Flying Adeventure: Russia
PUBLISHED: 15:54 09 May 2017 | UPDATED: 15:54 09 May 2017
Flying around the world solo in his tiny homebuilt KR2 aeroplane, skill — and luck — had got Colin to Alaska; now he had to tackle the long leg to Siberia
Since my first article was published in Pilot in June last year, people have asked me for more updates or a write-up about our time in Russia. I couldn’t do this before now though because, until recently, we didn’t know quite how or where it was going to end. With the aeroplane now in Japan, I can at last say that we did make it across Eastern Russia and it wasn’t easy! There were many times I thought, “Well that’s the end then!” I normally achieve anything I set out to do in life, yet there were times in Russia when I really thought, “Bugger, bitten off too much here!”
The title for this article was Sergei Dolzhenko’s idea. Sergei is AOPA’s east Russian representative and main protagonist for general aviation in Russia and he had convinced me that, whatever issues might arise, the Russian pilot community would do anything to make sure our flights through their country would continue−and I mean anything!
Trying to fly across Siberia in ten days didn’t quite go to plan. In the end, it took 72… but I’m glad we got to spend this extra time in Russia; if things had gone to plan, we would have missed out on so much. The delays gave us time to immerse ourselves into Russian society and the opportunity to experience and understand their way of life and what it is to be a general aviation pilot in Russia.
A bit of a rewind for people who don’t know who ‘we’ are: I built two KR2s called Itzy and Bitzy. I flew Bitzy to Australia in 2001/2002 with a Belgian friend and thought it a shame when the wings had to come off and Bitzy was containered home (www.kr2flight.co.uk). So when I got back, I modified Itzy to have a bit more range and prepared him for a solo flight around the world−well not quite solo, let’s not have the TC-T argument! There’s me, my mountain bike or long-range fuel tank sitting in the passenger’s seat, and several teddy bears who came along for the ride.
It took twelve years of logistics before Itzy finally left England for Oshkosh in June 2014, westbound across the Atlantic. After Oshkosh we then flew around America for a year and were heading up to Anchorage and Russia when, tragically, our guide into Russia passed away and took all his invaluable Russian knowledge with him. It just wasn’t possible to learn enough about flights into Russia by ourselves before the winter of 2015, so I left the aircraft in Anchorage and came home to regroup.
Economical with the truth
So how do you fly a 22 foot, 900 lb homebuilt LAA permit aircraft solo through Russia? Solo this time means without a Russian navigator onboard, as is often demanded for VFR flights but simply not possible in the KR2. Well, one thing you have to do−and I’m not proud of this−is that you don’t actually tell the truth a lot.
Next up, spend five weeks in Nome, Alaska, studying how the Americans fly in and out of Russia. You have to have a good sense of humour, a sense of adventure way beyond what you normally see on TV−oh, and a lot of patience.
The first extension of the truth was back in London, in the winter of 2015, when I claimed to be an airline pilot working for a friend’s bizjet company. They fly in and out of Russia and therefore I would need a Russian pilot’s visa. Yes, it has to be a pilot’s visa. This took some time and we left months late to go back to Alaska, but with that visa in hand.
As I handed over my boarding card at Gatwick, I was refused entry to the plane; not a good start to this part of the journey! The computer had picked up that I had no onward or return ticket out of America. I told the US Customs Agent that I had my own aeroplane in Alaska and that I would be flying it into Russia. It might have been my Superman hoodie, but for some reason he didn’t believe me. I couldn’t prove it either, as I’d put all the masses of crew licence and aircraft docs in the engine crate being freighted out to Anchorage.
But it hadn’t been picked up yet, so I rushed home, broke open the crate, grabbed what I needed, bought another $350 airline ticket and tried again the next day. It was the same Customs Agent, and it took my licence, the aircraft registration document and a read of my last article in Pilot magazine before he would let me board.My old Jabiru engine had passed 1,000 hours and was getting a bit tired. The brand new engine was going mouldy back at home, so I shipped it out for an engine change at Jeff Helmerick’s Northern Petroleum Hangar at Palmer Airfield, where the aeroplane was left over winter. Jeff is a character and wouldn’t take a dime as rent for leaving the plane in his hangar for six months.
