above
Photo © Winston Smith

Allah Akbar

During the last week of February, we left Amsterdam onboard Syrianair flight RB427, for the four-hour flight to Damascus. Assigned to our flight was the ten-year-old Airbus 320-200 YK-AKA. Its interior was a bit decrepit, possibly caused by the gruelling flight schedule of Syrianair’s six Airbus 320s. Onboard was a large group of Dutch Islamic pilgrims on Hadj to Mecca. The men were wearing a white cap and the ladies of the group were all dressed in black chadors. We left Amsterdam Schiphol Airport from runway 24, with a 30-minute delay, due to a bit of lubricant leakage from number one engine. When the seatbelt sign went off, one of the pilgrims took a place in the narrow aisle, and started, for the next half an hour, at shouting prayers in Arabic at the top of his lungs! After each sentence, the whole group responded, thanking Allah Akbar!

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YK-AKA
Photo © Maarten Visser

On final approach

After almost four hours in-flight, the Mediterranean was sparkling below, while in the distance the northeastern isthmus of Cyprus was fast approaching. As expected, our flight was slowly drawing to a close and a short announcement from the captain signalled that the descent had begun and that we would be landing in 15 minutes. Flying first over Damascus airport, a tight bank brought us back on track to line up with runway 05R. This provided a wonderful view of the desert below and the Marj Ruhayyil Air Force base with its two 9,500-ft parallel runways. Outside, several hundred feet below us, a bright Syrianair Tupolev-134 went harrowing past, towing needle-like contrails form its shiny tail. She was on final approach and would be landing just some minutes in front of us. After four hours and ten minutes a textbook landing brought an end to our flight. The group of pilgrims thanked Allah once more for his guidance and the safe landing. While taxing into our assigned parking position we passed, at the end of runway 27L, two stored Tu-134s. Both in the old Syrianair Arab Airways colour scheme and both being in a sorry state. Turning onto the ramp, we also passed two Syrianair Yak-40s, one of which we had planned to fly to Latakia the next morning. As we drew to a halt, the ground staff swung into action quickly and in no time all the passengers were disembarked. The line for the immigration was relatively short, but the hustle and bustle to obtain visa authorisation took some time. Finally we were granted access into Syria. In true Syrian style we flagged down a taxi and 15 minutes later we were dropped off at the luxury Elba Cham Palace Airport Hotel.

Going to Latakia

Our planned Yak-40 flight to Latakia was scheduled to leave Damascus airport at 08.00 hours. After a quick breakfast and a bartering session with our cab driver over an acceptable fare to the airport, we were ready to go (we agreed on $5). The 15km long road to the airport is modern and sophisticated—the wide, curveless, and unblemished strip incited our taxi-driver to set a new speed record between Ebla Cham Palace and the airport! As we were approaching the airport the familiar screeching of Pratt & Whitney turbofans became evident. Overhead a stocky Boeing 747SP, with flaps full down came in on final approach. As the ‘Special Performer’ roared by, I spotted the distinguishing dark blue Syrianair crane bird logo adorning its tail fin. For an international airport, Damascus airport is relative small and the arrival and departure hall, in a 1970s-style, are on the same floor. Nevertheless, everything is available; including a Syrianair ticket desk where one can buy domestic tickets at low cost. The centerpiece of the airport terminal is certainly the oversized billboard with the portrait of the Al-Assad family (the current President and his late father and brother).

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Photo © Miguel Snoep

The airport was busy, with many flights bound for Middle Eastern and international destinations. Once it was check-in time for our flight RB115, we proceeded through the one and only gate for the first part of the security charade. We had to unpack our hand luggage several times and show our passports to almost every uniformed official. After all that, we endured a rather humiliating body search, after which we finally made it to the dilapidated check-in lounge. Our check-in agent turned out to be a voluptuous brunette dressed in a tight dark-blue Syrianair uniform. With a soft voice, she asked our intentions! Boarding-passes were issued in a professional and efficient manner. After wishing us a pleasant flight, we thanked this Syrian beauty and joined the long line waiting for the immigration inspectors. As we entered the shabby and sweltering hot departure hall, in which a dozen or more billboard pictures of President Bashar al-Assad smiled down at us, a glorious view of the ramp finally awaited us.

