Monday, January 24, 2011

Groundhog Days

This is happening too much to me―these 75 hour layovers in mid-winter, in mid-Russia. It starts with the agonizing drive from the airport, the last hour jerky bumpy stops-and-goes past miles of monotonous buildings in a cramped dark bus. Conversation among the crew of 11 dies out quickly as heads bend to meet hands propped on elbows.  

Finally we arrive at the Marriott Courtyard at 2pm, a discreet hotel embedded on a narrow back street in north central Moscow about a half mile from the Kremlin. We get keys and we pilots agree to meet at 8:30 to go in search of victuals. Eating at the Marriott is quite out of the question. Breakfast alone is over 1000 rubles, about $29. After a deep hard nap, I meet Bill and Frank at the appointed time. We fill our pockets with rubles from the ATM, pull on jackets, gloves, scarfs and ski caps and step into the cutting winter.

We pass an English pub. Looks warm in there. We go in and choke on smoke. Two Scotsmen sitting at the bar beckon us over. They heard our English. They're Halliburton men. I tell them I used to be in the oil business.

We sit at the bar, order ales and look at menus. Bill ogles the pretty blond tending bar and tries to get friendly with her. “Are you from Nepal?” he asks. 

She puffs up. “I am from Kazakhstan!” she barks, and storms away.

Frank and I look at him. “Nepal? Dude, that's in the Himalaya's. It's a backward country. You've insulted her.”

Bill shrugs. “So, I made a mistake.”

Frank coughs. He can't stand the smoke. We pay and leave without eating. I tell the two Halliburton men to “Keep it turning to the right.”* They about spit their beer. They thought I was joshing them about once being an oil man.

Another frigid block and we find a Mexican restaurant, settle in and eat decently and at great expense to the ear-shattering roar of a live rock band. Back at the hotel we agree to meet at 12:30 pm next day for a lunch hike.

At the appointed time I find my two co-pilots standing in the lobby with eyes half shut. None of us has slept well. Like me, Bill has not shaven. But Frank has. Our wallets thinned out, we milk the ATM again. We find a mall food court. I order a pork stew. I leave half of it. Russian cuisine is just not appetizing to me.

It is here that I first notice Frank's strange eating habits. He cuts a flat piece of mystery meat into a grid, somewhat resembling a tic-tac-toe pattern. He eats each one slowly, eyes shifting back and forth. I'm certain he's accessing the palatability of the dish, and from the looks of it, is not impressed. Bill carves up a hunk of roasted chicken for which he paid a small fortune. He is still smarting over the bar girl’s rebuff. Frank finishes his meat, declares it good and we turn up collars for the RTB to the Marriott. We will meet at 7:30 pm for another hike.

7:30. Bill's beard is thicker, his hair frazzled. So is mine. Frank is fresh and tidy. We execute another bone-chilling walk to another cafe. Tonight it is Belarus food. Not too bad. Bill laments about the bar girl while I continue to study the way Frank eats. Again he grids up his meat. He studies each square before forking it, then pauses in mid flight and rotates it on his fork, examining it from every angle. He completely downs the entree before moving on to the potatoes. He finishes those completely before starting on the vegetables.

We are beginning to learn much about one another. Bill, an ex-USAF pilot, is a scout master and is anticipating taking his young troops on a winter hike and campout next week. Frank, a former Navy pilot met his wife in the Navy. She flew F-18s in Iraq, logging several combat missions. Now she is acing medical school. Frank has married far above his station, he reckons, and Bill and I lend support to his conclusion. Back at the Marriott we agree on a 12:30 meet for tomorrow's lunch mission. We wonder why each meeting must be on a half hour, but that's the way Frank likes it.

12:30, day three. I know now how Bill Murray felt in Ground Hog Day. Bill looks positively ragged. Me too. Frank is ready for inspection. We raid the ATM and head out. It's back to the food court. We get pizza. Talk is sparse now. Even the subject of the bar girl has gotten stale. Afterward, we decide to risk a cold hike to Red Square to go in the Russian Museum of History. A bunch of Tsar stuff is in there, they say. We arrive and a guard turns us away. He points at a sign on the door. It's in Cyrillic. We figure he means it's closed. But why must he frown as if we intend to blow the building up? Why must Russians always frown? Frank suggests―correctly, I believe―that it's going to take another generation before Russians emerge from the mistrustful mindset the Soviet regimes bred into them. Back at the hotel we agree to meet for dinner at 7:30.

This time it's Lebanese. Bills gets lamb, I fish, and Frank portions up a slab of beef. I can stand it no more. I ask Frank why he does that. He's puzzled. No one has ever asked him that before. We go back to the hotel and try to hibernate.
On the final morning the crew assembles. Bill and I have finally shaved. The bus arrives. We pile on and head for Domodedovo airport for the 11 hour flight. Bill sighs and mumbles, “Livin' the dream, man. We're livin' the dream.”

We have many great pilots at this airline, Bill and Frank included. Their flying skills are exceeded only by their fluency in the art of sarcasm.

p.s. Just as I was about to post this I heard that Domodedovo airport has been bombed. The body count is so far up to 35. I have always been leery of walking through that airport. I'm always picking my way through great masses of grave looking faces, many of them menacing and seedy looking.

Livin' the nightmare.

*This phrase is the oil business's aloha.


Jason Goldberg said...

Hope you are ok, heard about the Moscow airport bombing. This has become one of my favorite pilot blogs.

Alan Cockrell said...

Thanks, Jason. Fell free to pass the link on.

coreydotcom said...

do we ever learn why frank does that?

Alan Cockrell said...

