Boarding the Turkish Airlines B737-800 at Istanbul on Friday 3rd April, the anticipation was high, as TK1471 was readied for departure to the capital of Moldova, Chisinau (historically known as Kishinev). Heading to this somewhat obscure country, to join around fifty other lucky punters, we were gathering for the Airevents organised Ilyushin IL-18 enthusiast flights. Flying North over the Black Sea, up the coast of Bulgaria past Bourgas, Varna and Tuzla before heading inland, Moldova is situated between Romania and Ukraine. Arriving at 1800, a nice surprise was a French AF Twin Otter sat on the ramp, present with what i more expected to see... many Russian built classics, including no less than three IL-18's! With other members of the group arriving on other flights, we were being met by the local and German organisers, prior to taking a minibus ride to the Hotel Cosmos. Some familiar faces in the group included non other than Steve 'Mr Propliner' Kinder! The original plan for the Airevents IL-18 charter, was for a return flight from Chisinau to Kiev Zhuliany, but lack of bookings resulted in the plan being changed. Now, an internal return flight to Moldova's second largest city, Balti (Beltsy) in the North of the country was arranged. Thankfully the minumum number of 30 bookings was easily exceeded and it was 'on'. The aircraft involved was ER-ICB IL-18D (c/n 188010603) of Grixona. Built at the Khodynka factory on 6/3/68, starting life as IL-18TD troopship prototype CCCP-74296. Converted to passenger/cargo configuration for Aeroflot, it was later operated by Tretyakova Airlines as RA-74296, before heading to Moldova in 2003 after being sold to Pecotox Air as ER-ICB. After a lease spell with Galaxy Air it was then sold to Grixona in 2005, before now being operated by Tandem-Aero.
SATURDAY 4TH APRIL
The 'big day' started with a briefing in the hotel, during which we got the great news that there would be an extra 'display' flight at Balti! This had been expected, but only just confirmed by the crew. So with that in mind and the perfect weather, the anticipation was huge! After arriving at the terminal and getting stung $40 for 'extra insurance', our flight was on the departure screen as TQ1410 to Balti at 1000. TQ is the code for Tandem-Aero, and its believed that Grixona are using their operating licence after losing their own. This is backed up by the (brand new) data plate inside the aircraft, which states 'Operator: Tandem-Aero', and the fact that the large Grixona titles on the forward fuselage were just removed (though still easily visible), even though everyone still refers to the aircraft and crew as Grixona!
An odd fact about Moldova we were told is that there hasn't been any internal passenger flights since the Soviet days, so our flight was attracting even more attention with the airport staff. Not just that, but confusion, after our passports were given exit stamps (for an internal flight!), only to be collected again to have the stamp cancelled! And so, after all the build-up we finally boarded, with a lot of people trying to get the best seats in the house... the just six window seats forward of the wings being the best for that classic shot of the engines. However, we then found that the Germans had placed beach towels over them... only joking! Infact it was asked at the briefing that people should rotate these seats to be fair on everyone, which worked OK.
Then, after start up and taxi, with the usual pause on lining up (with older Russian built aircraft), for the engines to be run up, causing loud vibration (awesome!), we were airborne at 1012. Aswell as the musical chairs during the flight, the cockpit door was left permanently open to capture every moment on photo and video! I must say, unlike the external paint job on the aircraft, the cockpit is in very nice condition, after apparently being restored and painted by Captain Russo Vladimir himself! The short flight to Balti then landed at 1035, when we discovered its not exactly a busy airport, with just An-12BP ER-ADP present. Still in basic Aeroflot 'Polar' colours, this is apparently in storage here, though in very good condition. Not that people seemed that interested, still being on an 'IL-18 high' and expectant of the display flight coming up! As with at Chisinau before boarding, the punters couldn't take enough pictures of the aircraft after landing, once everyone was cleared out of the way for those 'clean' shots. It was then time for the crew to re-board the aircraft and start engines for what was to be the highlight of the trip, with everybody left on the ground told to stand behind a line on the taxyway JUST before entering the runway! This was to be our extra-close viewpoint, as the IL-18 had turned at the end of the runway and was sat, lights on and belching smoke on line up for take off. It was then i noticed the passenger steps not far away and made a dash for them, climbing to the top for an even better look-down view as the IL-18 powered down the runway and rotated in front of us. Wow! After passing us a steep climb was followed by a left-hand turn back onto finals, coming head on in the opposite direction. With gear up the aircraft just kept dropping and dropping while speeding up for a LOW high speed pass, which the crew later said was done at an IAS of 500kph! Fantastic! Again, after passing, another sharp climb was pulled as the aircraft headed off for downwind to land. More shots were then taken as the '18 touched down and rolled past us before turning and taxying back to us. What an amazing sight... and all in fantastic weather!
After leaving the aircraft again, the pilots, crew and organisers got together for a group shot, as did the whole group. We all then boarded for departure... off again at 1240 for the return to Chisinau as TQ1411. However, this time our route back was to be via a couple of other airfields in Moldova. First was Marculesti just to the East, which we circled before continuing South. Some friends of the crew were then waiting at Vadul Lui Voda (with an An-2 noted present, used for paradrops), and of course we had to put on a show for them! After performing a couple of very low passes (all i could see was trees and cows out the window!), we then headed for Chisinau, landing back at 1322. Aswell as the report and pictures here, there are of course many videos of this amazing flight on YouTube.
Time to cool down and calm down with a nice drink after all that! It was actually quite hot, fortunately, as there was snow two weeks earlier! The day still wasn't over as well, with a full ramp tour of Chisinau ahead of us... difficult to mention the highlights here, as almost every aircraft is a classic... just check out the shots! Thoughts about this place... on one hand, Chisinau airport is a great place to see a good amount of old Russian built aircraft. On the other hand, only a few of them rarely fly, with the Grixona IL-18 the busiest operating fairly regular flights. This is a great shame, but not suprising with EU regulations etc affecting a lot of the old operators, with Air Moldova completely modernising their fleet. As well as this, the airport doesn't have that many scheduled flights, and those that it does have are not as interesting as you would hope for, with actually no Russian built aircraft used on scheduled services now.
SUNDAY 5TH APRIL
Before making the trip, i had tried to find out as much as i could about how busy the airport was and how much the Russian built aircraft fly etc. I had then planned in an extra day to do some more photography at the airport and maybe visit one or two of the other Moldovan airfields. However, on getting here it was obvious this plan wasn't going to produce much, on top of what i'd already got. It was then i decided to change my outbound flight and leave today, being very satisfied with what had been photographed and the incredible thrill of the IL-18 experience. There was however still one thing to do... photograph the Tu-134 mounted by the roadside close to the terminal, which i hadn't got around to doing yet. The aircraft, Tu-134A-3 ER-65036 is ex Air Moldova (retired in 2003), and was actually airlifted in place by Mil-26 ER-MCV in September 2005, and looks great (including at night when it is lit up nicely). And so, it was time to leave, taking Turkish Airlines flight TK1472 back to Istanbul, operated by B737-800.