Soviet Planes

Tarig Hilal
4 min readMay 11, 2022



Few things are less reassuring than a Soviet plane run by a Sudanese airline.

My mind, now feverish for lack of sleep, imagines the Russian lettering across the entrance to the plane as a warning that I step aboard at my own risk.

Stooping to enter I find myself in a dark and dingy world, a ceiling so low that I remain doubled up all the way to the main section of the plane, where I am able to straighten my back; my head hanging low to avoid knocking myself against the ceiling. An air hostess, dressed in a blue uniform and cap straight from the age of aviation glamour welcomes me aboard.

I am in a long, dull windowless tube of steel and grey, sealed against the bright morning, a single light bulging from the ceiling like an insects eye glowing dimly on a space shorn of all of the usual accoutrements of commercial flight.

The cloth on the seats is worn thread bare, there are no overhead compartments, no carpet on the floor… just bare the bones, like the central part of an army carrier. I expect to look and see a jeep rolling in.

I sit down and flick the lever protruding from the side of the cabin; the light hesitates for a moment and then comes on, flickering as if unsure of its new duties.

I pull out the safety guide from the seat in front of me. Oxygen when I need it will come from a green cylinder with a hose attached to it, where this cylinder can be found is not indicated. There is an axe conveniently available in a cupboard at the front of the plane and the pilot appears to have his own emergency exit.

I study the instructions for opening the emergency door with great care, there are only two steps involved in the process but I remain confused and after five minutes or so stuff the plastic sheet back in its home hoping that in the event of a crash the adrenalin rush will sharpen my senses enough to figure it out.

The engine starts, the plane shudders, the sound is immense, the heat overwhelming, I feel tired. I am enclosed in a steel tube in one of the hottest countries in the world and the temperature is what you would expect it to be and rising. I close my eyes momentarily and pray.

The crew walk up and down the cabin, nodding, smiling, checking our seatbelts, asking us to stow our bags under the chair, mine is too big, “that’s ok just put it in the chair beside you”.

The plane begins to move, the noise and the shaking mean that the change is barely perceptible. One of the crew unhooks the black karaoke style microphone hanging from the front of the cabin and for a moment I imagine he is going to sing. His words are a blur, a loud crackle against the even louder sound of the engines, I hear nothing apart from the words Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar — and I hope that it is so, that he is powerful and benign. For in Sudan health and safety remain firmly in his hands.

Despite this, flight remains a hazardous business. Airplanes fail to open their landing gear moments before descent or explode into balls of fire while waiting on the runway, some simply fall from the sky. No one ever seems to survive. There are no rescue missions; no last minute escapes and the miracles when they happen are mean spirited affairs, a sole survivor, a single child found half dead in the deserts below.

Sudan’s airlines are the repository of second hand machinery, the remainders of the dying fleets of second and third world nations, the last vestiges of Soviet aviation. But if truth be told the greater problem is the culture of negligence that seeps its way through society like poison taking life after life.

People burn to death when a fire breaks out on a plane, trapped by safety doors that refuse to open, a girl drowns in a well because the fire service has not got a rope to pull her out; a man dies in a hospital because the valve for the oxygen tank has gone missing.

These are the stories you hear every day, told with a sense of resignation or muted protest, excused as evidence of Gods inexplicable will, proof of life’s mystery and the cruelty of fate.