Hello everyone, thank you for choosing to read this report. Seeing how my last report was on the Xian MA60, the Antonov 24’s Chinese nephew, it only makes sense that I now post my report of a trip I took in August 2017 on the An-24 in Kazakhstan.
The MA60 report can be found here: Joy Air Xian MA60 Yantai-Dalian-Yantai
Growing up in the UK during the 2000s, I never imagined I would ever get the opportunity to fly on a Soviet built aircraft. By the time I was hooked onto aviation, it was already 2006, scheduled flights by such aircraft into the country were by and large limited to Balkan Holidays Air and Belavia Tupolev 154s. However, both airlines soon stopped operating this type on these flights, replacing them with boring Airbus A320s and then common Boeing 737 Classics respectively. Whilst the loud growl of Belarusian and Ukrainian Antonov 12s and Antonov 26s could (and occasionally can) still be heard as they cross the skies of the country leaving a smoky trail, assuming you are not a piece of cargo, you will likely never get to fly in one of these aircraft. When I moved to Korea, despite being closer to Siberia, an area with a high concentration of such older aircraft my chances of flying such types still remained low due to high ticket prices and visa requirements.
Then, I happened to pass through Kazakhstan. The nation’s ideal positioning in Central Asia, makes it easily accessible from both East and South Asia and Europe combined with its visa-free policy for citizens of many nations around the world and relatively low costs once you are in the country make it likely the easiest and cheapest place to catch a ride on an Antonov 24. Southern Sky Airlines operate a fleet of Antonov 24s on behalf of Kazakhstan’s second largest airline, SCAT Airlines. These are placed on routes in the east of country flying to destinations including Almaty, Astana, Balkhash, Oskemen and Semipalatinsk. The cheapest flight being a short forty minute hop between the latter two costing only 3000 Kazakh Tenge (about 9 USD) whilst the longest is a 2H25 slog up to Semey from Almaty. All flights can be easily booked using foreign cards via the SCAT website.
Wanting a reasonably long flight in the Antonov I considered the flight up to Semipalatinsk. However I found same day connections back to Almaty to be a little expensive. After some searching, I discovered that I could take an Antonov 24 all the way up to Astana from Almaty with a forty minute stop in the small city of Balkhash located on the northern shores of the lake with the same name. As these were two different flights, I would have to book tickets separately however as previously mentioned booking these was no problem. Each flight cost 14000 KZT bringing the total to around 84 USD which was I saw to be a good deal for a scheduled three hours in a classic aircraft. I was to depart Almaty at 0910, arriving at 1035. After forty minutes on the ground in Balkhash I would depart once again, arriving in Astana 1H35 later at 1250.
Having slept very little in the forty hours prior to my arrival in Kazakhstan, as soon as I arrived at the Aksuntar Hotel I laid down on the bed and fell asleep. Seven hours later at 0500 I automatically woke up, my body still on Korean time thinking it was 0800. Unable to drift back off to sleep, I got up and went off to the shower room. After having a quick bite to eat in the form of ramen I had bought the previous day, at 0600 I headed down one of the lifts to the ground floor and headed out of the building.
One of the best things about this hotel, aside from its price was its location. In order to get to the terminal I only needed to make a two minute walk in the refreshing morning air. After heading inside the terminal, I made my way up the escalators to the departures area. Here passengers were checking in for Air Astana, Bek Air, Qazaq Air and SCAT flights to destinations across Kazakhstan. After reaching the front of the SCAT counter I was informed that they were only checking in Kokshetau bound passengers and to return 90 minutes before the flight. A while later the three screens above the SCAT check in desks changed to show the three different SCAT flights, a Boeing 737 operated flight to Oskemen, the long An-24 flight to Semipalatinsk and the shorter flight to Balkhash. One thing to note is that despite tickets for the two latter flights being sold through SCAT with the airline’s DV flight numbers. At Almaty Airport, the flight numbers for these two flights were always displayed with the Southern Sky ‘ZXA’ prefix and all announcements for these flights referred to the flights as ‘Southern Sky Airlines flight….’. Whilst this didn’t catch me out, perhaps it does have the potential to cause confusion for other travellers from abroad.
Despite other Balkhash bound passengers milling near the check in desks, I still ended up near the front of the queue when our check in desk opened and thus I did not have to wait for too long. When I reached the front, I was greeted in Russian by a worker who was a little surprised about my itinerary. When I asked her whether I could check in for the Balkhash to Astana leg, I was given a negative answer. Admittedly this was not the answer I was hoping for, but it was the answer I was expecting. Considering that SCAT’s website claims that check in closed forty minutes prior to each flight and that I would only arrive in Balkhash forty minutes before the aircraft departed again I was a little concerned. That said, I certainly did not expect the process of getting off the aircraft and back to the check in area at Balkhash to take any major length of time. If all went pear shaped, I could always spend a few hours at Balkhash and purchase a new ticket back to Almaty on the airline’s afternoon flight.