The flight out to Nome was epic on its own, calling in at McGrath airfield for fuel. McGrath was pretty deserted−the ‘Wild Fire’ base had already closed as it had been a wet season and everyone had gone home. McGrath was built in 1940 as a potential stop-off for the American aircraft used in the Russian Lend-Lease programme.
Thousands of aeroplanes flew the Northwest Staging Route, a series of airstrips from mid-America, up through Canada, Alaska and off across Siberia, to the Eastern Front.
The first week in Nome I did nothing, just listened and learned from the fantastic Nome ATC staff, who were filing flight plans for Bering Air, the only local company that regularly flies in and out of Russia, using King Airs and Beech 1900s.
At the start of the second week I took a deep breath and went to talk to Bering. So far, only one person on the planet had told me we could fly into Russia with our KR2 and now, sadly, he was flying up there with his own wings. If the Bering Air pilots laughed me out of the building, that meant trouble and I’d have no option but to fly back to Anchorage, put the KR2 in a container and send it back home. If we couldn’t fly all the way around the world, why risk the plane and crew? Just quit and go home.
I spoke. They listened and then replied “Yep, shouldn’t be a problem”, and started to explain how. Our flights would have to be IFR, follow international airways and land only at international airports, all in accordance with the detailed Russian AIP. These airports were Anadyr, Magadan and Blagoveshchensk, then onto Harbin in China. This was the most direct route and was planned to take ten days, giving two rest days between flights for refuelling and any ‘faff factor’.
The distances were 580, 950, 1,120 and 360 miles respectively. Ouch! Goodbye mountain bike, hello long-range ferry tank. But even that wasn’t enough: 220 litres were needed−eleven hours plus reserve. Itzy was short by sixty litres. So the third week was spent turning the plane into a flying fuel tank.
I ordered four twenty-litre rubber bladder tanks that were not to be filled completely so they would stay flexible enough to be squeezed in down by my feet and still leave space for the life raft.
Week four was all about preparing the application to the Russian ATC. It had to be perfect and I modelled it on Bering Air’s own flights. There also had to be a ‘good reason’ for travelling through Russian airspace. There was an airshow on in Shenyang, China; so I could say we were going to display there and wanted to transit Russian airspace en route to the show.
The application went into the Russian Main Air Transport Management Centre, (MATMC) on their official Form ‘N’. The only major differences were a different route further north, to cross the narrowest point of the Bering Strait, with the Diomede Islands halfway across for added safety, and a much lower altitude. Three days later the MATMC replied: ‘Do you have a full C of A, oxygen, an HF radio, and IFR equipment? And there is no avgas at Anadyr, your first port of call’
Well that wasn’t a straight ‘no’, so just don’t say anything that might upset them! I told them that we had a certified aircraft. (Well it is certified… by the LAA.) I knew that a permit aircraft would require the approval of the FSB (the new KGB) and the FSB would bluntly refuse permission, as they had over three consecutive seasons when Norman Surplus was attempting his around the world autogyro flight. (Hats off to Norman; he had unselfishly provided me with this vital information, and this unprecedented solo flight in a permit aircraft through Russian airspace is therefore not just our achievement, but Norman’s too.)
I also told them we had oxygen, HF and that our LAA KR2 was IFR equipped. It sort of is in places, and what would the Russians know? They probably would never check and once in Russia it would be too late anyway. I also told them we wouldn’t need fuel at Anadyr. (We would, but a Bering Air pilot said that there was a petrol station a few miles outside the airport.) This was all through Google translate. More questions came back.
‘Service ceiling, speed... and please don’t use Google translate as we are laughing too much at your replies.’ Humour from the Russian authorities! I told them, “14,000 feet and 140 knots and spasibo.” This was not enough height, but what plane like ours flies at FL220 as required? I couldn’t lie that blatantly. Ah, the tension... The Nome flight service station held out no hope. No one had flown west in a small plane, VFR, below 22,000 feet since… well, they couldn’t remember.
