Russia part 8: Two planes on the way from Vladivostok to Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is the main city in Kamchatka. It is not connected to the mainland by roads, you can only get there by air or water. We did both: we went by air, over water, together with our friends from N16AT.
Our first stop was Yuzhno Sakhalinsk (UHSS), a formerly Japanese island about 20 nautical miles (36km) from Japan and 3.5 hours of flight away from Vladivostok. The weather on this Friday, August 20th, was very good so we left in a very relaxed mood, especially since the departure from UHWW had been very easy thanks to Igor, MAK aviation’s representative there who had helped us fuel the plane upon arrival so everything was ready for our crossing to “almost-Japan”. We had also already placed our life rafts and survival bags on the back seat and slipped on our life jackets before climbing into our seats. According to the Windy App, the temperature of the Sea of Japan was about 18 degrees -i.e. not Arctic- so we had chosen not to wear our immersion suits because we were going to stay close to land as long as possible and therefore there were “only” about 150 nautical miles over water on this leg.
Leaving the safe coast
All along our Russian trip, locals had warned us about the high level of military activity in the country and we had seen many military aircraft in airports, but we had not yet experienced the effects firsthand until this flight. The controller had informed us that we had to stay at-or-below 9000 feet because of a military restriction but at the end of our climb, Alex started to use his usual technique of climbing a little higher (to 9300 feet) in order to build up speed faster when descending back to 9000. No luck this time: when we reached 9100 feet, the controller immediately called “what are you doing”? Alex quickly set the altitude to 9000 again and we had to gain speed the slow way…
Our arrival at UHSS was just as uneventful as our departure, we were greeted by a bus that would take us to the terminal. Before climbing out of the plane, I performed my usual routine of writing down the actual flight duration based on the flight timer under the armrest and taking a picture of the fuel left in the tanks, as indicated by the gauges. This information would allow me to improve our fuel consumption estimates by comparing them to the actual consumption which would come in very handy for the long flights ahead of us. In the last two weeks of August, there are very many pictures of fuel gauges and FOD (Fuel on Destination) estimates from the MFD screen on my phone, it almost looks like I have an Obsessive Fuel Disorder (OFD).
Fuel gauges (I literally have dozens of pictures of them)
Flight time log (taken in Blagoveshchensk)
I guess that OFD is not a bad condition when you are in the remote Russian East over large bodies of water. My disorder is inspired in part by the BAZ flyers, the couple from New Zealand who flew around the world in 2019. When we spoke to them in July 2020 to prepare our trip, they explained that they had a routine: every 30 minutes, they would write down their heading, their fuel tank levels compared to their estimates and measure their oxygen with an oximeter. They even shared their logging documents with us. In their case fuel management was a little more complex because their Piper Comanche had seven tanks! We only have two and our main concern is whether the fuel the computer thinks the plane has (which is based on the fuel levels originally entered by us every time we fill the wings minus the consumption measured in “gallons per hour” many times per second) corresponds to the actual fuel in the plane, as measured by the gauges. This is important because the FOD measure comes from the computer and is our absolute guide in decision making.
And before taking the bus, we needed to tie the plane down and cover it with its “pajamas”, as usual. This operation takes quite some time and Alex was in a hurry to use the restroom, so he asked our welcome committee if there was one nearby. Not only did they point him in the right direction but they sympathetically supplied him with the means to get there fast.
In the meantime, Amir and Tamra had arrived much earlier in their N16AT Vision jet and were waiting for us at the Santa Resort hotel where they had already booked a room for us. We were only going to stay one night so we did not really have time to enjoy the “resort” part of the hotel (gardens, pool, jacuzzi, sauna etc…), but we did go for a walk to the city center, through a very large park.
We found Yuzhno Sakhalinsk to be a city full of fairly modern Soviet style apartment buildings and a few nice avenues -Prospekt Communist and Mira, like in Krasnoyarsk-.
