Flying Adventure: Alaska to Russia
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
Colin Hales’ KR2 world tour first took him across the Atlantic to Oshkosh (see June 2016 Pilot) and then up to Alaska. Now he’s aiming to continue on into Russia — a trip many people tell him is just not possible!
ince 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
“Please don’t use Google translate as we are laughing too much at your replies.” Humour from the Russian authorities!
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!
Alaska to Russia solo Flying Adventure p46
It's all got to fit in — Itzy’s typical load when not kitted out with long-range tanks
A shot from earlier in the odyssey: Colin preparing to depart Oshkosh
The new Jabiru Engine being fitted at Palmer Airport
Ruth Glacier seen en route to Nome, looking to Colin like ‘one big chocolate and cream cake’
Cold war relics visited by Colin in Alaska: the westward facing IBM radar defence system formerly used to monitor Soviet activities
Nome’s one hotel was $250 a night, but they let Colin pitch his tent inside this old shack for the five weeks
Below left: with other equipment already on board Itzy, the tally of GPS devices now reaches eleven
Below right: ‘I’m going to need a bigger flight bag...’
Colin was heading west when he met fellow earthrounder Norman Surplus, who was flying his autogyro eastwards. Norman’s advice and assistance would prove invaluable to Colin
Everyone said Colin would need to use dollars in Russia. ‘The Russians looked at me as if I was mad; they have their own currency’