July 24, 1998
We are now in Moscow, Russia.
No air conditioning. By 9 AM your room is like a sauna. Come on Siberia! You get up, take a shower with cool water (No hot. That’s ok because of the heat). Then you move real slow so you don’t work up a sweat. We had a meeting at the Tushino airport this morning. It was with the Russian Pilots, Aviatrissa, Flight Safety Foundation International and the Orenburg Airlines. We knew we were getting good help from the Russians but I think this is where we really realized it. They had their own press packets printed up for the “Bridge of Wings” flight. They are great. on the back, it lists the organizers of the flight, Aviatrissa, Government of Moscow, and the Flight Safety Foundation International. Supported by: The Central Department of Operational Services “Aerotrans”, Airborne Forces, Ministry of Defense of Russia, Chakolov’s National Air Club, and so on. We learned that there will be 2 AN-2’s and the Maule. They have everything worked out to the point of putting a mobile communication unit in the middle of the far east Siberian route. I’m telling you, this thing is very intimidating at times to an old Arkansas girl.
After our meeting with the project organizers, we had a meeting in Moscow with former Women W.W.II Pilots (Night Witches). We thought it was a little meeting of 4 or 5. We walked into a room of around 50 women with medals all over their dresses. (Of course, I had a 4-day old flight suit on and so did Nikki) After these amazing women spoke, Nikki and I had to also. Yeah right, they dropped bombs at night and we flew a single engine plane to Russia. No comparison! Terrie and May Adair (our documentary team) got some great interviews. From here we went back to the hotel. Big day! Natassia invited us up to her room to visit with an air traffic controller, 2 AN-2 pilots, and an engineer. The engineer told Nikki that when he saw her picture, he was inspired to write a poem. Now, she’s sitting over there thinking, “Please not in front of Rhonda and the journal”. Even though he spoke in Russian, I understood every word. He impressed her with the wad of money in his pocket, he sang her a song, flashed the 4 gold front teeth and then the ultimate…. He did a duck call for her. Nikki, Nikki, Nikki. I drug her away reluctantly and we went to the outdoor cafe behind the hotel. Mikey, Jeremy, Doug and Terrie were sitting and talking. We joined them and about midnight got a wild hair. Let’s go to Red Square. Couldn’t get a cab at the hotel so we walked a few blocks past the ladies of the night. We stood on a street corner and waited. You need to watch Nikki negotiate a Russian cab ride then see 6 people crawl into a Fiat. Jeremy is 6’4″ (he has to fold up). then as we ride piled 2 high, the driver and Nikki argue over how to say Red Square. The 6 rednecks walked Red Square till 2 am. It was fantastic… St. Basil Cathedral is probably the prettiest building that I have ever seen.
July 25, 1998
Press Conference at the airport this morning. I felt like …. well, I don’t know what. We sat at the head table with the Russian Pilots. Microphones on the table, cameras all around the room, reporters, the real deal. Moscow government was there, Intrastate Aviation, Flight Safety Foundation, etc. etc. Nikki talked, I talked, Khalide and Natassia talked. Then about 6 – 7 others spoke before questions. After the press conference, we flew the AN-2. Natassia and Nikki first. Then Natassia and I. Like driving a truck with no power steering. I loved it. Today our altitude never got over 150 ft. We landed at a field 45 minutes North of Moscow. There were YAKS and SU-26. I met another World Aerobatics Champion there. She was great. This is a place where the runway is crappy, the planes sit outside and the grass is high. Back to Moscow is about an hour. 150′ above the ground, (think I saw someone taking a shower through their window). Landed back at Tushino Airfield and put the plane up for the night. Tired, we went to the hotel for dinner and a budget meeting with the Russians.
Then there is tomorrow.
P.S. Just think about how cool this is. Flew a Maule to Russia and now flying an AN-2 over the City of Moscow at 150 ft.
July 26, 1998
Up and at them this morning. May Adair and Terrie wanted interviews with the 4 pilots for the documentary. So we went out to the air field. Everyone got theirs done but me. We ended up running out of time because we needed to film Marina Roscova and Paulina Ossipenko’s memorial plaques, where their ashes are in the walls of Red Square. Then we went to the cemetery where Valentino Grizodubova is buried and filmed. Flight Safety International has been wonderful. They have hauled us all over the place and taken care of us totally.