Then came a reply that stumped everyone. Below the international airways, there are domestic airways, the same tracks but starting at much lower levels, some as low as FL80. In the Russian AIP they are clearly only available to ‘Russian domestic operators’, not British toy aeroplanes. The MATMC wrote back saying they would allow us to use these domestic airways and to file a flight plan for approval of the route by their Federal Air Transport Authority (FATA).
Jaws dropped! Why would they bend their rules, rules that had never been bent before? It didn’t make sense but the flight plan was filed and I treated my crew to a Subway dinner. A few hours later, walking back into the FSS, I was handed a piece of paper that said ‘KR121 flight plan approved’. Tomorrow we were off to Russia!
Off to a bad start
The day we left did not go well! The latest weather reports showed it was as good as it ever gets−headwinds, but not too strong and very little cloud, except the usual fog through the Bering Straights. I paid the parking fee, 36 days at $4 a day, first day free of charge. They told me not to bother paying as others didn’t, but I want to pay my way around the world and $140 was a bargain for all the assistance I had received during the last month.
I walked airside to the old hangar where I’d parked Itzy for the night and saw my worst fear: Itzy sitting in a big pool of fuel, with more dripping from the tail. The canopy had been closed but I had left it open−otherwise you have to bend down the front tank vent, and with fuel ‘topped off’ over the upper limit, it syphons out the vent.
I opened the canopy and indeed this is what had happened. No fuel leaks but the sight gauge said that three gallons had poured into the wooden fuselage. I opened the back of the seat to look at the floatation foam, which dissolves at the slightest whiff of fuel. It was OK, but how come? It appeared that the fuel had run out of the front drain hole and along the bottom of the fuselage to the back. Phew. I’d cleared out that drain hole only last week.
I pulled and pushed bits of wooden structure to see if the fuel had softened any glue; everything seemed okay. We were supposed to take off soon and I had been told not to keep the Russians waiting as they can turn planes around at the border. So with full fuel in the top tank again, I climbed in and started Itzy, waving goodbye and calling on the radio that I was ready to copy down our IFR airways clearance with our IFR International Call Sign ‘KR121’.
A few people knew of my concerns over the weight and balance of the aircraft. I backtracked Runway 21 to the top, turned around and with “KR121 rolling Runway 21” opened the throttle. Would the tail lift or had I got too much weight too far back? There was really only one way to find out…
It lifted but only just. I checked that I had enough forward authority so the aircraft wouldn’t simply pitch up as soon as the main wheels lifted off the ground and plummet back down. I had forward pitch authority – just not a lot. Itzy was airborne but my goodness he felt heavy. I aimed at the ground to build speed while waving at−well, everyone! They had all come out to see if Itzy actually flew, he hadn’t for over a month and very few people saw us arrive.
I turned right and on course out over the sea, climbing at a comfortable 300 feet per minute. I wanted to say a big thank you over the radio−they listen in every hangar−but I couldn’t talk and was tearful... I’m such a wuss.
I called Anchorage Centre and they requested a climb to Flight Level 100. There was an hour to the border−time to fill the GPSs with the reporting positions that I didn’t get chance for that morning but it took all my concentration just to fly the plane; every time I looked at the GPS and pressed a few buttons, I’d either lose speed or height or both. Anchorage asked if I was in ‘visual’ flying conditions, because I had entered a mountainous area where the minimum safety altitude was 6,000 feet and I was still only at 4,500.
It was a bit cloudy, scud cloud on the mountains and coastal fog, but OK. Twenty minutes later Anchorage told me we’d soon be out of radio range and to contact Provideniya Centre on 129.9.
OK, let’s see if the Russians can understand my accent. I called, “Provideniya Centre, KR121, flight level 60 for flight level 100, squawking 5744.” “KR121, what’s your position and estimate for Batni?” (Batni is the border crossing point.) “Twenty miles south-east Batni, estimate five zero.”
