Russia part 10: The challenging last two legs before reaching the American continent
In the same way as crossing the North Atlantic from Canada to Iceland had been challenging three months prior, the last part of our Russia trip was quite tense.
As described in more detail my previous post, after five adventurous days in Kamchatka, our plan was to fly from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (UHPP) to Markovo (UHMO, 5 hours or 807 Nautical Miles away) on Thursday August 26th and the next day from Markovo to the international airport of Anadyr (UHMA, 190 NM) for customs and on to Nome in Alaska (PAOM, 433 NM). Real ferry pilots would likely do the whole 1430 NM (almost 9 hour) trip in one day but we always preferred to stop more often, explore and experience each new destination. We were even considering a slightly longer, more scenic flight from Anadyr to Nome, to take a look at the Diomede islands.
But on that Thursday morning, the two drums of fuel we needed to fill our tanks for the long flight ahead had not arrived at the airport: they were stuck at another airport and the delivery truck had gone AWOL. And as the popular saying goes, a problem never comes alone, additional elements appeared in the equation:
- We found out that the two last Russian airports we were planning to stop at closed at 6pm on weekdays and the entire weekend. Since we needed two days to get to Alaska, this meant that even if fuel were delivered on Friday, we would not be out of Russia before Monday and needed to spend the weekend somewhere
- After filing the EAPIS (electronic form to get into the US), we were informed that there was no Customs and Border Control service anymore in Nome, so we had to go to Fairbanks or Anchorage (921 NM or 942 NM from Anadyr respectively) and that we needed a special permission to refuel in Nome in case that were necessary. This was news because John Bone had entered the US via Nome just weeks before and had even given us some tips about how best to proceed, for instance to be careful about the date we put on the US forms: we would cross the international dateline so we would arrive in Alaska on the day before we left Russia.
- Another complication was that the plane’s temporary import authorization expired on Tuesday August 31st, so we did not have a lot of time to play with.
Given all the pieces of the puzzle that still needed solving, and the uncertainty about the exact date of the fuel delivery, we decided to stay in Petropavlovsk and booked a hotel in the forest to prepare our next steps in detail:
- If the fuel was delivered on Monday, could we fill the plane and leave in time to reach Markovo and Anadyr on the same day, before the airport closed at 6pm? In that case, we could leave Russia on the 31st and avoid the bureaucracy of extending the plane’s temporary importation.
- If we only made it to Markovo on Monday, would we have time to go to Anadyr for customs and still reach Fairbanks or Anchorage before CBP closed on Tuesday, especially if we needed to make a fuel stop in Nome (where we could only stop but not stay)? Else we would need to spend the night in Anadyr and our temporary import permit would expire…
- CBP in Fairbanks closed at 10 pm but Alaska was 4 hours ahead of Anadyr (albeit the day before), so that made for a shorter day
But not everything was a challenge: the weather and the winds aloft were very favorable, especially in the latter part of the route to Anadyr, so Alex started to think we could maybe cover the 923 Nautical Miles to Anadyr directly if we flew “max-range”, without losing time with a fuel stop in Markovo. We had never flown so many miles without stopping, Alex’ psychological limit for a leg in Russia was 800 Nautical Miles, especially since there are not so many airports to land at if you run out of fuel, but if the wind pushed us, we might just make it with a comfortable level of FOD (Fuel on Destination). And the winds remained favorable on the next day, making it look like we would be able to reach Fairbanks (which was 21 miles closer than Anchorage) without stopping in Nome. 21 miles does not seem like a lot (it’s only 8 minutes of flight at 160 knots) but when you are pushing the limit of your plane’s autonomy, it can be the difference between getting there directly, or not, especially in remote areas like the Russian Far East and Alaska where refueling options are rare.
During the whole weekend in the forest, the weather and wind forecasts remained favorable so with the help of Evgeny from MAKgas -who in the mean-time had succeeded in coordinating fuel delivery for 8 am on Monday after calling his multiple contacts as well as one of the three Arturs from Petropavlovsk and our new friend Alexander from Novosibirsk- we elaborated the following aeronautical decision-making tree:
- We would file a flight plan from Petropavlovsk to Markovo (UHMO) and add Anadyr as alternative airport for Monday August 30th
- If our fuel was available at the airport by 12 pm on that Monday, we would leave immediately after refueling and fly North along the coast of Kamchatka. If the fuel was not available by 12pm, we would not be able to reach UHMO before closure at 6 pm, so we would leave the next day (and spend the Monday dealing with the bureaucratic consequences of our extended stay).
- During the flight, if at point TK which was the place where we had to decide to go slight West to Markovo (249 NM away) or East to Anadyr (345 NM away), and also the point where the tailwinds were supposed to increase, our FOD was 13 or more, we would ask the controller to divert to Anadyr (UHMA). Else, we would land in Markovo to refuel, and depending on the time of day decide whether to continue to Anadyr or not. Evgeny, probably feeling a little bad about not getting our fuel delivered on time in UHPP, had arranged for fuel drums in both places, so at least that was not an issue.