After having been checked in for the flight, I received a brand and advertisement lacking boarding pass and headed airside. With the early morning rush at Almaty over, heading through security was a breeze and in no time I was airside. Almaty’s domestic departure area consists of three waiting areas, one as soon as you go through security, one across the bridge above domestic arrivals and one on the ground floor at the bus boarding gates. With my flight departing from a remote stand I headed down to the bus boarding gate 6A/B. This consisted of a small room, with a café/bar in one corner and a smoking room in the other, resulting in the whole room smelling of cigarette smoke. With passengers for the two other SCAT flights also congregating here, it was a little crowded to say the least with standing room only for those who wished to wait here.
In case the sign wasn’t enough to prove I was at Almaty Airport
At 0840 boarding for the 0920 SCAT flight to Oskemen began which resulted in the significant emptying out of the lounge. Outside the whine of a Bek Air Fokker could be heard as it taxied past on its way out to Aktau whilst in the distance a Hong Kong Airlines Cargo Airbus A330 could be seen making its way to the runway for its flight to Istanbul. Five minutes after boarding for the flight to Oskemen was called, our flight to Balkhash began boarding. After waiting around for a while I had my boarding pass scanned and made my way onto the waiting bus. After waiting here for a couple of minutes to allow all passengers to board, with no more than 25 passengers the doors were closed and we were off! As we made our way to the aircraft the passengers were near silent as if they had some nerves about the upcoming ride. Most passengers seemed to be travelling with relatives and were Kazakh although there were a few Russian passengers flying to Balkhash too.
After pulling away from the terminal, we first were driven past the seemingly giant Sunday Airlines Boeing 767 ready to ferry a bunch of holiday makers to Turkey before continuing along the terminal past a line of modern Air Astana aircraft including one of their brand new Airbus A320 Neos. We then made a beeline for two couples of turboprop aircraft. The first couple was a pair of modern, shiny and pencil like Qazaq Air Dash 8 Q400s painted in a modern mainly white livery. The second couple was a pair of robust veteran Southern Sky Antonov 24s painted in the classic grey underbelly, white fuselage and blue stripe livery that is becoming a rarer sight across the world’s skies. On the grey section of the fuselage, the airline’s name ‘Southern Sky’ was painted in dark blue in Kazakh with a traditional pattern printed onto to this. The only thing that hinted that this aircraft was flying in the 21st century was the airline’s website address painted beneath the cockpit window.
After passing the first Antonov which was in the process of loading up meals for its flight to Semipalatinsk, it became clear that the second Antonov was the one that would be taking me up to Astana. This aircraft was UP-AN416, a 43 year old Antonov 24RV that spent its entire life flying around Kazakhstan, first with Aeroflot as CCCP-46672 before being passed onto Kazakhstan Airlines following the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the Charkhi-Dadri mid-air collision in November 1996 and the consequent declaration of bankruptcy of the airline, the aircraft was then passed on to Air Kazakhstan where it continued to fly until that airline too became bankrupt in 2004. After this the aircraft was then flew with SCAT as UN-46672 before being registered in 2008 as UP-AN416. In November 2014 when SCAT removed all remaining Soviet aircraft from its fleet, the aircraft was transferred to Southern Sky Airlines but continues to operate for SCAT Airlines. There is one significant incident reported for the aircraft, when in February 2013, the aircraft rolled off the runway after landing in Almaty. As we pulled up at the aircraft, three senior looking uniformed cockpit crew members stood chatting around the tail, admiring the aircraft that would take across eastern Kazakhstan that day. After the bus doors were opened, passengers filtered out and we queued to board the aircraft. As I stood near the port horizontal stabilizer I noticed a winged A (an old Antonov logo perhaps?) next to which was painted ‘No. 9604’ part of the aircraft’s construction number beneath this ‘ANTONOV 24RV’ was written confirming the aircraft type. Both of these were barely visible as they were painted in black and blue respectively onto the aircraft’s dark blue cheatline. The RV after the 24 standing for reactivni V, a version of the An-24 with an auxiliary turbojet engine fitted onto the starboard engine nacelle.
