Flying Adventure: From Russia with… permission?
PUBLISHED: 11:00 27 April 2017 | UPDATED: 11:00 27 April 2017
Getting into Russia was one thing, getting out was quite another! Flying solo in an aeroplane he built himself, Colin Hales’s world tour continues
Ever since I’d made it to Russia, I hadn’t been very well; nerves were making me feel sick. There would be no KR2 World Tour if we couldn’t fly through Russia, so I had to go on. Alex, my handling agent, joked with me, saying “What are you talking about? You will have no problems while you are in Russia!” But we would, and we would have plenty!
On day two of our Russian adventure, the Kremlin’s Chief of Defence flew into Anadyr, along with 250 federal agents, for a conference on rebuilding Russia’s East Coast Defences. Two military transport planes now stood beside Itzy and, soon afterwards, our flight clearances to Blagoveshchensk were strangely cancelled! More worryingly, three of the four fuel bladder necks had failed, requiring four more of a different type to be sent out. They would arrive on a Bering Air flight from Nome, but not for five days. Meantime, Itzy and I were adopted by the local pilots.
I was invited to beach parties, with freshly-caught and barbecued salmon, and Beluga whale meat, washed down with lots of home-made spirits. There were mountain bike rides along the coast and historic tours of the town with an English-speaking air traffic controller.
One of the flight engineers was moving back to Moscow and all his belongings needed loading into a container on a ship in the harbour. Everyone helps everyone in Anadyr and more than enough people turned out to make light of the work. I joined in, which earned me an invitation to the garage party held by the home owners to thank everyone who’d helped.
Garage parties are common; all the blokes have garages, anything from a wooden shack to a proper concrete box with wood-burning stove. There was every type of meat−deer, elk, boar−with bread and cheese, and bottles of vodka and whisky. It was all devoured over many toasts to flying around the world.
Each evening I gave English lessons to the engineers and pilots looking to get jobs with Aeroflot, and I tried to explain Brexit to the older members. I wrote a scathing email to the Australian Consulate after Alex and his wife had their holiday visas refused for reasons they could not understand. The Russians loved Itzy and what I was trying to do, and everyone went to great lengths to calm my nerves and convince me that there would be no problems for us while in Russia.
I was told the FSB wanted me to find another route to China. The only other route was via Khabarovsk. It was submitted, but the FSB blocked that too! From what I gather, a monumental row then broke out between the Federal Air Transport Authority and the FSB. We had been invited into Russia, but now only had one way out and that was back the way we came in. This was all quite mad! The ATC manager at Anadyr said we still had permission to fly on to Magadan, and to go for it, as it would be far more difficult for the FSB to turn Itzy around from halfway to China. It was a good idea and the next day we were on our way.
The uphill takeoff was difficult and Itzy had little to no stability again until I could pump fuel from the rearmost bladder tank to the main tank and move the C of G further forward. I was also banking on the weather, something I hate to do. There was a high pressure ridge which I was hoping would keep the airfield of Magadan, surrounded by mountains, clear of cloud for the next eight hours.
Russian ATC were wonderful; they mostly left us alone and I had good communication via relays from airliners some 30,000 feet above at all times. Magadan was clear, as I had hoped, and I could carry out a visual approach to land but the Tower told me there were no visual approaches and I had to choose a procedure. I decided to go for the NDB approach for 27−I didn’t know what it was but must have guessed right as there were no complaints.
On the flight we had 20mph tailwinds: 7:58 hours, 942 miles in mega cruise mode. We landed with two hours of fuel left on board, and before we took off I had planned where to go if we needed to land short somewhere.
Having used up all his Alaskan avgas Itzy was now running on Russian 95.
I had hoped to get airborne and quickly throttle back to avoid possible long-term detonation with the unknown Russian fuel quality, but the plane was so heavy with all the extra fuel needed that for the climb to FL100 throttling back was not
Then, as if by magic, Vladimir Buhonin, a veteran Captain with some 44 years flying An-2s, appeared and asked if I wanted to buy a barrel of avgas. Avgas is like rocking horse poo in Siberia; Russian pilots struggle to get it let alone complete strangers! Why was I being offered this miraculous barrel and at a reasonable price? Vladimir told me that he’d had phone calls from Anadyr.
One was from a friend of his, explaining that he and his wife were going on holiday, now they had received their Australian visas, and others saying that I was ‘alright’ and to look after me. And was I ever looked after: guided tours of the forests, visits to the Gulags, even my own flat. Magadan is steeped in dark history−if you arrived as a Soviet dissident, you never went home! How times have changed…
The fight between the authorities continued and, surprisingly, it was the
FSB that backed down. My flight to Blagoveshchensk was on again but required a diversion to Zeya Airport’s VOR, taking Itzy away from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome, adding 200 miles to the flight: 1,320 miles. Itzy couldn’t do it−he just didn’t have the range. What were we going to do? One more flight and we would be on the Chinese border.