On our way from the airport to the city
The morning after our quick city tour, we made sandwiches at the hotel’s breakfast table in prevision of the five hour flight over water to Petropavlovsk. We refueled just before departure -they had a really cool electric pump!- donned our immersion suits to our waists -we figured that at 11000 feet, we had about 10 minutes to put on the top part before ditching- and our life vests. Windy had informed that the temperature of the water in this part of the sea of Okhotsk was about 15 degrees Celsius, i.e pretty arctic!
Our jet friends only wore their life jackets: they would get there faster and at flight level 36000, they had at least 30 minutes to get ready for a water landing!
Once over full water however, Alex and I had second thoughts and put on the other half of the suits thinking “why not use them fully, they are expensive enough”! This exercise also made time go by faster since we each needed about 10 minutes to remove our life vest, pull the suit over our head after removing the headset, close the zipper in the back while seated and put the headset and life vest back on, and of course we did it one after the other because when you have your head in the rubber suit-collar you can’t really pay attention to the flight instruments! I do hope nothing ever happens to Alex while I wear the suit though because I’m not a good enough pilot to deal with this extra layer of discomfort. With the suit on, it also took me about 30 minutes to climb in the back seat and use the Travel John® (remember, this was a 5-hour flight), so I was definitely not bored over the sea of Okhotsk, despite the fact that it was cloudy below and we could not see anything but sky and clouds through the window during the first part of the crossing. Alex also killed time by making a video of me, coming back from my bio-break.
Alex had made an bow-shaped route from UHSS to UHPP to avoid a low-pressure system to the South and he was spot-on: the wind started pushing us and the clouds below went away exactly when Windy had predicted they would so we could start staring at the sea which we had only seen on the screen so far, instead of at the clouds. We found out later from our jet friends who had taken the straight route to UHPP that they encountered turbulence and clouds, another proof that Windy was right. We love Windy!
The straight line goes through bad weather, the bow avoids it!
Close to point RUDOS we were asked if we had HF radio, we answered “negative” but added that we had a Sat-phone. The controller gave us a number to call for our next reporting point and it worked! Before losing communications, we requested to take a shortcut with respect to our flight plan now that the weather was better. At first this was refused and the controller just asked us to call her with the Sat-phone to test it. When we made contact, she gave us permission to go direct to ROMUK and skip two points that were more North. We saved 11 minutes of flight time over water which is appreciable!
Apart from this short interaction, our 4 hours over water were mostly silent ATC-wise: there were not a lot of aircraft around. We heard one Delta flight and, in the beginning, we also heard N16 AT until they changed frequency because they were twice as fast as us. It reminded me of the eerie silence we experienced during our first ocean crossing from Cayenne to Martinique (described in March 18th post).
The loneliness of the Ocean crossing: no airport within 200 nautical miles...
Shortly before arrival, we saw a beautiful volcano on our right and asked if we could circle over it but it was refused. I had inquired very nicely (usually Alex does the communications but in some places we think it’s better if a female voice makes the requests) but the controller just repeated the instructions to go direct to the airport. He probably felt bad for us but could not explain the reason for his refusal in English so he called his supervisor who introduced himself very politely on the radio and explained there was too much traffic for us to be able to do our scenic detour. Was it true or was it piston-plane discrimination? Just a few hours earlier, N16AT had been granted permission to fly around the volcano!
The volcano from afar
Getting closer to the airport
A little frustrated but happy to be there, we landed in Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky and started filming the unusual airplanes that were parked on the edges of the taxiway. Suddenly, ground control instructed us to expedite taxi – were we not allowed to film?? Soon after, a “follow-me” car appeared and it was moving so fast that we ended up taxiing at 40 knots per hour (almost rotation speed!) - they really did not want us to linger there!
Secret planes on taxiway?
Following the car, at 40 knots!
Once the airplane was securely parked, I booked an airbnb apartment with ocean view and we ordered a Yandex to take us to the city where we had planned to stay 5 days to discover Kamchatka.