Leaving Russia was one of the happiest moments of the entire trip. As we climbed out from the remote Siberian outpost of Anadyr, Art and I cheered our successful getaway. Alaska was yet another nine hundred mile flight away, but we didn't care, we could see the finish line. Then by chance, from over the radio, we picked up a transmission from another plane in our group. It took us by surprise as it was a familiar tail number but the voice was Russian. It was the Beechcraft-Duke twin with turbine conversion, this aircraft has limited range and had to make more fuel stops than the other planes in our group. The Russians wouldn't allow this plane to make its last fuel stop without one of their navigators on board- he was the one on the radio. Art asked to talk to Jeff, the Duke's pilot, over our Air Journey common frequency- Jeff sounded tired and depressed. They were trying to make Anadyr before it closed for the night, he was worried they wouldn't make it. Art tried to boost his spirits, we had heard from "Olga" that the Russians were still expecting the Duke to land in Anadyr, and the airport would be open. As it turned out, they made it into Anadyr just fine, but they still had a long flight back to the USA in front of them. Flying around the world is a hard thing to do- especially in a small aircraft. No matter how carefully a person plans, there are going to be difficulties. We knew this going in, and this journey has been tough at times, but that's why we did it- to achieve the ultimate aviation challenge.
It's late at night, but we have the long Arctic days on our side up here. There is a light overcast layer above us and a solid one below- not much to see. The bright sun is helping us to stay awake. Already today, we've flown the nine-hundred mile leg from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, to Anadyr, Russia. We still have nine hundred more miles to go to reach Anchorage, Alaska. The rigid departure slots here in Russia, however, make a difficult flight extra hard. We would have preferred to have left at the crack of dawn this morning but our "slot" was for 10:00 am. Eighteen hundred miles is a long flight day regardless, but not being able to take off until late morning makes it a potentially dangerous one. We're both really tired, but the desire to finally reach American airspace is just to overwhelming at this point- we're flying on jet fuel and adrenaline. We occupy ourselves by talking about the trip as the Pilatus drones along- all of the incredible experiences we've had visiting so many fantastic places and meeting so many wonderful people. Even the Russians were interesting if not all that friendly. We're eating the last of our "boxed lunch" the lady back at the hotel in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky made for us. Some slices of bread with cheese, sausage, a hard boiled egg, and some packaged pastries. Ok, I'm softening up about the Russians a little, at least they let us land and gave us something to eat. We keep an eye on our Garmin GPS screen as we talk- there is a line on the map that is slowly drawing closer. It's just a dotted line on a map, an imaginary boundary in cyberspace, but when we reach it, we'll be home.
Waypoints are funny things really, they are so vital, yet they don't really exist. Modern aviation navigation is accomplished with global positioning satellites these days- even in Russia, a lot of the old ground based radio beacons we tried to tune in were no longer operational. GPS waypoints are the dots that form the line that takes you where you want to go- kind of like bread crumbs. They always have a five letter name, most have been generated randomly by a computer, so they're notoriously hard to pronounce, and spell. Try confirming your position over "KOCPL" and you'll see what I mean. Sometimes the names come out funny- at one point during our travels we were cleared direct to "DINKY". The waypoint Art and I are waiting for is called "VALDA", it's our last reporting point before the hand-off to the USA by the Russian controllers.
it was a moment we won't forget for the rest of our lives
Our long Arctic day is fading, we're heading out across the Bering Straight, and towards the International Date Line. Very unceremoniously, and quite casually, the Russian controller calls in on the radio- "November Five Five Five Papa Echo, switch to frequency one three three decimal five." We've been given frequency changes and been handed from one controller to the next hundreds of times on this flight around the world, but when we switched over to that new frequency and heard the controller say "Anchorage Center" in an American voice; it was a moment we won't forget for the rest of our lives.
Our flight plan had us routed over Nome, Alaska, and then down to Anchorage. One of the first things the US controller asked was if we wanted "direct Anchorage"- you bet! As we got into radio range of Nome, however, we tuned into their weather reporting station- the airport's "ATIS". Jeff and JP, flying the Duke twin, were planning to land there for the night. Our hearts sunk when we heard how bad it was there- we knew there was no chance of the Duke making it in, and as it turned out, they didn't. They ended up at a tiny airport north of Nome, where they wound up sleeping on somebody's couch for the night. We landed in Anchorage at just past eleven at night, easily cleared customs, parked the plane at the Million Air FBO, and got a ride to our hotel from one of their line guys. It was cloudy, cold, and rainy, but we didn't care.
On the way to the hotel, we stopped at a McDonald's drive-thru for a Big Mac, fries, and a chocolate milk shake. The excitement, anxiety, and uncertainty, we'd been going through for the past few days was replaced by a strong sense of the surreal. As the guy at the dive-up window confirmed our order, gave us our change, Art and I were both thinking, was this all real? Did we truly just fly ourselves around the world? We don't look any different to the people around us; nothing apparently stands out. You have this feeling like, "hey everybody, we just flew a single-engine airplane around the world"! But nobody is particularly interested it seems, so we say nothing.
Like so many significant goals a person can reach in their life- this is ultimately a personal accomplishment. There is no trophy waiting- no cash prize, no interviews, no TV spots, its just us. But the next time Art and I meet someone- a person who has done something extraordinary, we won't need to ask them, "what was that like"?, because we already know.
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