He got the time but asked again my position, but now his microphone button was stuck down. I could hear him talking in Russian to his colleagues but couldn’t call him back. He called again, but I still couldn’t reply. This is the border, where you can get turned around and sent back. You want peace and harmony and I had an irate Russian controller wondering why I wasn’t talking to him anymore. I’d promised myself we would not turn back. We would not get shot down as there was nothing and nobody out here to do that, and if we were intercepted they would probably guide us to Anadyr, which is where we were going anyway. I flew on.
He called again and this time his button released so I gave him a new location and time for the border. I tried to tell him he had a stuck microphone button but he thought we had a problem with our radio, so I left it at that.
There were the two Diomede Islands, half way across the unfrozen Bering Sea. Big Diomede is Russian and, next to it, Little Diomede is American. Here comes the border point on the GPS. Three, two, one, we’re in Russia! I filmed it. Why are they not turning us around? Honestly, everyone in Nome sort of expected they would. I was asked for an estimate for the next reporting point, so perhaps he doesn’t have Itzy on radar and know-how high we are?
FL 100 was requested, but Itzy was on full power and wouldn’t climb any higher than FL80, such was the weight of extra fuel.
Somebody stole a day off us somewhere! We took off on a Tuesday but it was now Wednesday. This would be a 29-hour flight, a British record for the longest non-stop flight of any homebuilt aircraft by a margin of many, many hours, as we flew over the date line.
The airways now took us south, as we made landfall. This was all on GPS as we had no Russian maps. You can’t get them easily and we never thought we would need them as the chances of what was happening today were minuscule. Another monumentally significant moment was when, after two years three months and a few days, at 0308 UTC on 17 August, that little W on the GPS screen turned to an E. We were now getting closer to home! It may not seem significant, but to me it felt great to see those numbers winding back down from 180 East.
Time to sort things out before landing at Anadyr. I had downloaded a set of charts onto my iPad but couldn’t find them. I had a programme on it that brought up a full EFIS screen−this is what I would use to provide evidence that Itzy had ‘IFR’ kit on board, if IFR means ‘iPad Flight Rules’. Anadyr would ask me to carry out some big, fancy IFR approach, and now I had no idea what it would be or any information on how to carry it out. I’d worry about this later.
If they didn’t have Itzy on radar, then we didn’t need to go so far out to sea and could hug the coast twenty miles offshore. If the engine quits, Itzy can glide that from 8,000 feet. I opened the throttle to full power to climb for more height, as the plane was not so heavy now and more height meant more safety over the sea.
Hang on, the engine was at full throttle! Come to think of it, it’s been at full throttle most, if not all of the flight−not good. I did some quick fuel calculations. Itzy should burn twenty litres, or about four gallons, per hour; it was currently up at 28 litres. I closed the throttle to a more sensible cruise rpm; it didn’t like it.
The engine spluttered. I pulled the carb heat on, it really didn’t like that and started to cough. I put the carb heat back in rather quickly. It ran smoother again. At a sensible rpm the airspeed was 110mph, and adjusted for true airspeed at this relatively high altitude was a nominal 120mph but my GPS groundspeed was only eighty. That was some serious headwind. I put the engine back to full throttle. At this altitude it only gave 3,200rpm, well down on power because of the lack of air up here.
If I hugged the coast, it put another fifty miles on the leg distance, using valuable avgas needed later. The best thing was go out to sea, straight for Anadyr. Oh I hate this… that’s cold water and no-one is coming to get us if we end up in it. We sat there for forty minutes and eventually the coast reappeared. I called Anadyr Control overhead the reporting point of Bumul, trying not to laugh at some of the stupid names of these reporting points.
