Still trying to think of a good reason to fly to Sun ‘n Fun this weekend? Here is one. For the 1st time ever in North America, Red Bull Air Racing will host a demonstration with Master Class race pilots Michael Goulian and Kirby Chambliss. The demo will include the 80 foot high pylons, tours, virtual reality sims, and more. Weather permitting, the demonstration will be held the afternoons of April 8, 9, & 10th.
Fueling on the next leg of the race from Moscow to Irkutsk (2,897 miles) was a problem as the fuel was hand pumped and we were “on the clock” but we thought we had a solution. The mid-way fueling point was in Omsk. A friend of mine, Michaela, had moved to Russia a few months earlier and lived in Moscow. She had connections in the government and had tentatively arranged for 3 men to arrive at the Omsk Airport and help us fuel the plane. First I needed to get through to my friend. I had called repeatedly but the phone was never answered. Thinking I had written the phone number down wrong I went to the front desk at the hotel only to find that phone books or telephone directory assistance did not exist in Russia. The staff said I should go to the “subway entrance” (a subway is an underground walkway on major streets in Russia due to the cold) and speak with the man with the brown fedora and trench coat and in 24 hours I would have a phone number, address, and any personal information on my friend if desired. Wow! I really thought the staff was pulling my leg but right next to the subway entrance was a man dressed as described…looking just like a spy in a cold war movie. Fortunately, my friend called and we meet at a government official’s office while the rest of the race group went to a Russian Air Museum. We finalized the terms and went to lunch together at a new Italian Bistro that had just opened.
The concept of good or even fair customer service is not in the Russian vocabulary. The staff at the hotel was not necessarily verbally rude but simply ignored you and turned their back once they answered your question. The waiter at the restaurant actually read from a script to take our order and for any communication to be pleasant. I told my friend what a difficult time my husband was having in getting through to us in Russia. My husband Jim’s friend, John Polumbo was an executive at Sprint, one of our sponsors, and they had given us free long distance around the world. In 1992 there were not many phone lines into Russia. He was able to get a line through in only one out of every ten attempts. Imagine the frustration of finally getting through only to have the hotel staff avoid picking up the phone. Michaela later said that she was surprised that the hotel staff even answered the phone given the lack of motivation during these transition times in Russia. I learned she was currently without hot water for one month every year as the pipes were being cleaned in the part of the city where she lived. She also said that she did not drive but took a taxi everywhere as it was looked down upon if a woman was driving a car. I was shocked. I thought we were in a country of another superpower but the more we traveled the more I saw the hard life of the people. After being in Moscow for less than 1 day I did notice that nobody smiled at all!
Since we were without the group, Marion and I went to St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. We were in for a treat! Nobody was around so the person collecting tickets motioned for us to come around the cordoned off area and follow her. She took us to a large room where huge oil paintings were simply stacked against each other 10 deep on 3 walls. This was art dating back to the early czars and there was one man that was responsible for the restoration of all these Russian masterpieces! He spent about 20 minutes with us describing the scenes and people in the paintings and the history with each work of art. We were then given a personal tour of St. Basil’s along with a retelling of the violent history associated with the building. ©
Next segment, the race almost ends in Russia. Wishing you Blue Skies & Tailwinds!™
The second leg of the air race was from Helsinki, Finland, to Moscow, Russia. It was the shortest leg of the race measuring only 552 miles. Before each race day there was a pre-flight briefing to be alerted to any changes, and, of course, current weather conditions. The race director established a frequency for the race planes to communicate with one another if necessary. The Russians also required that each race plane give a position report every 10 minutes. In a position report the pilot identified the aircraft, the current position, time over the position in UTC (coordinated Universal Time AKA Greenwich Time), flight level, the next reporting point, and ETA over that point in UTC.
With an overcast sky in Helsinki the race planes took off at one minute intervals. Horsepower wise the Tailwinds World Flyer was the second slowest aircraft in the race so we could hear the chatter of the planes ahead with the Russian controller. Things were not perfect but okay with the Russian controller until the planes encountered some cumulous cloud build-ups that quickly formed into a line of thunderstorms. Obviously general aviation aircraft cannot fly through, or fly above most thunderstorms so avoidance is the only solution. We assumed that most of the race aircraft had a storm scope as we did that showed the cells of the storm. As we approached the build-ups we began to hear requests from fellow pilots to be diverted around the storm cells. The Russians did manage to provide the Round the World Race with English speaking controllers; however, there was still some difficulty in communication. The first Russian controller was not used to handling this number of aircraft at the same time and between the position reports and diversion requests frustration began to creep into his voice with his best broken English. Turbulence went from moderate and then to severe as we reached the thunderstorms and requested to be diverted. At this point the controller had pretty much lost it. He either would not respond to repeated requests for course diversions or directions that were issued were simply not possible. Finally he simply screamed out “all race craft..….stay where you are.” Well, this was certainly not possible! Fortunately, all racers went to the private race channel and we communicated to one another as to where we were with location and flight level, and the course we were diverting to as not to run into one another. Fortunately, we all got through the line of thunderstorms safely and as we approached Moscow the weather was VFR.