An Ilyusihn-76 skimmed over

Several OldJets were packed together just in front of the lounge and at that moment, a Syrian Air Force Ilyusihn-76, disguised in the latest Syrianair colours, skimmed over during its takeoff run. With a sharp right hand turn towards the desert, the Ilyushin left a long smoking trail in the crystal blue sky. It seemed that nothing had changed in this location since the 1970s. On the right-hand side of the terminal, several Syrianair aircraft were parked; two Yakovlev 40s, two Tupolev 134s and a Boeing 727-200, and five Boeing 727-200s in front of the company hangar.


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Photo © Jan Koppen


Four of these thirty-two-year-old veterans (YK-AGA, YK-AGC, YK-AGE and YK-AGF) have been stored here for several years, and still wear Syrian Arab Airways colour scheme; only one, YK-AGB, which was receiving maintenance inside the hangar, was wearing the latest Syrianair colours. Also stored for a long time, are both of Syrianair’s Tupolev Tu-154M, YK-AIA and YK-AIC, and another 727 (YK-AGB) that’s sitting on her tail. The Syrian Air Force also had a lot of aircraft stationed further afield, on the edge of the military ramp, most of them in Syrianair’s latest colours and all of them in use by the government. I counted five Anotonov-26s, two Yakovlev Yak-40s, Dassault Falcon 20 YK-ASA and YK-ASB, the Falcon 900 YK-ASC, Tupolev Tu-134B-3 YK-AYA and YK-AYB, and four Ilyushins-76 transports (YK-ATB, YK-ATC, YK-ATD), of which one (YK-ATA) was clearly withdrawn from use in the old Syrian Arab colours and parked besides 707 9Q-CWK. As already mentioned, at the end of runway 23L, are Syrianair Tupolev Tu-134s YK-AYC and YK-AYD stored in a dreadful shape and still in the nostalgic old colours scheme of Syrian Arab Airways.

Boarding time

After enjoying the action on the ramp, we ordered an Arab coffee and some delicious, but very sweet pastry at the rather dated terminal-restaurant and went watching the colourful crowd. As we made our way towards our gate, we were closely watched by many uniformed military and obscure looking Mukhabarat secret police officials. Since I’m a fanatic OldJets photographer, the image of the line-up outside the terminal enticed me to take photos. I requested permission from one of the Mukhabarat agents, and de responded with a very surprised and firmly condemned look (Due to the constant political upheavals in the Levant, taking pictures at the airport is the same as signing your own one-way ticket to the notorious Mezze correctional institution!). After passing a metal detector, a body checker and another hand luggage rummage, we had to show our passports to a sinister-looking character wearing a dark blue leather jacket and impeccable polished shoes. Itried to break the ice, and asked him about himself, but he didn’t appreciate my candid attitude. He said nothing—he only put his right finger in front of his swollen lips. I had gone a bit too far. After a few more questions and another review of my passport, he finally gave his permission to board.

YK-AQE

We quickly arrived at the two parked Yakovlev Yak-40s. One of them appeared to be YK-AQB, adorned with an oversized photo-sticker of the almighty president Bashar-Al-Assad on its flank. The other one was YK-AQE, one of Syrianair Yak-40K’s, and assigned for our flight.


