Almost a decade ago, following the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, I wrote about one of the worst-case scenarios for civil aviation: a commercial aircraft crash in the Arctic.
In the years after the Cold War, Russian airspace opened to foreign airlines, leading to the creation of dozens of new and efficient routes between North America, Europe, and Asia that used Siberia as a shortcut. The first nonstop transpolar flight was Cathay Pacific’s 16-hour Polar One flight from New York to Hong Kong in 1998.
While the establishment of transpolar routes through Russia dramatically cut down travel times between cities such as London, Tokyo, and New York City, it introduced new risks. If a plane were to go down over a remote part of Siberia, or worse, over the Central Arctic Ocean, search and rescue – or, more likely, recovery operations – would be extremely difficult.
Far more likely than crashes, however, are emergency landings. Two weeks ago, in early June 2023, an Air India flight headed from Mumbai to San Francisco safely aborted its journey mid-air over Siberia. As passengers were napping, watching Bollywood movies, and looking out the window from 30,000 feet above Siberia, one of the plane’s engines began acting up. The pilots diverted Flight AI 173 to Sokol Airport in Magadan, Russia.
Magadan: From the edge of empire to Soviet gulags
The eastern Siberian town along the “Road of Bones” is the capital of the eponymous province facing the flat, gray Sea of Okhotsk. At the end of the nineteenth century, the small towns along Magadan’s shoreline were described as “the advanced outposts of the empire on the Pacific seaboard over against the New World.” As remote as the region seemed, the world’s largest ocean connected it to distant lands. In the late 1890s, at least one San Francisco fishing company sent its ship annually to the Sea of Okhotsk to catch cod and salmon.
In the twentieth century, Magadan became infamous for its sprawling and terrifying Soviet gulags, where half a million prisoners were forced to mine for gold, uranium, and tin. (The uranium mine, Butugychag, was allegedly the worst of them all: forced to mine for uranium with no protective gear, prisoners’ average lifespan was less than a year.) When Sokol Airport first opened in the midst of the Cold War in 1961, it was called “Magadan-56” due to its location along kilometer 56 of the skeletal route built by prisoners, which runs 2000 kilometers across the taiga to Yakutsk.
The first high-profile Siberian diversion after the invasion
AI 173’s diversion is not the first time that a plane’s unexpected appearance in Siberia has generated media headlines. Ten years ago, a British Airways flight from Beijing to London made an unscheduled landing in Irkutsk. As I wrote in a second blog post on search and rescue in relation to Arctic aviation, “Though Irkutsk is not everyone’s idea of a vacation, staying in a hotel in Siberia for days is far better than being stranded, even if only for hours, on the Canadian tundra.”
The Air India flight’s Siberian detour on June 6, 2023, however, does seem to have been one of the first diversions (at least the first to generate major headlines) since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Even the rather reserved Financial Times veered into the speculative and sensational when it reported that the emergency landing “raises questions about how Russian authorities will treat the Boeing 777 aircraft and its GE Aerospace engines, as well as any people among the 216 passengers and 16 crew carrying passports from countries seen as hostile to Russia.”
Photos of the facility in Magadan, Russia where passengers of Air India flight AI173 stayed after it was diverted due to an engine glitch in the Boeing 777-200 LR aircraft on Tuesday. These photos were shared by the flight passengers. pic.twitter.com/hHMie3auDn
— Press Trust of India (@PTI_News) June 7, 2023
Serving Hindu meals in the Magadan school canteen
The Air India passengers, fortunately, were treated humanely. State-owned television channel Russia-1 broadcast footage of the stranded passengers standing outside in the Arctic summer sun, laughing and looking relaxed. “People are very happy. We really like the people here. They help, they are very friendly,” one passenger said. The Russia-1 news reporter claimed that the California-bound passengers were offered warm blankets and clothes, but that they preferred to feel the “coolness of Magadan.” The Air India passengers were even paid a visit by the region’s governor, Sergey Nosov, who assured them, in English, that Magadan was “ready to help.”
The passengers spent two nights sleeping on the floor in the school in Sokol, a village near the airport. (While standing in front of scaffolding, Governor Nosov explained, without any hint of irony, that they could not be put up in a hotel because the four-star hotel overlooking the bay in the shrinking post-Soviet city of Magadan was under construction.) Pregnant passengers appear to have been given separate rooms.
Care was taken with the meals prepared for the passengers, many of whom follow Hindu diets. Svetlana Vassileva, the school cafeteria cook in Sokol, who is interviewed in the Russia-1 video above, seems to have prepared – or at least heated up – naan bread to accompany Russian staples. (One has to wonder where the naan came from: a passenger’s suitcase?)
Thanks to the school cook’s hospitality, Air India passengers could continue opting for Hindu meals even on land. She deadpanned that because most of the passengers are vegetarian, “Even borscht was prepared without meat. They also don’t eat sausages.” And while masala chai wasn’t prepared, one female passenger explained to the Russia-1 reporter that Russia tea was very good. (Whether they tried it with a spoonful of jam, as is customary in Russia, remains unknown.)