We were to land at what was once a secret airport south of Moscow named Ramenskoe Airport. I don’t know how it was kept secret as it size was enormous. The runway length was over 3 miles long (5400 meters) and it was wide enough for 3 Boeing 747 aircraft to be wingtip to wingtip. Here we encountered our first experience of lack of modern technology in Russia. I radioed in to request permission to land. Normally this type of request is handled quickly and we could not figure out why it took so long for landing approval. We were almost to the airport and still had not had approval to land and were thinking that we would have to go round wasting precious minutes. We did finally receive approval to land in the nick of time. We found out later that there was no tower at the airport. Literally, a man would come out of a wood booth that was not much larger than a comfortable phone booth and looked up in the sky with binoculars. If he saw the airplane he would radio back that you were approved to land. If not, each plane had to circle until you got his attention and received permission to land.
Taxiing to the tie down location took 15 minutes due to the size of the airport. We were greeted by 2 groups of Russians. The first group were three beautiful young girls dressed in native clothing that began singing a Russian folk song of greeting. Then when we opened the cockpit door and exited the aircraft 2 young soldiers – they looked to be about 16- pointed their rifles at us and demanded our papers before we could step off the wing. This action, of course, stopped the singing and the girls moved away from the plane. Russia was definitely showing its transitional pains from being a closed Communist country to opening its doors to the Western world.
That night we learned we did not maintain first position. With 3 hours and 55 minutes of flight time, we came in 3rd place but were second place overall being 14 minutes and 47 seconds from first position. Next, our fueling strategy for the longest leg of the race of 2,897 miles from Moscow to Irkutsk.
Wishing you Blue Skies & Tailwinds!™
I really looked forward to flying through Russia. We would be some of the first general aviation aircraft from outside Russia to traverse the country. As it happened this part of the race turned out to be fraught with unexpected challenges and eye opening experiences. Arc en Ceil, French for rainbow, was the name of the company that ran the air race. Arc en Ceil was headed by Bernard Lamy, a no nonsense retired French Air Force Colonel.
The Communist Soviet Bloc had broken up in December, 1991 and since we were racing in June, 1992 the organization was somewhat concerned for everyone’s safety. Planes travel with ELTs, electronic transmission devices that advise the location of the aircraft should there be a forced landing or other mishap. On the way to the race all planes were required to pick-up a 2nd ELT just to fly through Russia. These ELTs had a special signal just in case one of the race planes was intercepted by the Russian military or if there was a crash in the vast, unpopulated, open space of Siberia. Tracking the ELT’s signal the organization would be able to locate the plane and pilots. Fortunately, these special ELTs were never put to use.
Another challenge was fuel. Russia had plenty of jet fuel but not avgas which is what is needed for general aviation aircraft. The race organization had to have it imported from Scotland to the various airports where we would land in Russia. The issue for the pilots was that all the fuel had to be hand pumped into the airplane tanks. I thought, so what, we’ll just build up our arm muscles. The “so what” is that unlike other races, if you needed to refuel before reaching the destination airport, refueling was “on the clock.” This was obviously a big advantage to aircraft that did not have to land to refuel between airports. The race rules prohibited a “fuselage” tank. These are usually temporary fuel tanks placed inside the airplane to travel long distances such as crossing the Atlantic Ocean or the “big pond” as it is fondly called among pilots. We had 10 fuel tanks for the twin, or 5 for each engine. Fuel management was almost a job in itself as we burned fuel for a ½ hour and then switched tanks making note of how much fuel should be left in each tank. Devising this fuel management strategy, to again, get the best possible speed out of the aircraft at all times was learned as well during preparation for the race with speed tests. It was tested to see if there was an advantage to burning a certain fuel tank first or was it better to run a certain tank completely dry before changing to another.
Next, the trail of the flight during the second leg of the race to Moscow.
Wishing you Blue Skies & Tailwinds!™