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Photo © Jan Koppen


The type went into production in the mid-sixties until 1978. 1011 were built by the Saratov aircraft factory, of which several were exported to Syria. The Yak-40’s most noticeable design feature is its trijet configuration, with three Ivchenko AI-25 two shaft turbofans. The three jet engine layout was chosen for increased redundancy and hence better one engine out performance, allowing good short field performance. The unswept, high aspect ratio wing was also designed for good field performance. An onboard auxiliary power unit and a ventral air stair in the rear fuselage allow autonomous operation at remote airfields. A high power-to-weight ratio allows the Yak-40 a good hot-and-high performance. Operating economics was a lesser priority and one of its nicknames is “kerosene exterminator” due to its low fuel efficiency. The small Jet is 6.5 meter tall, with a wing span of 25 meter and a length of 20.36 meter. Economical cruising speed is 470km/hour and its range, with max payload of 32 passengers, is 1450 kilometres. The small, three-engine airliner is often called the first regional jet transport, and it remained basically unchanged during its production life. Apart from airliner use by Syrianair, the Syrian Air Force has a number of Yak-40’s in service as governmental transport.

Not exactly mother’s finest

On the ground, our Yak was quite an ugly little monster, with a sleek nose and straight wings ruined by a retractable tricycle landing gear with big ballon tyres. Its fuselage, rear-mounted engines and tail showed plenty of wear, as strong dirt effects contrasted against the sleek blue Syrianair livery. We boarded the Yak-40 from the rear via the ventral air stair,and the cabin though was freezing cold inside. Inside the 30-year-old jet, the cabin was mostly still in its original condition, including open overhead racks, 1970s style PSUs, and simple but effective “peg” call buttons. The interior was a bit decrepit, the camel colourful carpet on the floor was filthy and frayed, and most of the windows were cracked and faded.


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Photo © Jan Koppen


The seats, which could fall flat, were very interesting, especially the tray table in the back. Due to the sorry state of the interior we were not surprised that we could not get the folding tables back into their stowed position. For our flight, there were only four total passengers, and incredibly, a eight-person crew: a captain, a co-pilot, a flight-engineer, three cabin attendants, a mukharabad agent and a mechanic!

The Ivchenkos violently roared

There was no cabin announcement, so the first inkling of our departure was when the three Ivchenko AI-25 turbofans came alive. We strapped in and with a sudden roar, the engines increased power for forward momentum. The nose wheel rolled onto the runway and ahead lay over 12,000-ft of concrete. Suddenly the noise rose to a furious level, as the Yak-40’s three 14.7kN Ivchenko AI-25 turbofans violently roared. With the engines screaming, we started to accelerate. Using only a short part of runway 23L length, our miniature Jet lifted casually into the air, leaving a large corkscrew of smoke spiralling away behind us. With a shallow left hand turn, over the desert, we commenced the flight up to Latakia, a large city on the coast of the Mediterranean and Syria’s most important port. Although there was no safety instruction, the brief welcome in Arabic and broken English by the flight deck, who, by the way, estimated the flight time a mere 50 hours (?!?), was appreciated. As soon as we were at our initial cruise altitude the passengers and cabin crew began to mill around and socialize. The outdated Ivchenkos were loud throughout the journey, especially in the aft of the cabin and in the very cramp and filthy lavatory.


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Photo © Jan Koppen


In-flight service was limited to a dried-up muffin, a coffee and an Arabic newspaper. Of course, no in-flight magazines onboard this semi-military flight and also no safety feature cards were present in the pockets of the weary seats. Surprisingly, our gruffy mukharabad agent gave us permission to take some pictures of the interior, but a visit to the cockpit was turned down flat. Around 35 minutes after lifting off from Damascus the descent into Latakia began, while we passed the snow capped Alawite Mountains below us. Soon the coastal port city of Banias, glinting in the morning light, appeared on the horizon. The Ivchenko’s went quiet and the whispering roar of the slipstream followed the Yak-40 down to 8000-ft for the inbound turn. The old girl shuddered and dipped as ‘AQE’ descended into a gray layer of wispy clouds. Droplets of condensation formed on the windows, briefly obscured my view. The seatbelt light came on and we were told that we were descending toward the airstrip. In a few moments we would be landing at Latakia. At least, so we thought. We were able to hear the whine of the engines as the throttles were advanced and descended, to counteract the now heavy turbulence. The wings flexed fiercely and airflow sound changed constantly, as the ‘Yak’ jerked and lurched its way through the bumps. Suddenly, I felt the nose pitch up and it seemed that we passed over Latakia. Then the bad news began to filter through, there was far too much crosswind over Latakia’s runway and we were being diverted back to Damascus!

