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

Pilot - - CONTENTS - By Colin Hales

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’

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