Flying in India is now very comfortable and schedules are much better too. But it wasn’t always like that. This is the story of flying with the tv crew on another kind of plane!
Parrots fly, seagulls fly, even the peacock flies. Paper rockets, gliders and jetliners fly. So does the Ilyushin. Less gracefully, less noiselessly, less spectacularly, more disconcertingly.
The Ilyushin is actually called the IL76, the kind of nomenclature that discoverers of planets and manufacturers of electronic goods seem to enjoy. It is a plane, but only just. It is a flying monster and the Russians (and as a necessary corollary, the Indian Air Force) used it to transport men and machines. Then the Soviet Union broke up, the Ilyushins acquired many identities as they grew older. But instead of sitting in old hangars, allowing the moss to grow over them and the parts to rust, they merely began flying in different skies. Over India, carrying television crews for example.
When TWI first began covering cricket in India, they discovered that the itinerary was a series of straight lines joining the most distant points. So a typical three nation tournament schedule could read Rajkot-Guwahati-Indore-Cuttack-Chandigarh-Visakhapatnam-Kanpur. The only way to carry equipment, and people, was to find a point-to-point transport vehicle. The IL76 was perfect in the way a mathematical proof can be; effective but not beautiful. When the option is to go Vizag-Hyderabad-Delhi-Lucknow-Kanpur in a day and a night using railway tracks, air space and bumpy roads, even the IL76 seems inviting.
And so we all piled on. Machines first, people later. First the IL76 lowered its belly, out came a couple of thick metal sheets that Stu our rigger expertly positioned on an incline and drove two massive trucks over and into the plane. Then came the smaller truck with generators in it, clamps and chains secured them so that they didn’t move around while the plane was taking off or landing. And then we made a rush towards either the solitary door or the open belly to try and grab the best seats.
Most of them would be gone by the time we got in. The best seats were in the driver’s cabin in the trucks but if you missed those you had to get one of many seats that ran along the length of the plane. They were about twelve inches by twelve inches and the best were those that were directly opposite the wheels of the trucks because you could then stretch your legs. Otherwise, about eighteen inches away from you was the body of the truck. There were no windows, only four little peepholes that you had to climb on top of two people to reach and which never gave you a view of land.
The crew were a sombre lot. They had one expression between eight of them, spoke only Russian and however well-intentioned they may have been their gestures were a bit threatening. Fasten your seat belts, for example, was two hands being jabbed into the stomach! One year we were told that the plane we were in had been used to transport tanks to Afghanistan. I guess you didn’t speak much then.
As you can imagine there wasn’t much you could do in a cold and dark Ilyushin other than tying people’s shoelaces together while they managed some sleep. Geoffrey Boycott accompanied us once and we had to virtually drag him onto this giant structure that flew but didn’t resemble his British Airways cabin. And we had the Australian commentators with us once who were told that the plane had 13 seconds in which to take off from Kochi airport. At 11 seconds they were going white, at 12 the wheels left the runway!
But even that wasn’t quite as dramatic as Gwalior in May 1998. The temperature was 56 degrees in the sun when we landed on another very short runway. As the undercarriage was lowered, and the plane shuddered and made similarly discouraging noises, the crew began taking positions near the door. As soon as the wheels hit the ground, they threw open the door, ostensibly to increase the drag and stop it faster and as soon as the plane did actually stop they charged down and started dowsing the wheels with water. All part of a job, all done poker faced. Another first in my broadcasting career!!
Being on the Ilyushin also meant you didn’t have a fixed schedule. You took off when you got air traffic control and flight path clearance and often that meant a couple of hours on the runway until somebody arrived in a jeep waving a sheaf of papers. It led to some seriously competitive tennis ball matches accompanied by a complaint that the wheel was too wide to be a wicket!! At Ranchi Ian Chappell once pulled out his baseball and mitt, called David Hookes along and the three of us spent three quarters of an hour throwing a ball at each other. Unlikely on a commercial flight!
I haven’t been in an Ilyushin for five years now and have a heftier insurance policy. But sometimes I crane my neck at airports to see if I can spot one parked somewhere. If I do, I close my eyes and enjoy the seat I am on!