Finally en route to San Francisco, Vladivostok’s mirror image
Two days after 300-odd passengers dropped out of the sky over Magadan, a second Air India Boeing 777 was sent to pick them up and bring them to their final destination on the other side of the Pacific: San Francisco, a city to which the hilly and coastal Russian city of Vladivostok is often compared (among Russians, at least). Their unexpected Siberian pit stop came to a happy ending, and the propaganda channel of Russia-1 added a new chapter to Magadan’s painful and dark history.
The emptying of Russian airspace
Magadan’s gracious handling of the Air India diversion likely will not tempt North American or European, carriers to overfly Russia. Even Japan Airlines’ London-Tokyo route now goes over Iceland, Greenland, the Arctic Ocean, and Alaska. Yet other Asian carriers continue to transit the pariah country. Citizens holding passports from nations deemed “hostile to Russia,” in the words of the Financial Times, are often onboard. A glimpse at Flight Radar 24’s live aviation map shows airlines like Tianjin Airlines and Beijing Capital Airlines (China), Philippine Airlines, and Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong) among the few flying over Russia. The route originally taken by Cathay’s Polar One in 1998 continues to connect New York and Hong Kong, with planes making the journey likely carrying dozens of US citizens. Ukrainian airspace is completely closed. The routes over the Black Sea have become extremely crowded, while those over the Urals are now ghost corridors.
Despite Asian airlines’ continuation with business as usual through Russian airspace, it is decidedly quieter post-invasion. One big missing actor is Finnair. Effectively unable to fly through Russian airspace, the Helsinki-based airline’s business model offering the “fastest connections between Europe and Asia” has become collateral damage of Russia’s invasion just as travel to Asia has opened up post-pandemic.
Even if by some miracle the Russia-Ukraine War were to come to an end, it may take years to bring back transpolar flights that overfly Russia, not to mention flights that connect Russia and the West. Russian carriers have also forfeited their prime landing slots in destinations in the United Kingdom such as Heathrow.
The re-isolation of Siberia: From horses to helicopters and back again
While few will have sympathy for Russian oligarchs no longer able to directly jet from Moscow to London, there is genuine cause for concern regarding the state of civil aviation in Russia – especially in Siberia, where air routes provide a lifeline for communities lying off the road network. Western sanctions on Russia have made Russian airlines unable to properly maintain and service their aircraft. This has severely affected regional routes in Siberia. A recent paper by Kuklina et al. (2022) explains how airplanes connect remote communities with the regional hub, while helicopters provide for “intra-district” and “inter-district” travel and communications. In another paper by Bairova et al. (2022) describing the Tofalar people near Irkutsk, they note how “communication between settlements takes place using horse and air transport.”
Post-invasion, in Russia, horses have become more reliable than airplanes. A horse can be fed and cared for with thousands of years of knowledge passed down from one generation to the next. An airplane typically requires parts from around the world, particularly advanced economies that are locked into conflict with Russia. Even Russian-built helicopters are struggling due to their reliance on foreign parts: the CEO of Utair, one of Russia’s largest airlines, with a sizable network in Siberia, expressed last month that the company may have to take 30% of its helicopters out of service.
Sanctions have crippled the Russian aviation industry with severe knock-on effects for Siberian communities. According to the video below, Russian operators of the Czech-built L-410 Turbolet plane can no longer obtain replacement parts for its American-made General Electric turboprop engines. The narrator explains, “Carriers have begun to conserve the resource of aircraft and fly less. Flights on the L-410 were canceled in the Amur Region, Zabaykalsky Krai. Flights on L-410 in Komi Republic were canceled even earlier. A similar situation is developing with the Canadian DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft, which are operated in Primorsky Krai and Chukotka.”
Belarus may start to manufacture the L-610 airplane, yet delivery will not start for at least four years. No mention is made of how its GE engines will be sourced, which makes the plan ultimately seem untenable.
Siberia: Fuel and cannon fodder for Putin’s war
The Soviet Union forced the sedentarization of Siberia’s nomadic peoples. Now, the acts of its descendent, the Russian Federation, may lead the state to abandon them in place. Without functioning airplanes and helicopters and without roads, settled peoples may have to turn back to their horses.
Thousands of miles away, Russian tanks continue to roll into Ukraine, often manned by Siberian men. Krasnoyarsk Krai, in northern Siberia, has the highest conscription rate of any Russian region. Nearly six percent of eligible men have been called up for service. Putin’s war is fueled by Siberian resources and carried out on the backs of Siberian men.
Muscovites continue to enjoy Aperol Spritz on restaurant terraces.
Passengers from Mumbai, stuck temporarily in Magadan, return to the skies and go on their merry way to the City by the Bay.
Siberian communities, stuck in place, are feeling Russia’s isolation the hardest.
This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.
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