A World Flight Over Russia
by E.B. GO Founder Brad (Michael Joseph) Butler
The assignment documenting a group of 12 small aircraft flying 17,500 miles around the world in 20 days while crossing Russia in July 1992. Only months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this fascinating and unexpected job totally changed my life.
In June 1992, I had no idea that in a few weeks my life would change forever by documenting a once-in-a-lifetime aviation adventure around the world across Russia at crucial time in history and writing a book about the experience using multiple pilot journals, 20 hours of video tape and what I remembered. Working in Santa Monica in the Video Production Dept. at National Medical Enterprises., my boss, Sean McCall, had a side project with Bob Ortwin that involved documenting a flight of 12 small aircraft flying around the world across Russia. I was unaware of the project and their guy dropped out in early June and they had to scramble as departure was July 4 from the historic Santa Monica Airport. While watching the Dodger game at home the phone rang and Sean asked me if I wanted to fly around the world across Russia, knowing his kidding nature I cursed him out and told I was watching the game and “leave me alone.” He yelled “don’t hang up, I’m serious,” and he proceeded to explain the details and I was hooked, even though I had never flown in a small aircraft before.
In March 1991 Marcel Large of Raid International, a company that organized air rallies headquartered in Paris, took the first private group of aircraft into Soviet airspace when they flew to Murmansk, and that is when the idea of a group of primarily American crews flying around the world across the Soviet Union took hold. Marcel recruited fellow Frenchman Eric Vercesi, then working out of Santa Monica Airport, to help organize from stateside. From March 1991 to July 1992 they put together a very complex affair as the Soviet Union fell apart for good, and against all odds 10 aircraft left Santa Monica on the journey of a lifetime. We picked up 4 more aircraft, two of them permanent participants, at Southend Airport near London before moving on to Moscow via Helsinki.
Our planned route, see map below, closely approximated the followed the historic routes covered by Wiley Post, twice, once alone, the Graf Zeppelin and Howard Hughes in The Flying Laboratory. After the flight I would go over the Santa Monica Airport and visit the Museum of Flying, and during one visit I bought a book about World Flights by Carroll Glines and discovered these facts and this was in the back of my mind when, two years later, I received four-major pilot’s journals in the mail that made a comprehensive book entirely possible. Dennis Stewart had taken the journals collated the four into one time-line document that was terrific. Using the journals and 20 hours of video tape made comprehensive book within reach.
It was called the 1st Annual Around the World Air Rally, July 4, 1992—July 24, 1992, because the plan was a different group flying a different route across Russia every, it never happened again and that is, in part, why I wrote the book. We sneaked through a watershed period in world and Russian history as 70 years of Bolshevik control just went away, an event very few of the supposedly brilliant analysts predicted. Soviet Russia was a complete horror show in many ways; 20 million killed in peacetime by Stalin, 20+ million or more killed fighting Nazi Germany in the largest land war in world history; millions tortured, arrested, sent to gulag slave labor camps; millions of lives ruined for the great Marxist-Leninist Utopian vision.
Major Organizing Obstacles: A major problem was fuel and this also related to finding proper authorities to deal with in the New Russia. Government departments were in such disarray that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow often didn’t know who was in charge of what. First, the engine manufacturers refused to honor their warranties if Russian Av-gas, jet fuel was standard and OK, ruined their products and this escalated participation costs dramatically. Organizers purchased 10,000 gallons of British Petroleum Av-gas and arranged for transport to Russia by ship. Then, after numerous ideas were scuttled by Russian pressure, meaning they wanted the money, organizers were talked into renting a massive IL-76, one of the largest aircraft in the world, and a crew to fly with the group from Moscow across Siberia to Anadyr, a major Pacific Coast nuclear launching site and air force base where no Western or civilian aircraft had ever landed before (Note: According to some experts consulted, we were probably the last also).
We would hand pump the fuel out of barrels and this proved a rather interesting task at every stop. Cost of the IL-76 and crew was a clean sixty-thousand dollars, which, when combined with the purchase price and transport from the U.K., brought the per-gallon cost of crossing Russia to a budget-busting 14 bucks a gallon.
Getting Permission to Fly Across Russia: Second, was getting actual permission to fly across Russia and the routing. Marcel, his wife Michelle, Eric and Paul Hollenbeck, another key organizer working in Santa Monica, traveled to Moscow in January 1992 for meetings with Russian officials. But confusion reigned and arrangements were left hanging, although it appeared the routing around sensitive military airspace was going to make some flights longer and more dangerous than anticipated. All airports in the Soviet Union, now Russia, were duel use for military and civilians.
Interesting Fact: The airfields were filthy; junk piled up here and there, burned out fuselages sitting in between runways; garbage and stuff all over the runways. Unlike Western military aircraft, which are precision instruments and require clean ground operations to avoid damage, Russia military aircraft are like flying tanks, able to take lots of abuse and keep flying and, most important, keep fighting.