We will never learn why Frank does that, and I have come to the realization that it is I, not Frank, who is the odd ball, because I am the only one who has ever questioned him about it.

CeridianMN said...

I eat my food one item at a time as well. I don't know why I'll pick a particular order as to what to eat first, but alawys each thing completely gone before the next. I also generally will not take a drink until after eating all my food.

What I have determined is that I am odd, for what it's worth.

Cedarglen said...

Alan, Thanks for the informative post. I've read abouthe bombing and glad that you folks were out of there on time. Long lay-overs may be nice in some places, but 75 hours in Moscow, frankly, sucks! Been there twice and could not get out fast enough. On the mark, the food is expensive and the quality sucks. "Ethnic" food is great, but Moscow's version is awful.
The "Missing" post will be repeated in short form, as the next reply here. Happy Flying...

Cedarglen said...

Alan: The missing post said...
Congratulations to you and you crew for managing a bad situation so well. With my old Nursing Cap ON: Great assessment and choices. You simply do NOT need a sick kid on a BIG airplane, many miles from nowhere. Since you were still on the ground, getting the kid - and family off at he point of origin was a very good call. Kid-care resources in D.C. are great. At some diversion point - who knows. The folks boarded in D.C. so maybe they have some connections there. At some mid-route diversion point, probably no connections. Very fine choice!! You also expected marginal weather at your destination and a very long diversion was your only alternate. Even more reason to get the ill kid off, ASAP. A darn good call, all around!! (Cap now off)
Great use of CRM, although I think that the choice has already been made. Humph! a 90-minute delay is still better than having to divert to an interim city with unknown resources - and with nearly all seats filled. As for the airline providing hotel and meal accommodsations for these folks, I must agree: Not you fault, but a nice gesture. Again, I suspect some diplomatic corps connection. Not mentioed was their ticket status. Best guess is some kind of least-cost, no change, no transfer, no-refund tickets for all four of them. And I'll bet that your line dumped the rules and quietly provided replacement tickets for all four of them, once the kid was well. Just a guess, but one that I'd bet on. Still, far better than a foreign city diversion and with 200+ pax on board. In context, running 90 minutes late is nothing! Had you proceeded once on teh runway, It likely would have cost your line many times as much money, let alone pissing off about 200 other folks. There are many ways to express my last thought, but... When shit happens *on the ground* stay there! It may be inconvenient, but is is also safe. In other words, don't fly unless the *shit factor* is reduced to zero. There are lots of resources on the ground, and damn few when flying. A DAMN GOOD CALL, Captain!

Cedarglen said...

Alan: Interesting, stimulating and vibrant posts. Much enjoyed and thank you. The long dry spells are tough, but you have your reasons. Again, I am so sorry that you have to 'serve' a 75 hour lay-over in the Moscow area. I cannot imagine why it is so long, but your line certainly has its reasons. as noted, Moscow sucks, even for folks that know their way around. By any measure, Moscow is just not a happy city. If one has to fly an 11-hour segment, a 75-hour lay-over in a Western European city would be a lot more pleasant. Why so long? Perhaps this isa twice per week service, rathr than daily. Gawd! with a 75-hour lay, you coul almost commute to someplace else for a little fun. Lastly, I enjoy your blog! Let's work on keeping tose dry spells to a minimum , please...

Kathy said...

Hey Cuz...... My heart skipped a beat when I heard about the bombing, having read of your time in Moscow. Thank you for painting such a vivid picture with your words. I look forward to each post and seeing the world though your eyes. --Kathy

Cedarglen said...

One still has to ask... Why are the Moscow lay-overs so long? Eleven hours of flying time is long, but quick aircraft 'turns' on even longer flights are not rare events. Why is this lay so long? Does your line fly is only a couple of timedd per week, rathr than daily? Three free days in Moscow is nice, the first time. Perhaps even the second time. Thereafter, it gets old, quickly. I hear you and yes, the awful, over-priced food can get old even faster. All considered, it IS fair to say that our Russian friends DO NOT quite get it.

Alan Cockrell said...

I'm told that the Moscow trips that begin Saturdays are the fiver-dayers because they involve a day of no service. The other ones are 4-dayers.

Giulia said...

I really enjoyed this post. :) I could feel your desperation for...for SOMETHING different-- to happen on your "Ground Hog Day".

Thank you for the enjoyable read, as always.

Giulia (YOW)

Anonymous said...

Great Post! Thanks :)

5400AirportRdSouth said...

I just read an article today about a suicide bomber in Moscow that had planned to blow themselves up in Red Square on New Years eve, but was prematurely...activated .... when the cell phone used to detonate the device went off early with a spam-text. Made me think back remembering that you had indeed been in Red Square that night if I remember correctly. Close call...

Anonymous said...

Hey Bammer Jammer- I'm living that 5 day "Slavic Strangler myself". Where's Bill and Frank when you need them?
The Strangler defies jet-lag. It's 1144p in Moscow and 244p in HSV. There's no way to sync on this one. Glad Ive got those pro-bunky duties tomorrow. It's been spitting snow for the last 4 days, as if I hadnt seen enough this year in HSV. Hunting season is over in the " Cotton State", so as far as I'm concerned let's just call this Spring. In the lesson-learned column, -1000 for DME in the Winter, and any more than two days in one place is wearing out one's welcome. Unless, it's on some white sandy beach on the Redneck Riviera. I wonder if slipping on the snow and busting the ol'butt exiting Red Square would be considered occupational? I'm gonna go look that up.
tight lines........bird out.

Otha H "Skeet" Vaughan said...

Anything you write I will read it. I really like your approach to telling a story.