If we took off and went straight for Blagoveshchensk, against the orders of the main air traffic management, we might get there−but they had been so good to me. We could land at one of the airports on the way to refuel, but landing at a domestic airport would have the plane impounded and me in jail, according to the rest of the world… but by now I begged to differ.
The first snow of the year dusted the mountain tops. We had to move on. I filed the flight plan knowing we wouldn’t make the destination. It was accepted and early one September morning I jumped back into Itzy to head west. The engine all but refused to start in the freezing conditions but it just caught and we taxied out. I had struggled to move the barrel of avgas I’d bought from Vladimir.
Now its contents, and a lot more, were on board and being lifted up to 10,000 feet at 120mph by a 75hp engine and eight feet of wing visible on each side. I often just look out at that tiny wing and wonder, “How are you doing that?” I could only see the left wing: a fuel bladder blocked my view to the right, until I could empty it.
Half an hour into the flight the big red ‘panic’ light came on! Oil pressure was OK and the temps showed hardly warm−low battery voltage was the problem.
I hadn’t noticed but the charging circuit breaker (CB) had popped out and wouldn’t stay back in. Who needs power anyway? Hang on, we do! I had 140 litres of fuel to pump into the main tank or we wouldn’t reach any destination, and we were not turning around and going back. The problem was that the new Jabiru engine fitted in Anchorage had a bigger alternator output and the ten-amp CB couldn’t cope with the higher charge rate being fed into the battery, which I had all but flattened trying to start the engine earlier.
I carefully dug out the CB from behind the panel. It needed bypassing. I grabbed the two terminals with my multi-tool pliers. There were a few sparks but once a good contact was made it seemed to work fine. The wires got warm, but the big red light went out!
This was all OK until ATC gave me a new reporting point and requested a list of new estimates. It was preferable to let go of the controls rather than the pliers and avoid creating more sparks in the fuel-laden cockpit. I’d write down the reporting points, quickly calculate estimates and then grab the controls to recover from whatever position the plane had put itself in, such was the instability with the fuel load. This went on for an hour until the charge in the battery allowed the CB to stay in and I could put the pliers down and start to pump fuel forward to the main tank and restore some stability.
I had eleven hours and 1,200 miles to deliberate what I was going to do before running out of fuel. Going straight for Blagoveshchensk was preferable. Although the Russians would be upset, we’d be on the Chinese border and it would be easier for them just to let us out. But the Russians had been so good to me, I didn’t want any ill feeling. Ill feeling? feeling ill…
That was it! I didn’t want the wonderful plane to be at fault or short of range, so what if I declare a medical emergency? I’d say I felt sick or dizzy and needed to land at Zeya. I was happy for the first time on the flight as now I had a half-decent plan!
I called Khabarovsk control approaching Zeya and told them I was feeling sick and was going to put down there. Khabarovsk wouldn’t accept my request, saying I couldn’t land at Zeya. I gave them no choice though, and lost them on the radio as we descended towards the field. But approaching the downwind leg it didn’t look right−there were a load of trucks all over the airport. Oh no, they were in the process of re-tarmacing the runway, and it resembled an off-road dirt track. I had read the Notams but they were in Russian and I didn’t understand them.
Someone very dear to me said “Never run yourself out of options”. Well, the two left to me were the main road to town or a 600m peri-track, marked out as an emergency runway. With nil wind and no flaps, Itzy needs 600m to stop. Using 595 metres of the peri-track, with smoking brakes, Itzy taxied in and was welcomed by the airport manager. Five minutes later an Air Medical Evacuation An-3 turboprop landed behind me, a doctor jumped out and I was offered medical assistance for my Oscar-winning performance of a dizzy airman. (Don’t worry, they had come to pick up another patient.)
The FSB arrived with two English teachers from the local school, but apparently they just wanted to talk to an English person having never met one before. The FSB officers wanted to know what had happened and what I was going to do next and, after tea and chocolates, we all went out to the plane for selfies and photos. The security guards fed me and I was given the air traffic controller’s bed.
In the morning the airport manager showed me around town and I got another forty litres of 95. Two hours later I landed safely in Blagoveshchensk. Here I was met with tea and cake and no fuss. (Unlike the ‘armed guards at the Chinese border’ that a British newspaper reported. Fake news or alternative facts? I think we are going to hear a lot of this in the future.)
As for Chinese flight permission, I said that I’d try and get to the Chinese border and take it from there. Well China was now just on the other side of the river. I had sent the necessary information to the Chinese aviation authorities from Nome, but never got a reply. I wasn’t concerned; I’d just file a flight plan to Harbin and head for China. I couldn’t see why the flight plan would be rejected−as yet, they had no idea what a KR2 was and I was in no rush to tell them.
