I had been looking forward to seeing Russia, but most of what I see is on the ride back to the airport Monday morning (it will become Sunday again when we cross the Bering Strait). The city of Kamchatsky appears similar to a U.S. city of similar size, with a mix of newer, often brightly colored buildings and clearly older structures. Outside of the city we drive along miles of tree-lined roads, with some leaves starting to show hints of fall color, that are punctuated occasionally by brightly colored, cinder-block bus shelters. There must be unseen homes behind the trees, however, because several shelters have people in them, and there are pedestrians along the rainy roadway.
Closer to the airport we pass through residential areas that are somewhat ramshackle; many homes have one or more apparently disused vehicles, some missing wheels or fenders. Closer to the airport there are a number of large apartment buildings that look as though they could be former barracks, leading me to believe the facility is a former–or current–military base.
We meet our handler at the terminal, bypass one security checkpoint, then have our bags x-rayed and walk through a magnetometer at a second, apparently for crews and airport workers; on the bus out to the airplane, she gives us a weather package for this 1,004-nautical-mile leg, and discusses the two departure options. We can take off from either end of the single runway (the adjacent 16 Right/34 Left is under construction), “Just ask air traffic control.” Because of terrain near the airport, we decide a 34 Right departure will be preferable–even though we’ll have to backtrack the runway’s full 11,158-foot length.
Last night it looked like we were in the middle of nowhere, but in daylight, there are two terminal buildings nearby, and a handful of twin-engine turboprops are a few hundred yards away. As we begin our rainy taxi, a three-engine Russian jet reminiscent of an older Falcon is being towed toward the terminals. Our lengthy taxi up a long taxiway, around the construction, and back down the runway gives us several glimpses of military activity. Off to the right, a transport plane sits in a revetment, surrounded by trees that look as though they could obscure its movement. Closer to the runway, behind a gated taxiway on the left, are a number of fighter jets that look like Sukhois. We bid farewell to our Follow Me truck and begin the long back-taxi, finding the side of the runway smoother than the center. We pass a fenced compound of trucks with radar antennas, and at the approach end of Runway 34 Right is another large ramp with several military transports, and beyond them, quite a few helicopters. Strangely, we see nobody in any of these areas. It’s not Sunday; perhaps the national holiday? Regardless, men and equipment are working on the new runway.
After starting engines early and our taxi tour, we’re airborne at 9:17 a.m. local, 21:17 Z–that’s 17 minutes behind our plan, but not bad under the circumstances. Our departure clearance is to Flight Level 090 (about 9,000 feet) but radar control immediately clears us to FL 250. This is good for terrain clearance and our fuel burn; departures must be above 7,190 feet by RILAT intersection and we make that easily. We start to fly out of the tops at 9,500 feet, and radar control accommodates our request to cut a corner by clearing us direct to GEFAR–which actually cuts two corners.
Most of the leg is in clear air with thick clouds below, but they clear temporarily over the Anadyrskiy Gulf. We look down on a desolate brown peninsula with snow-spotted mountains to our right and sheer cliffs falling to bright blue-green water on the left. Later, a river is seen snaking through a deep, curving valley. We get a slight push from the winds aloft at our cruise power setting until they shift and weaken closer to our destination of Anadyr, Russia, where the ATIS indicates better conditions than were forecast.
Like Petropavlosk, Anadyr’s runway sits beside a bay, but it’s not surrounded by mountains, and the ILS approach to Runway 1 is very straightforward. But the ATIS included a statement, “Hazardous wind shear on final,” and a helicopter pilot on the approach ahead of us said, in English, “Significant wind shear,” and then talked in Russian with the controller, who also relayed the advisory. Later the pilot said, “Stops at runway.” We appreciated the heads up. Sure enough, there was a pretty wicked wind shear on final, which made it hard to track the localizer. We were below the clouds and had the runway visually. And sure enough, just after crossing the threshold, the shear disappeared.
A marshaller parked us, then left, and there was no sign of our handler. After waiting a few minutes, Mike placed a call to BaseOps–we had a phone number for the handler, but did not know what country code to dial. The handler arrived a few minutes later, very apologetic, because it was an unusually busy day in Anadyr; a charter flight was trying to depart with more than a hundred French tourists aboard and clearing them apparently required all the airport’s resources. Customs and immigration arrived before long; the latter left with our passports and brought them back half an hour later, stamped and ready to go. The fuel truck arrived, and once the proper ladder was procured, fueling went quickly.
I ask the handler about snow here, and we quickly learn we don’t want to be here in the winter. The snow usually starts in September, but sometimes in August, she says. “Maybe today,” says the immigration man. And I guess it could; it’s 8 degrees Celsius so about 45 degrees Fahrenheit at what we think is early afternoon local time. I also ask about a large mural on the terminal building; a cartoon figure of a young girl stands, arms upraised, with Cyrillic characters that read, “The day begins here.” I ask if I can take a photo; the handler says she thinks it would be ok but our friend in the green uniform says, “No pictures.” So, I don’t. We take off from Runway 1 after a 90-minute stop and a very short taxi.
The leg from Anadyr to Fairbanks is a bit shorter, at 919 nautical miles. We depart Russian airspace after about an hour, then we cross the International Date Line, jump from Monday afternoon to Sunday evening, and enter U.S. airspace–all at about the same time.
We overfly Nome, Alaska, but see nothing because of the thick clouds below us. The moon rises at our 2 o’clock position as the sun slowly sets behind us. Around Galena, we look down and through some breaks in the clouds we see the wide, graceful curves of the Yukon River. Eventually all traces of reflected orange disappear from the eastern horizon in front of us, and we fly into a deepening purple haze. After the sun has set, and we’re approaching Fairbanks, the moon’s reflection dances on the winding Tanana River off the right wing. Not all of this could be committed to film–er, pixels–through a thick plexiglass window, but they’re indelible mental images I’ll always carry with me.
It’s been great to travel around the world, but it’s also great to be back in the United States. Here, if you don’t understand an instruction from air traffic control, it’s usually a speed issue (they’re talking too fast or you’re listening too slow)–not a language issue. And I’m hard pressed to remember the last time we were cleared for a visual approach; in many countries a full approach is the norm, even when the extra flying is not required by weather. We touched down in Fairbanks and I had what I think is the most painless Customs experience I’ve ever had in the United States. I guess I could complain that it was 11 p.m. by the time we got to the hotel, and there was nowhere to get a hot meal–instead, it’s beef jerky for dinner as I edit photos in the hotel room. But I’m not complaining, it’s great to be (almost) home.