Some fifty miles from Anadyr, the controller told me to remain at FL75 and expect a Kilo Bravo ILS approach for Runway 19 and route to Kilo Bravo. I had no idea where that was and he now had me on radar as he had noticed I had lost 500 feet as I was trying to save fuel. I continued towards the airfield and could see it clearly. I called “KR121, visual with the runway, requesting visual approach.” It was granted and I was cleared down to 1,300m visual for 19, to report on final. See, I’m not so stupid, as this meant I didn’t need to do a fancy ILS approach that I didn’t know, but I still had to work out how high 1,300 metres was in feet... about 4,000.
We landed on Runway 19 and taxied in to be marshalled to a halt on the apron. Because of the rough surface they don’t taxi aircraft on it, everyone stops and the aircraft are moved by a tow truck. The surface looked good to me so I told them the towing arm was my arm. It made the gathering crowd laugh as I got out and pulled Itzy to where they wanted me to park him.
We were off to a good start and I think we blagged the flight well enough but it was a lot worse than I’m letting on. I was totally overwhelmed and under-prepared as ever, tired, ill, emotional, and now surrounded by a crowd of officials with big hats on. Anyone reading this might think I’m an under-prepared idiot… which is possibly true! It was a seriously scary flight and Itzy had used far too much fuel. But we’d
made it to Russia and I would prepare better for the next leg, if you can prepare for the unknown.
First LAA aircraft
The first LAA aircraft on Russian territory. Not a £120,000 glass cockpit-filled, shining example of commerciality but a plans-built, £15,000 KR2, filled with instruments ‘borrowed’ from work and built in a container!
I’d like to say the day ended there, but nope… I forgot to turn lots of things off as I was dealing with paperwork and visas and general declarations. They wanted to see my passport and visa there and then. About twenty people inspected it. If they only knew… They all took pictures of themselves by the plane, but I daren’t take any of them. Security wanted to confiscate my maps of America but I explained that I may still need them to go back. I grabbed my wash bag, closed the canopy and got on a coach to be driven to the terminal. Bye Itzy. Thanks. See you… I don’t know when.
Customs went OK, I played it cool. They could not find anything wrong with my documentation except that I did not have the Chukotka Regional pass. Everyone in this autonomous region needs one, even the Russians, but I was allowed to leave the airport and walk around freely. I asked to go back to the aircraft; I had left the satellite tracker on, and had no clothes or bears to keep me company but it was not possible as the airport had closed. I got some local money from a machine and a friendly customs officer insisted I got a taxi to a hotel, a cheap hotel.
In town, I had to climb past a gang of blokes, drunk and smelling of vodka and chain-smoking, to the hotel entrance, walking through a few heavy steel doors before arriving at the desk. The hotel staff were nice, considering it was all sign language. I was given my own basic room but soon went back out to see if I could find some food and the gas station seen on Google Earth that I had been told about by the pilot from Bering Air.
There were no restaurants that I could see and no stores, just blocks of flats on concrete stacks, brightly painted, but then a lady went into a nondescript building and came out with a black plastic bag, seemingly containing food. I entered and found a small market store with friendly people and, with a lot of pointing and gesticulating, got enough food and went out for a walk. Sat at a bus stop I drank a bottle of fizzy pop and the liquids and sugars revived me; I was probably dehydrated. I sat there trying to take it all in as old Soviet trucks and cars drove past.
I headed towards the main road and the fuel station. It was quite a way to this desolate station in the middle of nowhere on a dead straight, concrete road. But the sign quoted a price of 56 roubles for 95 octane and there it was, a pump with 95 octane fuel. I don’t know how to get it to the airport and into my plane yet, but one step at a time. They have it! If they hadn’t... well I was completely ******ed basically.
I walked on to some desolate and derelict ex-military buildings, taking a million pictures as I made my way back to town and sat in the centre of a square, watching the children play and people mingle and talk as they returned from work. Back at the hotel, I climbed out of my immersion suit and played with the TV. I got scratchy pictures of funny game shows and some Rio Olympics. I don’t remember falling asleep. The bed was naff, but compared to my rock hard camp bed of the previous 36 days, it was bliss.
Colin has made it into Russia. To discover how he crossed the country, check out the next instalment here.