Friendship Flight 1995

©1995 Scott Highton

 

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

Late in 1994, the city of Magadan, Russia, invited the Airmen's Association to fly a group of U.S. World War II veterans to Russia for the 50th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Twenty five veterans and 10 private aircraft 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 of the Lend Lease route, which was flown by 7,926 aircraft loaned by the U.S. to Russia in the war.

Nine days were scheduled for the Friendship Flight, which was considered to be more than adequate for the 1,600-mile flying distance and weather allowances. Since the trip was at the invitation of the Russian government, much of the usual bureaucratic red tape was eliminated, or at least dealt with, by the Russian hosts. A secondary goal of the flight was to demonstrate that VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight in private aircraft could become a standard practice in the still highly controlled Russian airspace. Currently, aircraft flying into and within Russia necessarily file IFR (Instrument Flight 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 original group of 10 aircraft was down to seven. Three had dropped out due to schedule conflicts, concerns over unknown costs and the general insecurity of such an adventure.

Even the group that made the trip faced early mechanical problems. Friendship Flight organizer Phil Livingston broke a mixture cable on his Beech 18 on his way out of Anchorage and was delayed a day and a half waiting for a replacement. Don Warhus blew an engine valve and connecting rod on his Cessna 175 enroute to Nome, and spent the next several days (and nights) doing a 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 never left Alaskan airspace.

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

Miscommunication between the Russians and Friendship Flight organizers resulted in additional problems. The planned departure date, May 1, is a national holiday in Russia (May Day), and the entire country, including most airports and air traffic control facilities, shut down. The flight organizers were told to file their flight plan for May 2, which would still be May 1 in Alaska, since the International Date Line runs along the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia.

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

The next day arrived with VFR conditions still holding along the first flight leg (Nome to Provideniya). The VFR route follows the coast of Alaska from Nome northwest to the Tin City NDB, and then crosses the Bering Strait at its narrowest point. Thirty miles out over the ice pack, the route passes over the Diomede Islands and the U.S.­Russia border. Forty miles further lies the Russian mainland. This VFR route has yet to be officially approved by either the FAA or the Russian civil aviation authorities, even though the FAA has held it under consideration since 1991. Currently, there are no 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 from Nome to St. Lawrence Island, and then up to Provideniya. The shorter direct routes put you over water for about 200 miles ­ not a comforting thought in single engine aircraft, especially with survival times in the frigid waters being measured in minutes.

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

The Friendship Flight included a Russian navigator in the crew of Jim Bern's Pilatus Porter. The turbine Porter was sent overhead to 11,000 feet so that it could also make contact with both Provideniya and Lavrentiya before entering Russian airspace. Bern then played Mother Hen, circling over the Diomedes until all Friendship Flight aircraft had passed into Russia at lower altitudes. He then brought up the rear as the group flew toward Provideniya 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 Bering Air, which runs regular commercial flights. From Provideniya, it was hoped that the leg to Markovo could be completed that same afternoon. This would leave only two flight legs totaling 900 miles remaining for the next five days ­ from Markovo to Evensk, and from Evensk into Magadan.

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Clearing customs and refueling of the planes in Provideniya was delayed for several hours. It turned out that the city hosts in Provideniya had planned their own celebration for the veterans and flight crews. This warm hospitality, which could not be refused, prevented getting airborne again in time to reach Markovo before the tower closed at 5 pm. In Russia, you cannot land at an airport after the tower closes, and most towers are only open from 8 am to 5 pm.

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

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

Although 100 octane avgas is virtually unavailable in Russia, 91 octane was made available to the Friendship Flight under a special arrangement with the Russian forest service. Officials from Club Prodvig in Magadan, the official Russian hosts of the Friendship Flight, agreed to position the forest service fuel in Markovo specifically for the Flight. They loaded an AN-26 with 91 octane in Evensk, and kept it ready to fly to Markovo pending word 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 opportunity to see the small city and enjoy the warmth and hospitality of their Russian hosts. Provideniya is a small town with a steadily declining population, now totaling less than 3,000 residents. Its sole industry is that of a sea port. Living conditions for most, would be described as primitive, particularly from an American point of view. Yet, beneath the surface appearances of grime and grit, lies a population of friendly, hearty individuals, eager to meet and interact with visitors. Their generosity and openness, in spite of their own limited resources, was perhaps one of the most rewarding discoveries for those visiting Russia for the first time.

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

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

The decision was easily made to turn all but one of the planes around and head back to Alaska, since the primary purpose of the flight ­ the celebration in Magadan on May 9 ­ was no longer attainable. Two of the U.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 for continuation of the flight under an IFR flight plan. Smith and his passengers made it to Magadan a day later, and spent five more magnificent days there. They were treated as visiting dignitaries with their days and nights filled with visits to museums, theaters, dinners, fireworks displays and, of course, a grand parade. Fourteen other U.S. WWII veterans were flown in by the Russian airline, Aeroflot, to join them. It was an amazing tribute to the millions of Russians and Americans who fought together in the war.

 

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

Perhaps its greatest accomplishment, however, was the spirit of friendship that it fostered between the people involved, both within the flight crews and between the Russian and American people. This spirit was best captured by pilot Don Warhus, in a verse of a song he wrote commemorating the valiant efforts of both Russian and American soldiers. He had planned to sing it at the celebration he never reached in Magadan:

 

We gather today to remember a time when we worked as both hands on a team,
And pray that the work of those living and dead will continue to cause us to 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 for a friend by the hand.

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