Back to Damascus

After half an hour, Damascus airport appeared in the distance and we hovered overhead at 09.42 hours. Down below, on the military platform, we saw a chunky Syrian Air Force Iluyshin-76 taxing towards to active runway. The descent towards runway 05R was signalled by the hushing of the engines. After a long approach, we came across the threshold at high speed and the pilot performed a perfect, but very fast touchdown just past the numbers. We literally couldn’t feel the wheels touch down. We taxied into our assigned parking spot, and while the engines spooled down, the pilot appeared in the cabin, profusely apologizing for the slip-up, but explaining that ‘safety first’ is the credo of Syrianair. We of course understood, as the crew’s performance was outstanding. Syrianair has a long history of safe operations—the last serious incident in which a Syrianair aircraft was involved was on February 06, 1967 when Douglas DC-3 YK-ACB crash-landed at Aleppo! We gathered our personal items and disembarked through the ventral air stair and were bussed back into terminal to collect a miraculous refund. Instead of money we got a beautiful Syrianair calendar!

Damascus city

As our plans had unexpectedly changed, we had a relaxing afternoon in Damascus. The city is a crowded metropolis of 4 million people and is the chief manufacturing and trading centre of Syria. Most of the main sites of interest are found in or near the Old City. In 1516 an Ottoman army captured Damascus and for the next 400 years the city was a part of the Ottoman Empire. On October 1st, 1918 Allied troops entered the city and Turkish domination came to an end. The French, who were given the UN mandate over Syria, finally left in the spring of 1946 and Damascus became the capital of the Syrian Republic. The main attraction is Souq Hamidiye. This is a fascinating area of covered souks, running through a maze of narrow, twisting streets, under an iron roof. A few other great sites are the splendid and opulent Great Omayyad Mosque and the Hedjaz railway station-lounge, where the locals enjoy their Arabic coffee and a narghile (water-pipe).


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Photo © Jan Koppen


Night flight to Aleppo

That evening, we hit the sack early, as our next OldJet flight would leave for Aleppo at 04.00 hours. At three o’clock we were back at Damascus Airport and were treated to the same security charade as the day before. At 03.45 hours we shuffled out to the bus, which would take us a few hundred metres to our Tupolev. Tu-134B-3 YK-AYF, would operate our roundtrip to Aleppo. After arriving, our ears were greeted with the welcoming roar of the ground power unit. We took some time to get a closer look to this splendid Jet. The beautiful lines of the Tu-134 were evident when standing close to the vintage transport. What an impressive aircraft! We had a word with the co-pilot, who was just ending his walk-around inspection and seemed very astonished that two gents from the‘West’, were interested in the OldJet he had been driving for so many years. He was instantly very enthusiastic and helpful. One of the distinctive recognition features of the Tupolev are the large streamlined canoe bearings, built into the silver swept wings, and containing the main landing gear. Also very recognizable are the two giant vortex generators, on top of the sleek fuselage, streamlining the airflow. In one word, “the 134 is a Jet beauty”.