Sorry for the slight tilt – first sight of the aircraft
As I neared the steps up to the aircraft, I noticed that like the Xian MA60, these are relatively steep and are only protected by a railing on one side. After climbing these, I stooped over taking care not to bang my head and entered the aircraft where I was greeted by the sole flight attendant in Russian, a tall, thin gentleman who appeared to be significantly younger than the aircraft. The first thing that hit me as I made my way forward to my seat was the aircraft’s oily scent, something you don’t get when flying on modern airliners. Instead of the usual plastic covering on the cabin walls, these were covered in slightly worn looking leather. Curtains ran along the sides of the cabin for those not wanting to look out of the Antonov’s massive circular windows, above which were small circular call buttons. Perhaps one of the most surprising features of the cabin was the mirrored ceiling above the aisle which ran the length of the aircraft. The cabin’s floor was covered in ornate patterned carpets which looked a bit faded and worn. This was certainly unlike any aircraft I had taken before!
Upon reaching row six, I placed my backpack in the overhead hat rack and sat down in a large, well-padded seat covered in blue fabric, contrasting with the seat’s comfort, the legroom could not really be described as fantastic. Despite the relative cleanliness of the cabin, unsurprisingly given the age of the aircraft some things looked a little worn and battered with plenty of scratches on the tray table and window. The seat pocket contained a SCAT branded sickbag, a Southern Sky Airlines safety card and a copy of aviation magazine, Sky which contained articles about a range of aviation related topics in English.
Not the most modern seat, but comfortable enough
By 0900 all passengers had boarded the aircraft and the main cabin door was closed. The steward then came around the cabin with boiled sweets before making a welcome and safety announcement in Russian. Four minutes later, the loud sound of the aircraft’s auxiliary jet engine filled the cabin before the two Ivchenko engines spun into life. After another four minutes or so of waiting once these had been started thrust was added and we powered away from our stand. During the taxi to the runway the engine noise was constantly changing as if the pilots were continuously adding and taking away power. After taxing past several classic jets including a Tupolev 134, we held at the threshold of runway 05L where the engines were once again revved up, a couple of minutes later we taxied onto the runway and paused.
At 0915, with our brakes held, the engines were spooled up indicating that we would enjoy the full force of the Antonov 24’s two mighty engines. Seconds later this was revealed when we went flying down the runway with one passenger opposite me clinging onto his armrests with some vigour. After what seemed like a surprisingly long take-off roll, we gently pitched up and left Almaty’s runway making a shallow climb up above the green fields that surround the airport. As we continued our climb the occasional residential area consisting of colourful individual houses popped into view beneath us as well as the general aviation airfield at Baiserke. Eventually, the green faded to a sandy grey colour as we continued northwards away from Almaty. This landscape continued, with the occasional colourful lake breaking the monotony of the landscape once in a while.
Rolling down 05L
Gear heading up moments after lifting off
Our distinctive shadow following us
The green land around Almaty
Despite reaching cruising altitude the noise in the cabin remained at a loud grizzle and the cabin was filled with vibrations, although notably far less than the aircraft’s Chinese nephew, the Xian MA60. However at all stages of the flight the mirror ceiling continued to rattle. Fifteen minutes after departure the steward walked to the front of the aircraft holding a tray full of food, excited at the possibility of a meal on this short flight I was a little disappointed when he continued to proceed through the front door into the cargo compartment to deliver these to the cockpit. After this he then came back to the main cabin only to disappear off into the cockpit again with a tray of hot drinks. Fortunately for him, a minute later we entered the clouds, swallowing our view of the earth and resulting in some light turbulence.
By 0955 we were half way through our flight and I thus became a little sceptical that we would receive any service at all on the short flight. However my scepticism soon faded when I saw the steward heading to the front of the cabin with a tray full of cups of cola, orange juice and lemonade. Unable to see the contents of the cups when these were first passing by, I picked one at random which turned out to be lemonade which I was perfectly happy with.
Ten minutes after this drinks service, the engine noise decreased slightly and the nose pitched down a little. This was immediately followed by an announcement in Russian presumably announcing that we had started our descent into Balkhash before the steward once again came around with boiled sweets. Soon enough we broke through the thin layer of cloud that had been obscuring our view revealing a sandy and brighter but far more remote landscape than the one we had left behind. This landscape then became darker as we approached the southern shores of the turquoise Lake Balkhash. This lake is the fifteenth largest in the world and is notable for that fact that half of the lake contains fresh water whilst the other half contains salt water. As we made the six minute crossing we were thrown about a bit by more turbulence which resulted in my tray table to continuously come down. By the time we reached the lake’s northern shores we were low in altitude giving us a good view of Balkhash City, home to around 70000 people. Inside, the cabin had become dark as of result of the non-usage of the cabin’s lighting system for the entire flight.