We were very proud of our tree, went over it one more time on Sunday night, knowing that we would need to make a similar one for the trip to Fairbanks once we knew what reality had in stock for us the next day.
That Monday morning, August 30th, the fuel truck was there at 8 am and Alex manually pumped 1.5 drums into our wings while five people were watching him and a fire truck was standing next to the plane, waiting for the explosion. They did not like Avgas at all at UHPP! Artem, the civilian airport manager who we had met the day the fuel truck did not arrive, had helped us enter the airport, kept us updated on the progress of the fuel truck as it passed the various checkpoints and generally tried to help us as much as he could in perfect English and even a little bit in French!
Arriving at the airport, both volcano and plane still there !
Alex opening the first fuel drum (orange immersion suits on the floor, ready for use)
The watchful fire-truck
After putting on the bottom parts of our anti-exposure suits and making sure our life vests and rafts were easy to grab on the back seat, we took off around 10 am, i.e. with plenty of time to reach either Markovo or Anadyr before closure. We were a little worried about flying into clouds because that morning foreflight was reporting “severe icing” at 8000 feet but according to the Windy app the cloud tops were lower than that, so we decided to go see for ourselves. We climbed to 9500 feet, avoiding a few clouds, and found ourselves between layers, but the layer above was very thin so we continued our ascent to 11000 feet and reached blue skies all around, so no chance of icing. And it’s a good thing we were in the clear because a point GEFAR – which ironically sounds like the word DANGER in German- the flight plan headed straight into a volcano! We adjusted our heading to avoid it and got some wonderful views of it instead, as well as many other volcanoes behind it.
At PEMIG, we donned the upper part of our suits and our life vests for the crossing of the 250 NM long bay with only the island Karaginskiy Zaliv in the middle. We were getting quite good at wriggling into the upper part of our suits in flight and back out again when within gliding distance of land, and we were less and less impressed by flying over water, especially since this time it was “only” one and a half hour, but we were still relieved when we reached point TK where we started to see volcanoes again. Had anyone ever set foot in these remote mountains??
As soon as we were levelled, Alex had put the plane in “max-range” mode (using about 11.2 gallons per hour as we had learned during our practice sessions) and we had been constantly watching the FOD indicator during the flight, trying to post-rationalize any variations in the magic number.
Over Karaginskiy Zaliv island, our FOD indicator was at 13 and we had some headwinds so got a little nervous. Windy had predicted that we would start getting strong tailwinds at this point, was that going to happen? Using the SAT phone, Alex called our ground-team, Luciano and Luis Eduardo from Colombia, to ask for updated weather forecasts but before they came in, the wind changed and all of a sudden our FOD indicator showed 15 gallons! We were sure now we could make it to Anadyr: these two little gallons made the difference between being nervous and relaxed.
13 gallons FOD!!
15 gallons FOD over the island and tailwind starting (note the slight upward tilt of the 12KT wind arrow)
The ground-team’s weather reports confirmed our tailwinds would last and we got ready to ask the controller for the diversion to UHMA. Our excuse if he asked would be “weather”, of course they did not know that on this occasion it meant “good weather”😊
All controllers in Russia had been very professional and helpful but we had noticed that the (mostly male) controllers tended to be a little more friendly towards me than towards Alex, so we decided I would ask for the diversion to UHMA. So I did, and it was approved, and we cheered and realized that this was going to be our longest flight so far! 923 NM in one go, bravo LV-GQF.
But we were not there yet and suddenly the cloud base crept up on us. It reached our 11000 feet so we climbed to 12000, and a little later it scratched our belly again so this time we decided to descend, despite the icing risk while in the clouds, to fly under the clouds instead of on top of them. Unless you’re flying over water, it’s always scary to descend in the clouds because you can’t see the terrain but Alex knew that in this part of the itinerary, the ground level was around 2000 feet so we had plenty of room below and we broke out of the clouds at 7000 feet. It’s a good thing we did not have to descend before point UNEDA where the terrain reached 6500 feet!
During the last part of this longest flight, we also briefly lost GPS signal several times, just to keep us alert I guess…
When we finally landed in Anadyr, after a stressful 6 hours and 12 minutes, we were euphoric, and kept congratulating ourselves. We were welcomed by Boris who helped us refuel – for the second time that day, Alex sole handedly pumped 1.5 drums (300 liters) into our wings- and took us to our hotel while explaining what the steps would be for customs and our departure the next morning.