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Photo © Mohammad Razzazan

We boarded a Russian sub

We boarded the ‘Tup’, via the submarine style door opening and we were invited by the friendly pilot to visit his impeccable but cramped cockpit. The flight deck looked the same as in the 1980s when the aircraft was built, with the exception of the addition of a GPS navigation system. The full array of its old-fashioned black coloured avionics and shiny taps and levers on a green panel, gave the impression that we just had boarded a Russian submarine! We thanked the flight-crew for their hospitality and we shuffled through the forward galley into the cabin. Meanwhile outside, the refuelling truck drove away and the ground crew was in a final process of prepping our Jet for her airborne venture. Seated in the back row, where the engine sound is at its loudest, is the ultimate onboard experience of flying on this classic Russian short-haul jetliner. From there we also had a perfect survey of the cosy, 1970s style cabin. Besides the light-blue dirty carpet, the overall condition of the cabin was good. In the ceiling were yellowed light-troughs, with old-fashioned strip light, which ran the full length of the roof. The emergency exits doors, with their Arabic and English writing, had a build-in life-saving rope available! The windows were in good shape without fading or scratches, and small turquoise curtains gave the cabin a homey feeling. The red-brown seats were a bit worn-out but Syrianair has only 76 single class seats in their ‘Tup’s’, which gave us plenty leg space. As the remaining passengers were streaming into the cabin, I soaked up the atmosphere of this old-fashion airliner as much as possible. The Tupolev Tu-134 still has a bit of nostalgic-travel feel about it, while the today’s next generation Jets tend to be all metal tubes, full of seats and efficiency!

The thundering Jet rushes upwards into the air

Outside the craft, the ground staff worked with the crew. Through the still open cockpit door we could see them preparing for engine start up. With the forward ramp stair dragged away and doors sealed, the Jet was cleared by the ground crew for engine start. Slowly, the engines started to suck massive quantities of air through their intakes in order to maintain the necessary thrust. Quickly, both Solovyev’s were whistling away in their familiar high-pitched howl. With a resolute “thumbs up” signal, the ground crew indicated that everything was OK and that the Tupolev was ready to roll. Simultaneously, and with a sudden roar, the two powerful low-bypass turbofans increased power for forward momentum. After a lengthy taxi, which leaded us through a maze of blue and green ground lights, and in which the safety briefing was given in Arabic and unintelligible English, we were finally cleared for takeoff and the two powerful, high-power, Solovyev D30-IIIs turbofans were pushed to maximum thrust. The nose bobbed up as the brakes were released and the jet responded instantly to the demands of the engines. We were pressed into our seats as she surged forward and we were treated on real, rumble and scream engine sound. With a low load of only 18 passengers, our sleek Tupolev gathered speed quickly as we rushed down the runway. At an impressive rate of acceleration, she was powering skywards in a steep climb, like a scrambling Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. Seconds later, we felt the massive gear retracting into the bulbous canoe bearings. The crew also retracted the flaps and with a sharp left turn, our aerodynamically clean Tupolev crossed nearby Marj Ruhayyil Airbase. In-flight service for this night flight was limited to the already well-known muffin and a coffee. When visiting the ‘restroom’, which was a far cry from the cramped and filthy lavatory of the Yak-40, I noticed another characteristic feature of the ‘Tup’—I could peer out into the star filled night, as there’s a window above one’s head!

Strap in folks

We hadn’t heard from the pilot, but when the engines (which are right next to the toilet) went quiet and the whispering roar of the slipstream followed, I suspected something was happening and I returned to my seat. As we approached Aleppo, preparations were made for the final descent and we were able to hear the whine of the engine as the throttles were advanced to counteract the drag of the flaps. At base-leg I got the runway inside, and it lay like a night-time boulevard in an oil well, brightly lit by emergency white intensity incandescent. ‘AYF’ lumbered down slightly off-set final towards the threshold of runway 27 and shortly afterwards, the jet’s landing gear was lowered causing the noise level in the cabin to increase as the units disturbed the airflow. The approach was breathtaking as the jet streaked low over several brightly lit minarets. At the last moment the threshold light flickered beneath the fuselage and the cabin was lit by rushing flashes and racing shadows. It seemed there was silence in those last moments and I waited, counting, waiting for the bogies to touch and rumble. The aircraft bounced heavily twice, staying airborne momentarily each time, before making more permanent contact. Finally we were down and roaring along the runway. Spoilers were deployed and the two Solovyev engines, which provided a truly magnificent flight experience, went into full reverse. Bellowing and howling we tore down the bumpy runway. Brakes were applied and the plane hunched down, crouching on the tarmac as she sped along. ‘AYF’ slowed gradually at first and finally rolled to a halt—another “routine” Syrianair Tupolev Tu-134 flight. We gathered our personal items and disembarked through the forward air stair and were bussed to the nearby terminal.