Over dry land again
After passing over the city we made some moderate banks giving us good views of the land beneath us which was devoid of people, only the occasional dirt road and pack of horses could be seen. At 1018 the landing gear fell down into position almost instantly and we made our final turn to line up with Balkhash’s runway 23. The flaps were then lowered and we began to dive down to the runway before pulling up and making a barely noticeable touchdown on the concrete surface. The reverses then revved into life although there was minimal braking applied as we sped past the bunkers of the air force base also located at the airfield. After travelling quite a distance down the runway we turned off and made a short taxi towards the passenger apron. Here the engines were shut down although there was no rush to the door, in fact most passengers stayed in their seats. Then, after a couple of minutes once the ground crew were in position, the steward opened the door and disembarkation began.
After carefully climbing down the steps I was firmly back on dry land. I looked up and saw the grandiose looking terminal building featuring ornate motifs and a small clock, topped with a small tower. Above the wooden doors leading into its main hall proudly stood Balkhash, written in Cyrillic. This historic building was built in the mid to late 1940s by former Japanese soldiers, captured in Manchuria and Korea in the final stages of the Second World War who were also responsible for the construction of several other buildings in Balkhash. Looking back down, I approached the reflective vest wearing staff member who appeared to be the dispatcher given the amount of paperwork she was holding. After showing her a print out of my ticket, she pointed me towards a much more modest white single story building. As I crossed the apron I noticed the airport puppy happily chirping away.
Upon entering the building that actually serves as the terminal, I was greeted with a room that looked much more like a basic station ticket room than an airport check in area. After waiting for the passenger in front of me to pay for her ticket, hoping that they had not just sold off my seat, I approached the desk, passing my reservation and passport through the little window. After asking if I had any baggage, the fashionable non-uniformed check in agent wrote me a boarding pass and crossed off my seat on the aircraft’s diagram. It appeared there were no window seats left and I was thus given seat 10C. After this I headed to the next room, a much larger waiting room. However first, I had to pass through the security check manned by a single airport employee. Here both hold luggage and hand baggage were scanned by a topless X-ray machine which allows you to see your bags as they are scanned. Those bags that were to be loaded into the hold were left here and carried out carefully to the aircraft one by one. After having my bag searched I proceeded to the main waiting area. This consisted of a large square room with benches along the sides, plain white walls and a top-down diagram of a Tupolev 154 on the floor. By this time there were no more seats left indicating it would be a full flight up to the nation’s capital. There was a very light hearted family atmosphere with most passengers chatting away, celebrating the arrival of the weekend.
Outside, the cockpit crew could be seen taking a breather and a perhaps a cigarette before the longer sector up to Astana. Then, suddenly at 1100, without any sort of warning the door to the apron was opened and passengers began to stream out of the building crossing the apron. The airport puppy was still playfully running along, other features of the apron included a modern Cessna 208 and an Antonov 2. After climbing up the steps I was welcomed aboard again by the steward who looked a little surprised to see me. At the front of the aircraft, the black cockpit of the An-24 could be seen and this door remained open until the crew returned to the aircraft. My seat for this flight was again identical to the seat on the previous sector with quite a bit of wear and tear but aside from that in reasonable condition.
After the crew rejoined the aircraft, the first officer closed the cabin door and the steward began his welcome speech in Russian. At 1110 the cabin was filled with noise and I turned right to see flames spluttering out of our right engine as it began to spool up. You don’t get that on an ATR! Inside, the cabin was incredibly warm with many passengers using the safety cards as homemade fans. At 1113 we powered forward and taxied towards runway 23. After five or so minutes we had made it to the end of the runway and rocketed into the cloudy skies, again making what seemed like a long takeoff roll. As we rose upwards my seatmate proceeded to talk loudly on his phone. Once we levelled off, the steward again took a tray of meals to the cockpit although there was to be no food service for us. Again, the steward came around with a tray of drinks and once more I randomly picked a lemonade.
Back on the aircraft – note the reflective mirror
At 1230, we began to sink back down to earth first over the sandy desert and then over more green land as we neared Astana. At 1241 we made a smooth touchdown which was immediately followed by a welcome announcement. The fairly shiny terminal in Astana was a stark contrast to the small hut we had left behind in Balkhash. After a short taxi the engines were shut down and all passengers remained seated. A few minutes later the ground crew could be heard knocking on the door and a minute or so later this was opened. Unlike in Almaty and Balkhash the aircraft’s ladder was not used and some shallower metal steps were pushed up to the aircraft. In no time at all, we were pulling away from our vintage prop and towards Astana’s modern terminal.
Apologies for the thumb
That’s all for this report, I hope you enjoyed it!
Other Trip Reports
Please note, the photos of many reports seem to no longer be working however these photos can be viewed on my blog Forever in Y
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