AROUND THE WORLD IN 80?, 107?, 63 DAYS
by Michael Hammerschlag
Starting from Moscow, they want to circle the world with 15-45 year old Russian planes , hitting 6 continents, 45 countries, including Antarctica, in 63 days of almost continuous flying. "This is the project of insane people", laughed Alexander Berezhnoi, the commercial director and one of the organizers. Another is Igor Volk, former cosmonaut, chief of test pilots of the Buran Shuttle, and President of the Russian Federation of Amateur Aviators. Flying a vintage Lisunov-2 (DC-3 made in Alma Ata in 1947), Ilyushin-14m ('66), Antonov-2 ('79), and 5 littler Yak-18T's (1965), the FAA aims to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville Wrights' first flight in the dunes of North Carolina (Dec 1903), the 175th anniversary of the first Russian Antarctic trip, and the 35th anniversary of the first Soviet flight to the South Pole.
"For our little 1 engine planes the Antarctic ocean crossing could be very dangerous, because of the erratic weather there and the danger of icing", said Oleg Liakischev, 41, the tanned white haired chief pilot of the DC-3. The threat of ice, fog, and storms has already forced them to cancel the North Atlantic leg through England, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, US Eastern Seaboard, and Caribbean. "The Antonov-2 and the Yaks don't have anti-icing equipment (the menace that almost brought Lindberg down). We're on our 18th variation of the schedule, times and stops", Liakischev said with stoic pride in front of a huge map of Antarctic near the FAA airport in NW Moscow. They wanted to land at the South Pole (3000km farther into Antarctica), but they would need ski's, and the DC-3 and IL-14 are too heavy, so they've compromised on the Russian research base at Borodino (on the peninsula nearest S. America). The little Yaks will be heavy too, loaded with up to 3 times the normal amount of fuel to do the 1800 km (1000 mile) maximum legs, so heavy that they can't land at 2240M (7349 ft) high Mexico City. "They'll probably have to hug the coast", Liakischev admitted.The itinerary still reads like a dream list from a travel agency Ankara, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Crete, Paris, Barcelona, Rabat, Las Palmas, Rio, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima, Panama, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Ketchikan, Anchorage, Moscow; starting January 20.
The ocean crossing from the Westmost coast of Africa to the Eastmost of Brazil along the Cape Verde and San Paulo Islands will also be risky. On a previous 7-plane 1991 expedition through China, SE Asia, and Australia, a fuel pump failed over the Indonesian sea. "We spent 1 1/2 hours pumping the gasoline by hand", said Berezhnoi (one of the advantages of antiquated planes: a Boeing 767 probably doesn't have a hand-operated fuel pump). Berezhnoi recites the tale of approaching within 15 km of a typhoon, "It was a black wall, a separate universe with it's own magnetic field." Forced to land in China, they were immediately arrested until things were sorted out. "Australia was.. fine", recalled Liakischev with a dreamy look as he recited instances of warm hospitality in the tropical vacationland.
The planes have been lovingly restored over a 3 year period; the Li-2, the only one left of 3000 Russian made DC-3's, was outfitted with new engines last summer. Liakischev winces as he recalls witnessing the mindless scrapping of old Mitchells, Bostons, and Katalins as a 11 year old boy, "In front of my eyes I watched these planes being destroyed. It was our Soviet authorities." Incredibly, on the Australia and a 1990 Alaska-Seattle trip, no breakdowns made them wait for new parts; proof of the quality and reliability of old Russian planes that the FAA wants to demonstrate. With the help of a Seattle friend, they'll have the latest navigation gear: the Global Positioning Satellite System that can pinpoint position worldwide to within 10 Meters. Visas were obtained over a year with the help of the many amateur aircraft associations around the world., especially the Int. Owners and Pilots Association. The 33-person expedition plans to fly about 1000km a day (5 hrs.), all in daylight, with a day off for service and rest once a week. "This trip is about making friends, not money," maintained Berezhnoi.
It does cost though, at least $ 2 1/2 million, he said, which they've mostly raised from a variety of sources, including carrying advertising on the planes that would be seen by millions along the 60,500 km (33,000 mi) and 45 countries of the route. But they could use more to guarantee the safety, probability of success, and ambitious schedule.