The difficulty is always getting in to the country; once inside normally any issue can be resolved. People said “they will never let you into China.” Well that’s what 99.9% of the world said about Russia so I just ignore these negative statements and keep moving on. The Russians had been simply amazing so far, just as I thought and hoped they would be.
I took the Siberian Express train to Khabarovsk to get my Chinese visa from the Chinese embassy in town. I was met off the train by the pilots of the Kalinka Aeroclub and this is where I met Sergei Dolzhenko. Sergei is AOPA’s east Russian representative and main protagonist for General Aviation in Russia−and a funny, funny guy! He took me to see the fledgling and pioneering general aviation pilots of the Vinogradovka flying club.
I was shown what is recognised to be the first general aviation aircraft in Russia. It has a Piper L-4 Cub fuselage, tail and wings, I think. They had to make their own undercarriage and wing struts from ‘scaffolding tube’, but I loved it! The Heath Robinson engineering, the ethics, the desire to make these scant parts into a flying machine...and it still flies today.
The Russians’ in-joke about West versus East was that they were all going to get big bottles of Coke and buckets of popcorn. I kept hearing “Colin China, Japan! Coke and popcorn!” and had to get them to explain it. Sergei said they all planned to sit down and enjoy these western icons as they watched me trying to get through China or Japan.
There was a Cessna 150 to put back together after new main gear mounts had been fitted. The problem was that no one knew how and no one could read the manual. I rebuilt imported 150s as a lad, so set to with a group of guys. It took all day, but the owner was so pleased that we had an impromptu banya (sauna and cold water bath) for everyone. All sorts of food was brought in, along with bottles of homemade whisky.
I was treated to the full banya treatment; yep−including being whacked on the bum with branches and leaves. Google it, because I’m just not going there!
The Russian authorities simply don’t know what to do with these pilots. None of the aircraft could be certified as the process was so arduous. The penalty fine for not having the correct documents was far less than the fees, so no one bothered. The authorities were trying to remove this small GA nuisance by stating that ‘any airfield had to have a fence around it’, to protect the aircraft and flying operations from outside interference. Sounds fine?
But this fence had to be erected by the government, to government standards, and cost a million roubles per fence post...
Sergei and AOPA Russia were fighting teeth and nail for private flying in Russia. In Nome I’d paid Universal Aviation Handling thousands of dollars for arranging my airport slot and parking permits. Sergei was disgusted and took it upon himself to arrange Itzy’s slots and parking from then on, and invited me to bring the aircraft to Khabarovsk. I agreed and got back on the train to go get the aeroplane.
Pilots from the local Blagoveshchensk flying club met me at the station and, having heard of my work with the 150, asked if I would look over their fleet of aircraft including a newly imported 182, where I found that the fin post bolts were metric and put in backwards.
This limited the up elevator movement by half, as they interfered with the elevator torque tube. I turned the bolts around and also freed up the sticky control columns and a few other bits. Afterwards we flew over the local tundra and rivers, and the owners marvelled that they could now fly the aeroplane with their fingertips, trim it easily and carry out fully flared landings for the first time. For this, I was taken out for dinner and given a tour of the local aviation museum. From then on it was free fuel, transport, no fees, gifts and souvenirs, and farewell send-offs.
With Itzy in Khabarovsk, it became apparent that the Chinese were never going to agree to any flight through their country. They said their airports were too busy to accept our arrival and that my plane was ‘a military threat’. With such stupid responses from such a bewildering society, it was futile to continue. The Chinese promote a view that they are expanding GA but to them this only means anything not military like Boeing and Airbus but not KR2s.
The only real option left was to head on to Japan and quickly, because winter had seriously arrived. We wouldn’t fly straight to Japan over 200 miles of freezing sea. I hate water crossings and had sent my life raft home, as transiting China would have meant no more sea crossings.
We would have to head way up to the top of Sakhalin Island, jump the thirty miles of frozen sea and fly back down to Yuzhno Sakhalinsk. From there it was a twenty-minute flight to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. This was a massive flight again, but with the whole of the Russian aviation fraternity now working with us, anything was possible. Fees were waived, fuel provided, permissions were unlimited, and the
FSB didn’t raise their heads. With hand-crafted teddy bears presented to add to the crew, and media and TV reports for the good of GA, we could do no wrong… except I did.
The flight to Yuzhno Sakhalinsk did not go well. The engine refused to start again, the temperature being below -10°C. It had to be warmed by buckets of hot water and then a cabin heater, and we took off hours late. At FL100 I saw -32°C on the OAT probe and the CHTs were down at 38°C. The Jabiru needs CHTs of more than 100°C before you can take off. I had to run the engine at full power to keep it warm and it wasn’t working. The engine barrels were cooling and tightening around the pistons. How it didn’t seize, I just don’t know. Six hours into the eight-hour flight, I couldn’t feel my feet nor stop shivering.
