Friendship Flight 1995

©1995 Scott Highton


Flying VFR in Russia is neither for the faint of heart nor the shortof time. This was illustrated by the Friendship Flight 1995, a flight effortlaunched in May, 1995 by the Alaska Airmen's Association.

Late in 1994, the city of Magadan, Russia, invited the Airmen's Associationto fly a group of U.S. World War II veterans to Russia for the 50th anniversaryof the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Twenty five veterans and 10 privateaircraft were included in the plans to make a 1,600-mile flight from Nome,Alaska to Magadan for the May 9 celebration. They would retrace part ofthe Lend Lease route, which was flown by 7,926 aircraft loaned by the Russia in the war.

Nine days were scheduled for the Friendship Flight, which was consideredto be more than adequate for the 1,600-mile flying distance and weatherallowances. Since the trip was at the invitation of the Russian government,much of the usual bureaucratic red tape was eliminated, or at least dealtwith, by the Russian hosts. A secondary goal of the flight was to demonstratethat VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight in private aircraft could become astandard practice in the still highly controlled Russian airspace. Currently,aircraft flying into and within Russia necessarily file IFR (InstrumentFlight Rules) and remain under positive control.

In spite of the best efforts and hospitality of Russian officials, however,only one of the Friendship Flight aircraft made it to Magadan for the celebration,and it had to file IFR in order to do so.

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By the time pilots, aircraft and crews gathered in Nome, the originalgroup of 10 aircraft was down to seven. Three had dropped out due to scheduleconflicts, concerns over unknown costs and the general insecurity of suchan adventure.

Eventhe group that made the trip faced early mechanical problems. FriendshipFlight organizer Phil Livingston broke a mixture cable on his Beech 18 onhis way out of Anchorage and was delayed a day and a half waiting for areplacement. Don Warhus blew an engine valve and connecting rod on his Cessna175 enroute to Nome, and spent the next several days (and nights) doinga field rebuild of his engine in the snow and mud on the ramp at Nome International.Ultimately, a delay in getting a part shipped meant Warhus and crew neverleft Alaskan airspace.

Two other aircraft suffered less severe mechanical failures during thetrip, driving home the value of field repair capability when flying in remoteregions. Bev Fogle discovered that the standard single cylinder primer inher Cessna 172 was less than adequate for the cold temperatures of EasternSiberia, even though it had served her faithfully through many winters athome in Vancouver, Washington. A field modification of the primer by otherpilots, resulting in near frostbitten fingers, got her airborne again.

Miscommunication between the Russians and Friendship Flight organizersresulted in additional problems. The planned departure date, May 1, is anational holiday in Russia (May Day), and the entire country, includingmost airports and air traffic control facilities, shut down. The flightorganizers were told to file their flight plan for May 2, which would stillbe May 1 in Alaska, since the International Date Line runs along the BeringStrait between Alaska and Russia.

The morningof May 1 in Nome brought beautiful VFR conditions, and six Friendship Flightaircraft awaited departure with engines running on the ramp. When the flightplan was activated, word came back from Russia that the flight would notbe permitted to enter Russia until May 2, as filed, because the Russiansinterpreted May 2 to be the date from the departure point (Nome), not thedestination (Russia). Flight crews looked to the clear skies longingly,knowing that a series of low pressure systems headed across central Russiacould make this missed day of flying crucial.

The next day arrived with VFR conditions still holding along the firstflight leg (Nome to Provideniya). The VFR route follows the coast of Alaskafrom Nome northwest to the Tin City NDB, and then crosses the Bering Straitat its narrowest point. Thirty miles out over the ice pack, the route passesover the Diomede Islands and the U.S.­Russia border. Forty miles furtherlies the Russian mainland. This VFR route has yet to be officially approvedby either the FAA or the Russian civil aviation authorities, even thoughthe FAA has held it under consideration since 1991. Currently, there areno approved VFR routes for flying into Russia from Alaska.

There are, however, three approved IFR routes from Nome to Provideniya.Two of them are variations of a direct route. The third goes southwest fromNome to St. Lawrence Island, and then up to Provideniya. The shorter directroutes put you over water for about 200 miles ­ not a comforting thoughtin single engine aircraft, especially with survival times in the frigidwaters being measured in minutes.

Lavrentiya is the first NDB in Russia, as well as the airport guardingthe border. Unfortunately, they do not have an English-speaking tower, soflights entering the country there must either have a Russian speaking navigatoraboard, or must fly high enough to establish radio contact with Provideniyaprior to entering Russian airspace. VFR flight at such higher altitudesis often a longshot, due to frequent marine layers and coastal fog.

The Friendship Flight included a Russian navigator in the crew of JimBern's Pilatus Porter. The turbine Porter was sent overhead to 11,000 feetso that it could also make contact with both Provideniya and Lavrentiyabefore entering Russian airspace. Bern then played Mother Hen, circlingover the Diomedes until all Friendship Flight aircraft had passed into Russiaat lower altitudes. He then brought up the rear as the group flew towardProvideniya along the coast.

A brief landing in Provideniya to clear customs and refuel was planned.One hundred octane avgas was brought in from Nome a week earlier by BeringAir, which runs regular commercial flights. From Provideniya, it was hopedthat the leg to Markovo could be completed that same afternoon. This wouldleave only two flight legs totaling 900 miles remaining for the next fivedays ­ from Markovo to Evensk, and from Evensk into Magadan.

