BUCHAREST, September 18, 1996: The old Ilyushin 18 (YR-IMF) was built in 1964. Its five-man crew from Tarom had been together a long time, including a year on contract to Cubana where the transatlantic crossing went Prague, Rekyavik, Gander, Havana.
The crew strolled into the Timisoara airport lobby at dinnertime. Waiting for the flight to Bucharest, I was delighted to learn that this would be our crew and the IL-18 the aircraft. I had thought the flight to the capital was the newer BAC 11 twinjet on the tarmac.
One of the crew, a rotund man with two stripes on his sleeve, spoke English. He was pleased when I expressed enthusiasm about getting another ride in an 18 before they are retired. He introduced me to the captain across the table who asked if I would be his guest in the cockpit during the flight to Arad and Bucharest.
My only time on an IL-18 had been with Interflug, the defunct East German carrier, from Budapest to Leipzig in mid-1982. I remember the squishy seats that were so low that you had raise up to see out of the window. Then there was the memorable fact that GDR passengers ignored the no-smoking sign despite the flight attendant’s command to follow instructions.
As with the doors on other Soviet planes, the Tupolev 134 and 154, you have to duck when coming aboard. Large lamps were spaced along the ceiling. The cabin had a big section in the middle and smaller ones fore and aft separated by the galley and lavatories. A lumpy red carpet rolled down the center aisle. The sturdy seatback tables had an uneven spackled metal surface. Unoccupied seats were folded completely forward. Thin plastic rims encased the circular windows. The overhead storage rack was a continuous narrow shelf that could accommodate coats and small briefcases.
In the cockpit I felt I was in a John Wayne movie where he is a piloting a B-24 against the Japanese. There were white cloth covers over the floppy earphones worn by the pilots. The cockpit gauges and dials were primitive; nothing was digital. The navigator sat squished behind the captain at a cramped table with a scope illuminated by a crane-necked lamp. The radio operator’s setup was identical behind the co-pilot, dozens of gauges were arrayed behind him. He clutched a primitive microphone in one hand. As we taxied, the throbbing and shaking from four engines made conversation difficult.
The flight engineer sat in a middle jump seat that had no back. He seemed to be squatting on the floor as he pulled the center levers backwards and forward. The silver-haired captain with halting English sat low to the floor and reached up to grasp the throttles as well as the yoke. Sluggish dials got thumps from the back of his hand and once a healthy whack. A sliding window was half open as we prepared for take off.
When the brakes were released we surged forward, the engines groaning and metal vibrating as we gained speed. In the air the flying was smooth. I savored a rare experience, the thrill tempered from observing outdated technology.
During takeoff and landing I was surprised at the cackle of multiple voices from heads clustered in close proximity behind the captain. I thought the cacophony was dangerous until I realized these were men who knew each other well and had performed these tasks hundreds of times. Approaching Bucharest there were again several heads peering past the pilot’s shoulder. Positions and instructions were called out.
With the night sky clear it was exhilarating to cruise above the lights of the capital and then float down towards Bucharest’s domestic airport.
Having never been in the cockpit of a big plane during landing I was surprised how fast we descended. For me the lighted runway resembled the deck of an aircraft carrier. I thought we were too high but a moment later we touched down.
Parked at the gate, I asked the captain his impressions of the IL-18. He replied, “I like having four engines and a crew instead of a computer that does the flying. And the plane is strong and it is safe.”
It was a peak experience reminding me of the time not long ago in the States when Eastern Airlines retired an American version of the IL-18, the Lockheed Electra, from the New York to Washington shuttle. The full-page newspaper ads declared, “Farewell old prop.”