Aleppo

Built over 5,000 years ago, Aleppo is Syria’s second largest city. The most impressive sight for visitors is the colossal Citadel of Aleppo, which dominates the entire city. The main attraction is the fascinating area of covered souks. The Grand Mosque that dates from the 11th century is a highlight. That evening we returned to Damascus, again onboard our faithful Tupolev YK-AYF, in order to catch our homebound flight RB427 to Amsterdam, with intermediate stops at Aleppo and Brussels.


Syrianair stands at a crossroad today; its future and prosperity will depend on whether it will rise the challenge of relinquishing its old business methods in favour of more modern, cost-effective and consumer friendly strategies (and planes). On the other hand, for the OldJet aviation enthusiast, there’s still an opportunity to ride second-generation jet aircraft. Nobody knows when Syrianair will retire her vintage jets from service. So if you want to fly one or two of them, now’s the time–otherwise you may miss out on a very enjoyable experience. For the OldJets of Syrianair, its business as usual. Another turnaround, another crew, another varied selection of passengers and another journey.

“Salaam Saleikum”



I would like to thank Steven Kinder and Pieter Alderden for their contributions to this article.

Written by
Jan Koppen

Jan Koppen lives near Amsterdam's Schipol airport and has been an aviation enthusiast since childhood. Currently, he works for KLM Cargo as a Cargo Duty Manager in KLM's Operations Control Centre.

8 User Comments:
Username: MH017 [User Info]
Posted 2009-06-16 07:55:59 and read 32768 times.

Excellent piece of article, Jan !!!

Everything came back to life...:)

Yours truly,

The "Atomphysiker aus Karl-Marx-Stadt"

Username: MEA-707 [User Info]
Posted 2009-06-17 03:52:59 and read 32768 times.

great trip report Jan ! (what's actually wrong with putting it in the Trip report section?)
When exactly did you do this trip? The sighting of a flying 747SP is great news if you went in 2009.
Did you see a Caravelle at DAM ?

Username: CrimsonNL [User Info]
Posted 2009-08-07 11:42:59 and read 32768 times.

Loved the trip report! I'm jealous of you flying that old stuff! I like the way how you describe the charm of classic aviation, and all the noise and feel that comes with that!

Bedankt! Martijn

Username: Directorguy [User Info]
Posted 2009-08-11 03:09:33 and read 32768 times.

Great TR...simply amazing. Wow wow wow!
Shame that Syria still has this bureaucratic 1960s flavour-a clear indication of the Soviet influence that Syria fell under during that period. The abundance of Soviet-era jets give this away. This was a fascinating history lesson and thanks for sharing what is a very valuable and memorable TR.
A++ :D

Username: Jcamilo [User Info]
Posted 2009-09-01 09:20:02 and read 32768 times.

wow great article!! very interisting!!

Username: Jcamilo [User Info]
Posted 2009-10-15 14:05:30 and read 32768 times.

hey man this TR is totally amazing!!! it's so cool!

Username: Dergay [User Info]
Posted 2009-11-25 06:17:47 and read 32768 times.

Nice trip Jan. I made it in 1995 and can still remember the Syrian DC-6 and SE-210 parked (derelict) at DAM - are they still there. Also there were a few AN-24 / 26 of the Syrian Air Force. Hope to go back along the trail sometime...........

Stan

Username: Mcgeechan6600 [User Info]
Posted 2011-01-02 12:23:09 and read 32768 times.

A lovely article, clearly you are a true aviation enthusiast.

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