Our reception in Moscow has been incredible!! In the press conference, a representative from the Interstate Aviation Committee told the reporters that “our women pilots, and I call them “OUR” because they have worked so hard on this flight, that they are now ours”… (Does this mean we have to stay here?) They are great. When we get into Siberia, things will be harder, but they already know we are coming and we will have support onboard.
After all the cemetery stuff, we ate and went back to the air field. I did my interview and Nikki sat in the AN-2 trying to get comfortable with the panel. Some of our crew took naps. Doug, Terrie, Mikey, May Adair, and Jeremy got up early and went to church in Red Square. Nikki and I slept in. So basically, today was a “tie up loose ends” kind of day. Tomorrow morning, we will start our flight through Siberia. In preparation Nikki had Flight Safety take her to the store to look for Werthers Candy and Pistachio nuts. If you know Nikki, you know she can’t fly without a sack lunch. We are having to ship all kinds of things home before we leave. The region of Orenburg gave us gifts of onyx jewel boxes and babusus (finely woven shawls). This region is in the Urals. We have berets and shirts from the Airborne Services of Russia. The list goes on and on. Russian people are very generous, we have found. Anyway, we are packed.
Nikki is going in the AN-2, I’m in the Maule, Mikey and Jeremy are in the support AN-2. Off to an adventure of a lifetime and wondering how we pulled this off so far. Khalides mechanic told us that we were very strong to have organizes this with the Russian government. I told him that it took us and many others to do it. We feel like we have just been hanging on for the ride here at the last. Let’s see how the next 2 weeks go. Time Zone – We’re 12 hours away from Fairbanks. Sure, 12 hours and 2 weeks.
OH MY GOSH! The Big Day that we have worked almost 2 years for is here. We put everything we had into it, heart, soul, bucks, tears, laughter and sweat. Lots of people didn’t understand us. Some gave emotional support, some didn’t. Hardest thing I’ve every done. Nikki too. Now, here we are in 2 buses on our way to the Tushino Airdrome in Moscow. CNN is waiting, Russian friends and pilots are there. Sitting on the grass are two Antonov 2’s and in the hangar is Mary Beth. We pull up at 8:30 AM for a 10 AM departure. What a sight. I bet there are between 8 and 10 professional camera crews. People with video cameras, still cameras, flowers and hugs and kisses.
We start preparing our planes and have a tough time getting everything done because of the interviews and pictures. I try to leave that part to Nikki. But the Flight Safety Foundation won’t let me. Khalide and I are a lot alike in this. Get the airplane ready and fly. But it doesn’t’ work today. One of the officials came up and said “You have to have a Russian medical to fly this flight and the doctor is on the way to the airport.” Now, I know that in Lebanon TN, I have had a broken foot, a tooth problem, and bronchitis, all treated at the airport. But, how am I so lucky to have a flight physical on the ramp at a Russian airport.
Well, in comes a beat up red Fiat with a woman doctor in the back seat. One by one, we crawl in the back seat while she grabs our wrist for a pulse. She yelled “PRESSURE” I looked dumb. She said “PRESSURE, HIGH, LOW?” I said mine ran low and she asked how I felt and if I could fly. Fine and Yes was my answer. Then we signed our names and she stamped our medical. Off she flies in the back of that Fiat. Incredible!
Well it is 20 minutes till departure. Finally, the old military fuel truck is here. Mikey starts fueling the Maule. But the nozzle is too big for my tanks. Khalide had called me under the wing to show me some paperwork at the same time Mikey was having problems fueling. Fuel spilled down the wing and YES, right on me. Cameras everywhere. The military pilots of the support plane started calling me “Benzine Head”. We started fueling the ferry tank and between an old sticking handle on the nozzle, cameras shoved in our faces, and a guy changing pressure on the fuel truck, the ferry tank in the backseat of our plane, spewed fuel all over the inside. So now I have Benzine in my hair, on my clothes and in the plane. I was daring anyone to light a match. During this time, Nikki is perched in the right seat of the AN-2 smiling and waving out the side window. Got the picture.
Anyway, we straightened everything up and Khalide and I crawled in our flying fuel tank and started out with Mary Beth in front and the AN-2’s behind. FANTASTIC!! Here, it starts. The Commemorative Route.
For 4 and 1/2 hours we flew from Moscow to Kazan. The 2 guys in the support plane, and Natassia and Nikki will probably have an easier time flying. I feel like I am flying an over gross airplane in slow flight, in ground effect… I’m heavy and have the power pulled back (way back) and we are flying about 200 feet off the ground. Anyway, everything was great. I just keep outrunning the AN-2’s. Go Mary Beth Go!