Approaching Anadyr airport (UHMA)
Two lonely fuel drums waiting for us
Refueled and with pajama: ready for the night in Anadyr
The hotel next to Anadyr’s airport was quite similar to that in Kujuuak (our last stop in the North of Canada), a sort of community where guests -mostly crew or other transportation workers- walk around doing their own thing because they are habitués who stay there every time they have business in town. There was a self-serve kitchen with lots of airline leftovers (packs of juice and milk, individually wrapped pastries…) and also a “pension” style restaurant where meals were prepared by a very enthusiastic lady who explained in fluent Russian and with lots of detail what the menu options were. We went to dinner almost as soon as we arrived because the restaurant closed at 6.30 and had a salat of minced vegetables with a choice of butter or mayonnaise, followed by a meatball with rice and bread. There did not seem to be any dessert so we asked for some butter (maslo-so glad we had learned that word!) to put on our bread to finish the meal with a little treat (after all we had flown 6 hours and 12 minutes!) and she brought us a half empty package on a small plate. The butter tasted delicious! It was still very light so we went for a walk to explore the hotel surroundings and noticed that many people were wearing “high-vis” jackets: the town, called Ugolnye Kopi was almost exclusively inhabited by people who worked at the airport.
Ugolnye Kopi is separated from Anadyr by water. To go to the city, people take the boat in the summer, drive over the ice=road in the winter and in the fall or spring the only access is by helicopter. We were there in the summer but to enter Anadyr, which is part of the Chukotka closed border region, you needed a special permit which we did not have, so we never even considered it.
We slept in a very simple room with 2 rather small separate beds and thin walls which would have allowed us to follow the neighbors’ conversation’ if we had spoken Russian, but we were so tired that we did not hear them for long.
The next morning, the pack of butter was waiting for us on “our” table (so kind!) and the lady asked us with what seemed like 1000 words what we wanted for breakfast. I understood two words: eggs and sardines. We chose eggs without hesitation and they came promptly, along with a sausage and bread which we immediately packed into our napkins for our lunch on the plane. We had another long flight ahead, all the way to Fairbanks. We were very excited about this trip because we were going to cross the Bering Strait and reach the USA. I am not sure why this felt like a very big deal to us, since this was surely not the first time we went from one country to another, or to the US, but flying a little airplane to another continent and over the international dateline to yesterday does not happen every day.
Boris picked us up as planned at 8.30 am and we went through customs, guarded by a large bear, and security without any issues.
After checking the plane, we half-donned our immersion suits again with the intention of pulling the rest over our arms and heads over the Bering strait, and took off at 10am. As soon as we reached our cruising altitude, Alex set the plane in “max-range” again, although fuel management was not as tight as the day before because the winds were more favorable. We had a similar plan: we would continue to Fairbanks if our FOD was more than 13 gallons when approaching Nome, else we would land and refuel there. We really hoped the latter would not be necessary because the ceilings were low and cold in PAOM.
The first part of our flight was very enjoyable and we got beautiful views at Buh Ruddera, full of very thin strings of land. Nearing KLODI however, Alex spotted a layer of grey icy looking clouds, and since the outside temperature was -5 degrees Celsius, he started worrying: would we need to divert or will we remain under the layer? The height of clouds is sometimes hard to appreciate from inside the airplane, which is why Alex has an app called “cloud topper” which allows you to check if they are above or below you. He placed his phone on the dashboard and according to the App, we would stay under the trouble.
Slivers of land at Buh Ruddera
Icy clouds ahead: will we be safe?
A little later it became time for us to put on the upper half of our immersion suits and get ready to cross the Bering Strait and the international dateline. Just after passing the line, we checked our phones to see if they had noticed and for about a minute, it was Tuesday August 31st, 12.28 pm on Alex’ phone (carrier AT&T, USA) and Monday August 30th, 16:28 pm on mine (carrier Movistar Argentina)!
Crossing the international dateline over the Diomede islands at BATNI
After the Strait, we were back in the Americas and the winds and the FOD were looking really good. However, we could not celebrate yet because we encountered clouds with ice and had to go up and down constantly to avoid them: there were layers everywhere! This last-minute icing had not been forecast by Windy and made the flight much more stressful than we had expected since we kept looking out of the window to check for buildup on the wings. Would we need to land in Nome after all, even if we had enough fuel?? Alex requested an “altitude block” and we were authorized to move freely between 8,000 and 10,000 feet but it was not enough, so he had to request a higher one. Finally, after quite some weaving between layers and occasional activation of the TIKAS system (which sends de-icing fluid to the windshield and tops of the wings), we finally arrived in Fairbanks, 5 hours and 20 minutes after leaving our last Russian airport, one full month and 13 flights since entering the country in Pskov.
The suit comes off!
PS: In case you're wondering where our Russia crossing friends Amir and Tamra were during our last legs, I am happy to inform that they left Petropavlovsk (where Jet fuel was easily available) on Friday August 27th and flown their much faster N16AT directly to Anchorage with just a quick fuel stop in Anadyr:)