Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Russia's hockey-team charters notorious

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WHILE chartered jets for NHL teams in North America are often luxurious aircraft that allow players to travel safely and comfortably, according to former KHL players, the planes teams across Russia use are anything but.

Former Ottawa Senators player Jamie Rivers played for the CSKA Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League four years ago. He said every trip he took aboard the team's plane during the five months he spent overseas left him "white-knuckled."

"There were a lot of flights we went on where I put in the iPod and tried to go to sleep and just figured, well, if we go down, we go down, I don't want to know about it," he said.

While Rivers said he doesn't know what the Yakovlev Yak-42 jet was like that crashed Wednesday killing at least 43 people -- many of them members of Russia's Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team -- the aircraft he flew in Russia were often old cargo planes that had been modified to accommodate passengers.

"Every seat that was bolted into the floor had a different distance from the seat in front of it, so some rows were kind of normal and some rows you had to sit sideways because your knees were banging into the chair in front of you," he said.

Rivers said at times when the plane was experiencing turbulence, overhead shelving would fall off and parts inside the plane would rattle.

"It really seemed like every takeoff and landing was a coin toss, really," he said.

Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Dave King became familiar with the intricacies of Russian air travel after a year coaching Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL. He said Yaroslavl Lokomotiv coach Brad McCrimmon -- who was killed in Wednesday's crash -- recently asked King about his experiences flying in Russia.

"He wanted all kinds of information," King said. "He'd read my book (A King in Russia: A Year in the Russian Super League) and he said 'Kinger, tell me about Pterodactyl Air.'

"I told him 'Brad, the one thing... that made me nervous over there was the charters. Because the planes are older, it's old equipment and I honestly don't know how sound some of it is.'

"We talked about it a few times. How uneasy I was.''

The safety of air travel in Russia has been a hot-button issue in recent years.

A 2006 safety report from the International Air Transport Association found Russia and members of the Commonwealth of Independent States had an accident rate 13 times higher than the global average. Statistics compiled by the Aviation Safety Network identify Russia as the second-worst geographical region for fatal airplane crashes, behind the United States.

While IATA safety reports in 2009 and 2010 show Russia and the CIS's accident rate fell well below the global average, they haven't yet calculated statistics for 2011.

The plane that crashed Wednesday was chartered by the Lokomotiv hockey team and was en route to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, when it crashed two kilometres past the runway at the Yaroslavl Airport.

 

-- Postmedia News

A Winnipeg native's experience

 

FORMER NHL defenceman Bryan Muir appeared in 23 games for Dynamo Minsk during the 2008-09 season and recalls travelling on a TU-134A plane that was built in 1962. While some of his Russian teammates were unfazed by its condition, the Winnipeg native never felt completely comfortable.

"We were kind of sitting there going 'holy smokes' because you're used to North America and the standards and everything that goes along with it," Muir said in an interview. "I looked at the doorway and there's this big crack with the aluminum riveted over the top of it.

"I'm just sitting there saying to myself 'Oh my god' -- just saying a prayer when I walked on the plane every time."

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2011 A3

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