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Clearingcustoms and refueling of the planes in Provideniya was delayed for severalhours. It turned out that the city hosts in Provideniya had planned theirown celebration for the veterans and flight crews. This warm hospitality,which could not be refused, prevented getting airborne again in time toreach Markovo before the tower closed at 5 pm. In Russia, you cannot landat an airport after the tower closes, and most towers are only open from8 am to 5 pm.

Customs was, in itself, a unique experience. Only the crews' overnightbaggage was cleared, after which the aircraft were sealed with a simplestrip of tape across each door. Customs agents were more interested in countingevery piece of cash the crews carried than they were in the contents ofthe planes or baggage. An hour after the formality was completed, crew memberswere allowed to return to their "sealed" aircraft at will, breakingthe door seals and removing, repacking or exchanging other baggage and cargo.

The first big surprise came when the airport manager announced an $800storage fee for the the 330 gallons of fuel Bering Air had delivered theprevious week from Nome. The manager would not release the fuel until thefee had been paid. After two hours of negotiation and a threat by the flightleader to return the group to Nome, it was announced with great formality,that the storage fee had been reduced to $347 "in recognition of theveterans of the Great Patriotic War." Ultimately, the final fee negotiatedwas reported to have been only $18, by a Provideniya representative of BeringAir. "In Russia," the locals say, "it is far better to have100 friends than it is to have 100 dollars." Everything seems to dependon whom you know and what influence they have.

Although 100 octane avgas is virtually unavailable in Russia, 91 octanewas made available to the Friendship Flight under a special arrangementwith the Russian forest service. Officials from Club Prodvig in Magadan,the official Russian hosts of the Friendship Flight, agreed to positionthe forest service fuel in Markovo specifically for the Flight. They loadedan AN-26 with 91 octane in Evensk, and kept it ready to fly to Markovo pendingword that the Friendship Flight was inbound.


A day of bad weather grounded the planes in Provideniya until Friday,May 5. On the bright side, this gave the veterans and crews ample opportunityto see the small city and enjoy the warmth and hospitality of their Russianhosts. Provideniya is a small town with a steadily declining population,now totaling less than 3,000 residents. Its sole industry is that of a seaport. Living conditions for most, would be described as primitive, particularlyfrom an American point of view. Yet, beneath the surface appearances ofgrime and grit, lies a population of friendly, hearty individuals, eagerto meet and interact with visitors. Their generosity and openness, in spiteof their own limited resources, was perhaps one of the most rewarding discoveriesfor those visiting Russia for the first time.

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Unfortunately, even the finest hospitality could not overcome bad weatherand the idiosyncrasies of Russian government. A small VFR weather windowopened that day, which would have allowed the Friendship Flight to continueon to Markovo. However, a series of low pressure systems traveling eastwardfrom central Russia forecast unpredictable days of IFR conditions ahead,and presented the possibility that the Flight might not get beyond Markovoin time for the planned celebration in Magadan on May 9.

Then the other shoe dropped. Not only had the weather become a limitingfactor, but the majority of the Russian air traffic system was scheduledto shut down that evening for the next four days for the Great PatrioticWar holiday weekend. This information had not been provided previously,nor was it mentioned when Russian officials approved the plans and schedulefor the Friendship Flight. Even if the flight could make it to Markovo thatday, it would be grounded there for the next four days until the air trafficsystem reopened on May 10.

The decision was easily made to turn all but one of the planes aroundand head back to Alaska, since the primary purpose of the flight ­ thecelebration in Magadan on May 9 ­ was no longer attainable. Two of theU.S. WWII veterans, Gordon Leenarts and C.D. Markle, agreed to push onward,joining the Russian navigator and pilot Loren Smith in his Cessna 310 forcontinuation of the flight under an IFR flight plan. Smith and his passengersmade it to Magadan a day later, and spent five more magnificent days there.They were treated as visiting dignitaries with their days and nights filledwith visits to museums, theaters, dinners, fireworks displays and, of course,a grand parade. Fourteen other U.S. WWII veterans were flown in by the Russianairline, Aeroflot, to join them. It was an amazing tribute to the millionsof Russians and Americans who fought together in the war.


In spite of the many setbacks and the fact that the majority of the privateaircraft never made it to Magadan, Friendship Flight 1995 was deemed a success.The project managed to coordinate and deliver 16 WWII veterans to the celebrationin Magadan, and it did prescribe a VFR route from Alaska into Russia. Italso helped establish what support and improvements will be needed withinthe Russian aviation community in order to make true VFR flight practicespossible there.

Perhaps its greatest accomplishment, however, was the spirit of friendshipthat it fostered between the people involved, both within the flight crewsand between the Russian and American people. This spirit was best capturedby pilot Don Warhus, in a verse of a song he wrote commemorating the valiantefforts of both Russian and American soldiers. He had planned to sing itat the celebration he never reached in Magadan:


We gather today to remember a time when we worked asboth hands on a team,
And pray that the work of those living and dead will continue to cause usto dream,
And cross on those bridges built so long ago, in a wild and desperate land,
And stretch out in peace from the depths of our hearts, as we reach fora friend by the hand.

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