Organizing such a complex affair during the crumbling of the Bolshevik regime was extremely stressful, but Marcel, Eric and the rest of the organizers were lucky and tenacious in their endeavor. In fact the final OK from Moscow didn’t arrive until one month before departure.
Building Bridges for Annual World Flight Over Russia Air Rallies: Another fascinating aspect is that Marcel wanted the first flight to be followed by yearly World Flights Across with a different group flying a different route over the vast Russian landmass ia every summer. So he sought to build bridges with Russian liaisons, businessmen, politicians and dignitaries. When, through a quirk of political fate we ended up with Vice President Alexander Rutskoy as our benefactor, the ability of our group to attract attention increased tremendously. In addition, it was decided to have American and English children write letters to Russian children in Moscow and Novosibirsk, a major intellectual and defense research city in Western Siberia. Thus our aviation adventure had a humanitarian side with long range goals of establishing relationships in a variety of ways.
Upon departure the final lineup included the King Air 200, the aircraft I was on, in the follow-up support role flown by Mark Eaton and also containing the mechanic, Doug McDaniel, spare parts and a few paying passengers. The rest of the permanent group included 4 Bonanzas (1 a jetprop) 2 Cessna 421s, 1 Cessna 340, a Mooney flown by Marcel Large, a Piper-Archer and a Citation I in the lead support role.
On July 3,1992 I was a nervous wreck as the organizers and participants gathered at Santa Monica Airport for the final briefing, which was followed by a group dinner that night at a high-rise hotel overlooking the beautiful coastline. Sean McCall and Bob Ortwin had scrambled for three weeks putting together my camera and video gear while trying to plan for contingencies, which saw me wisely purchase water purification kits and mosquito repellent. Remember, no digital media. Color slide film, blank video tapes, big bulky video camera, and not much room on the King Air 200 for storage.
Frankly, I had little idea what I was in for and the pilots who sensed my condition furthered it with wise cracks and tales of doom. The flight crews had been planning this Dream Trip for almost 18 months, and now that effort was about to become a reality.
The morning of America’s Day of Independence dawned foggy and cool in Santa Monica, and the flight crews and participants in the 10 aircraft which left that morning had little idea of how truly unique special their World Flight Over Russia would become. That day we shared an ABC News national broadcast with the Space Shuttle Columbia as the Astronauts blared out “Happy Birthday America,” leading to our story as news anchor Carole Simpson announced the beginning of a “flight of 12 Earth bound planes flying around the world across Russia.”
Our first major test was crossing the North Atlantic from Goose Bay, Canada to Iceland, and from there we would land in London to pick up the other aircraft and have a reception at the “Mayour’s Parlour” and a banquet at the RAF WII Museum at Hendon, a historic place where great Airshows of the 1930s were held. From there we would enter Russian airspace from Helsinki before landing on the grass field of Tushino in the Northwest Prefect of Moscow, where Stalin and a million Russians watched a military demonstration a few years before Hitler invaded. In fact, we were the first Western or Civilian aircraft to land at that field as well, and the curious Muscovites came out in droves to see the aircraft and the people who flew them.
We had quite a few close calls with stray aircraft, stubborn Russian controllers and bureaucrats, but with all the troubles we managed to complete our historic journey without leaving anyone behind; either dead or alive. Most everyone was changed by the experience to some degree, some more than others. Don Temple, of Long Beach, California, sponsored a young Russian girl, Olga, who acted as a translator in Moscow, to attend school in Los Angeles and she is now a citizen. The trip changed her life, and she didn’t fly in any of the planes.
It had changed me after I went and would really alter my life when I sat down to write the book in June 1994. It was clear nothing like it would ever happen again, Moscow refused permission in 1993 because safety concerns in Siberia, they were not listening to Moscow anymore, and it was worse in 1994. So there it was, time was ripe and I had been thinking about it so much it was time act, OH BOY, what a fateful decision. After returning from the 50th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France (I also attended the 50th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor in Dec. 1991), I sat down to write the book, again, with little idea what I was in for.
A World Flight Over Russia was written using 4 major pilot’s journals, 9 ancillary journals, interviews, what I remembered and the 25 hours of video tape. The video allowed me to reconstruct long forgotten events with extreme precision; how the clouds looked, speeches given, conversations, interactions with officials, all kinds of things easily forgotten. After it was all done I noticed that Dennis Stewart’s journal was in present tense, while my writing and everything else was in past tense. I like this approach and went and changed the whole story of present tense, which I had to fight to keep with my publisher,
Now that very detailed account of a most complicated journey is being enjoyed around the world, the story of a grand adventure which took place at a thoroughly fascinating time in history.”