I had been in country for a mere 4 weeks, with absolutely no R&R time (excepting vodka toast-a-thons and sleep deprivation experiments), when Eibat #6 blew in for over 1500 barrels of oil per day (that's BOPD, and I'm not going to tell you again). With that, we turned it over to the field engineers ("Goat help us...we're in the hands of engineers...") and yours truly decided it was time to test those padded expense accounts and exorbitant per deims.
With that, I boarded a Hind 12A (little buzzer of a helicopter) and flew beeline to the Aeroflotodrome. I boarded the next shuttle to Moscow (a Yak 10, no less) and holed up in the Aerostar Hotel for a day or two; bothering the concierge for bourbon, eating room service and marveling at the wonders of indoor plumbing. After a couple of days of this, I got bored, cabbed out to Shermateyvo 2, boarded an IL76 headed east and went to repatriate myself with my eastern colleagues.
I had a simply wonderful time out in the forests of Siberia; eating, drinking, fishing, drinking, hunting, drinking, shooting very large caliber weapons, drinking...you get the picture. With a heavy heart and a cinder block liver, I headed back to Krasnoyarsk and points west. After numerous false starts and a couple of bottles of Russkaya later, I finally stumbled into what I thought was Moscow. I was wrong.
Seems that the flight took a little unexpected turn south and east and I ended up in Unkur, Khazakstan. This actually turned out to be a boon as it was about 600 km closer to Baku (my destination) than Moscow. So, I deplaned onto the verdant wheat fields of Khazakstan and headed for the nearest bar. I decided to try and book a flight to Baku (directly west across the Caspian). No such luck.
There were no flights from Unkar to Baku (plenty though in the reverse) scheduled. That meant either hitch hiking (and me without my towel) or chartering. Both were exceedingly dim prospects. All of a sudden, I spy a box with non-Cyrillic writing that looks very familiar. Seems that a box of drill bits were never offloaded in Baku and had made their way to Unkur by mistake. As these were a VERY valuable commodity; they were being hustled around (author's note: a drill bit weighs in at around 40-60 kg each. This box had a dozen.
Needless to say, the hustling was being done with a lot of grunting, groaning and swearing.) for a return trip.
A return trip. How convenient.
After I located the head man and inquired about the box's destination, I enquired if I might be able to tag along. "Nyet. Cargo only...leave now..." $50 and a half box of cigars later, I was being hustled onto a fresh from Afghanistan (well, sort of fresh...) Hind 20A transport helicopter. These are the very same sort of helicopter gunships you see in the thrilling and worst nightmare Rambo flicks. Big, noisy monstrous sons of bitches without the first thought given to amenities. To make the trip across the Caspian, the right side seats were ripped out and a spare fuel tank was bolted in. Given the predilection for Russians to smoke at virtually all times, this did even give this travel jaded rocknocker pause...Into the fray.
We lifted off into the setting sun (rather picturesque, actually), and headed due west for Baku. I was sitting on the left side (natch) when the co-pilot saunters back and strikes up a polite conversation. Seems that it sure is hot and dusty and he sure could use something to drink (as he leers into my flight bag...) I, being the international ambassador of good will and chirrosis, produced a can of Belgian Pils (really awful peva, but when it's in short supply...) and we proceed to have a wonderful chat.
He fires up a Belomorkanal (really, really awful Russian cigarette...remembering the 1000 liters of JP2 a scant 2 meters away...) and wistfully complains about the shortage of virtually everything, particularly vodka. Being glad to be headed back to work and wishing to thank the fellas on board for their hospitality (they actually shanghaied some lunch for us on the long trip back) I (foolishly, in retrospect) produced a bottle of Stoli and presented to my new friend. Big mistake.
He immediately goes forward and starts yelling something in a combination of Russian, Khazak and English, of which I can understand exactly nothing. He comes back to where I'm sitting and produces a pocketknife, cucumber and several small glasses.
Marvelous. Three sure signs of a hangover to come.
He cracks the Stoli, pours 4 glasses and starts in with a toast. I silently curiously wonder why he poured so much when 2 more of the flight crew show up and join in the party. At this point, I was only slightly alarmed, as the Hind is one big nasty mother of a ship that usually requires a flight crew of 5 to 7. I figure they don't tell me how to drill wells, and I won't tell them how to fly a chopper.
After about 3/4 of a bottle, I was feeling a bit brave and asked if I could please go forward to see what it's like to fly one of these big machines. "Da! Da! Let's go!..." So off I went to the cockpit, swing open the door and...
There's no one there...no one...
"Excuse me, Evgeny...please excuse my ignorant question, but WHO THE FUCK IS FLYING THIS THING!?!?!?!"
"No one. Is on avtopilot..."
I look out the windshield and see the calm, soothing blue waters of the Caspian Sea screaming below me as we sail (in the hands [so to speak] of a damned computer that probably has as much processing power as a digital watch) west at 220 knots.
"Umm...well...this was fun. Don't you think that you really should get someone up here to fly the thing...?"
"Nyet, nyet, nyet...good ship...can fly all by herself..."
Let me clue in the intrepid reader about the climatological nuances of the world's largest lake, the Caspian "Sea". It is a vast shallow seaway smack in the middle of a very arid, semi-tropical region. During the day the PEC (potential evaporation coefficient) is VERY high. At night, quite the reverse. In short, it rains a lot at night in small, very nasty thermal supercells.
At this point, we found one.
You really haven't lived until you suddenly find yourself going sideways in a Russian helicopter gunship with a slightly schnozzled flightcrew. Seems that there were some fairly vicious downbursts in this particular storm and one hell of a lot of rain. Ev finally slid into the pilot's seat (big sigh of relief) and started to do maneuvers I thought were reserved for the Blue Angels. We slewed left, yawed right, turn, spin, parry, dodge...I'm glad I had a light lunch that day...
I get back to my seat, strap in and fired up a heater. I figure if I'm going to die, I may as well go happy. The co-pilot (never did catch his name) was seated beside me. After a heart stopping plunge of what seemed to be 10,000' (considering we WERE skimming the wavetops earlier), I produced my final split of Stoli, unwrapped the top and said in my best Russian: "If you will excuse me, I have no intention of facing this sober..." Much to my angst, he asked for the bottle and agreed with me fully.
After what seemed like hours (probably all of 10 minutes), I felt a strong shudder go through the helo, a hard pitch to the left and the feeling that someone had kicked me in the guts.
"That's it...we're going in...we're dead..."
Suddenly, power goes from 110% to zero and the characteristic whine of a turbojet ceases.
"Game over, man! Game over....!"
Ev pops his head out of the cockpit and asks "You going to maybe sleep here or are you going to hotel?" I pry open my eyes and see that we have, yes indeed, once again cheated death.
Ha! I knew it all the time.
I rubberknee it off the Hind, head shaking in amazement; when I receive a hug slap on the back. "Many people scared of storms. I am told you just drank vodka and watched lightning! Crazy fucking American!"
As we headed for the Kafe, I had to agree.