By Sergiy Karazy and Margaryta Chornokondratenko
KYIV (Reuters) - Ukrainian nuclear agency worker Viktor Kozlov received an unusual birthday gift from his wife Maryna: tickets for a 90 minute flight over Chernobyl, site of the world's worst nuclear disaster.
The trip gives passengers a bird's eye view of the abandoned buildings in the ghost town of Pripyat that once housed nuclear workers, and the massive domed structure now covering the reactor that exploded on April 26, 1986.
On the flight, run by Ukraine International Airlines, passengers craned their necks, pointed and took pictures on their phones of the site that has become one of the country's major tourist destinations.
The disaster, which struck during a botched safety test at the plant 110 km (70 miles) north of the capital Kyiv, forced tens of thousands of people to abandon the area permanently, leaving wildlife behind to thrive in the contaminated zone.
"I read a lot about the Chernobyl accident and I know every second of the disaster timeline," Kozlov, whose interest in the industry was prompted by having grown up in another town with a nuclear plant, said during the flight.
"I was surprised by the nature around the plant. It looks so pure, nature won over a human here," he added.
Thirty-one plant workers and firemen died in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, mostly from acute radiation sickness. Thousands more later succumbed to radiation-related illnesses such as cancer, although the total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate.
As Ukraine marks the 35th anniversary of the accident, the former Soviet republic will apply for Chernobyl to receive UNESCO World Heritage status to attract more visitors and funding to develop the area.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the site became more popular with tourists thanks to the HBO series "Chernobyl" in 2019.
For Pilot Yevhen Nechyporenko, the flights over Chernobyl reminded him of his childhood when he spent summer holidays near the area.
"It attracts people like a magnet. Also by looking at these places from above, you imagine yourself there," he said in the cockpit.
"It is very interesting to look closely into every detail of the area, into what is happening there, what changes took place around the plant and in the town, how the nature is developing and taking over."
(Editing by Matthias Williams and Alison Williams)