I was in my immersion suit, but because I was unable to move much I couldn’t create any body heat and I was in trouble. There is no heater in the plane and with two hours left, I just wouldn’t have made it to our destination in any fit state to fly or try to land.
With teeth chattering uncontrollably, I called another emergency, telling ATC we were picking up ice and going to land at Shakhtyorsk Airport.
The fact that the ice was on my feet made me feel less guilty about saying this and I headed out to sea, where there was less cloud to descend through and less rock to hit, and scooted back in to land at this remote airfield, which services a coal mining town. I struggled to get out of the aeroplane−no acting this time−and eventually hobbled off to the Control Tower to try and warm up. The ATC guy understood my plight and brought tea and blankets and sat me down next to the heater.
I thought we would be in trouble, declaring emergencies in Russia, but actually that’s when the real adventures came, escaping cities and major airports, meeting rural Russians and going places that you just wouldn’t go otherwise. Itzy’s arrival, out of the blue, was the most exciting thing that had happened at the airfield that year and they were grateful for me landing there, when it should have been the other way around. Later I was sent a Russian newspaper from Ugelgorsk news; Itzy was voted the best news story of 2016. There is an award waiting for us if I want to go back and pick it up.
Shakhtyorsk was possibly as far as we would go if there was no cabin heater or similar to heat up the engine, but the ground staff were just spectacular−nothing was too much trouble. Via pidgin English they said they had a heater somewhere and found it in a shack. It needed rewiring, the boiler and oil injectors cleaning, but eventually it burst into life.
People came out of the woodwork to meet the ‘English patient’. I was put up by an elderly gent who was the centre of attention as everyone filled his house to come and meet the foreigner. The FATA sent out an English-speaking air traffic controller on a commercial flight to make sure my ‘IFR Airways Clearance’ could be understood when we wanted to leave. No charge; they just wanted us to be safe and everything to run smoothly. In front of the crowds from town, the heater ran for half an hour blowing heat out of a ten-inch pipe into the lower cowls till the engine was warm and toasty. Itzy fired up and away we went.
Arriving at Yuzhno Sakhalinsk International, again nothing was a problem. We had just a few days to get out of there before the snow arrived big time, or that would be it until April. I got the 95 fuel through the security gates without issue, which is unheard of. Even Russian pilots asked how I’d done that. It helped I’d been on national TV the night before and said all the right things and joked with them… Coke and Popcorn!
The problem now was Japan. They were being silly about handling our aircraft and every airport wanted $8,000 for a handling agent to assist with my arrival. ‘Assist’ meant flying a representative out from Tokyo to wave and smile, shake my hand and show us where the Customs office was. But the Russians got the IFR flight plan through and I planned to go as far into Japan as we could to escape the weather. The Japanese AIP is utterly useless and doesn’t mention anything about Permit aircraft or any special requirements.
Everyone avoids Japan like the plague as permissions are apparently needed but can take up to three weeks and beyond. We didn’t have three days. The fees at Yuzhno Sakhalinsk were $850, but the airport manager joked that if Trump got in, he would waive them! Coke and Popcorn, Sergei! On the day of departure a huge heater truck pulled up and warmed both Itzy and the surrounding countryside. Itzy’s engine fired easily and we set off for Japan.
Seventy-two days after arriving in the country, Russia disappeared under Itzy’s port wing. In silence and sadness I cried.
(I told you I’m a wuss!) Wow, what an adventure, what great people we were leaving behind. But we had done it, we had done what we were told was impossible only months ago. People of the world take note: the Russian people are wonderful−or at least they were to us!
Itzy landed at Niigata Japan. They were expecting a bizjet and a suitcase of dollars. We were grounded immediately. Apparently we didn’t have flight permissions or a handling agent.
If the rest of the world’s attitude is similar, and I have to pay $8,000 each flight to handling agents to shake their hands and walk on their marble floors, then I’m going to struggle to get Itzy home. If you read ‘Hooded airman fights to get flight permissions and exorbitantant fees waived’ that will be me. Why ‘hooded’? Well it is my media angle, my hashtag, my profile, although actually I just like wearing my Spiderman hoodie. I think we are going to need the media to help us get home. Itzy has sat out at Niigata since November, and it’s now March. Itzy is grounded until the Japanese can be convinced that Permit aircraft can fly in their country. (They can, the Japanese just don’t know it yet! But that’s another story.)
The word is out and people are asking, “Colin, can I fly through Russia?” Well it can be done−we’ve done it−but my answer is, “Are you flexible, capable and willing to fit in? Are you adaptable, humorous, dedicated, patient and talented at fixing planes? Can you drink like a fish, sing a song, tell a tale or three? Do you have a teddy bear crew and the smallest but bravest little plane? If so, you can ask them… that’s all we did!”