Flying a Cirrus VFR across Russia
In 2019 my wife Sherry and I flew our Cirrus SR22 from Florida to Nome, Alaska. In Nome, we joined the Alaska Airmen’s Association Goodwill Flight to Provedinya Bay, located in the Chukotka district of Eastern Russia. While acquiring the necessary permits, I learned that it was possible to fly entirely across Russia. I found this astounding. For decades, the requirements to fly a private plane beyond Moscow or St. Petersburg required having a Russian speaker/navigator on board. I understood that the necessary permits were difficult to obtain and that avgas was hard to come by.
With little notice or announcements, all of this has changed. A Russian speaker is no longer required. Avgas availability has tremendously improved and, oh, by the way, “hop in your small plane, come fly around Russia; we are open for business.” Thinking about all of this for just a few seconds, I knew that I had to make this trip. Then Covid put a delay on the plan. It was not until July of 2021 the trip became possible.
The three significant obstacles to opening Russia to foreign general aviation were language, radio coverage, and avgas. Russia has always had English speakers at its international airports and high altitude airways to handle international commercial flights. The challenge was to bring the English language to its domestic airports and the lower altitudes. Considering the vast size of the country, this was an enormous undertaking. Russian and English could not be more different; therefore, introducing English to over 8,200 air traffic controllers took a while.
Ensuring low altitude VHF radio coverage across the largest country in the world was also an enormous logistical task. Russia produces 100LL avgas in three different refineries, so it is readily available. It was just a matter of having it available at suitable locations, making it possible to cross the country. The only stop that I insisted on making that did not have avgas was Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka. The solution was shipping two 200 liter drums there, which was no problem.
Several Russian agencies have participated in opening up the country to foreign General Aviation. However, one individual that has provided the heart-beat to make it all happen is Evgeny Kabanov. Currently the Chairman of the International Tourism Committee of AOPA Russia, Evgeny’s company (MAK Aviation Services) has driven the cooperation between the various agencies. In addition, he has organized avgas availability at many airports, making it possible to easily cross the country in a piston-powered aircraft. A trip across Russia can be quickly planned by just looking at MAKgas’s fuel page. The complexities of obtaining permits, having flight plans and routings approved by the CAA and ATC are a breeze using MAKgas. Their fees are surprisingly reasonable.
A flight across Russia is as large of an undertaking as Russia itself. Consider that Russia has a landmass of 17.13 million square kilometers, almost twice the size of the US. Russia is the largest country in the world. It encompasses more than one-eighth of Earth’s inhabited land area. If you flew a great circle route from the most western border of Russia to its most eastern seashore, it would be over 5,000 miles. Russia has 11 time zones, spans two continents, borders 16 sovereign nations, and reaches almost halfway around the northern hemisphere; it is enormous.
Russia is such a vast landmass that practically flying across Russia amounts to an “an around the world” flight. Since opening to general aviation, pilots wishing to complete an “around the world” flight have found the Russian route a convenient and weather-friendly option. This route is also a much less expensive option than crossing the Middle East and Asia.
My departure was from my home base in Apalachicola, Florida. The route took me to Iqaluit, Canada (CYFB), conveniently located to cross the North Atlantic. As luck would have it, the weather shut me down there for four days. Then halfway across Greenland, the electronic ignition system shut down, so another five days in Reykjavik (BIRK) waiting for parts. Two weeks in, I had not gone farther than Iceland. If there is any place to break down, Reykjavik is one of the best—it is a scenic, hip town, not to mention that Iceland has between 20 to 30 local craft breweries.
From Reykjavik, my route went to Wick, Scotland (EGPC), and then onto the first Russian stop of Pskov (ULOO). Pskov, a favorite clearing spot for ferry pilots, is a scenic town with friendly but thorough customs agents. The river Velikaya runs through Pskov, one of Russia’s oldest cities dating back to 903 AD. What a great place to get your first taste of Russian beauty and hospitality!
The next stop was Konakovo (UUEL), about 100 miles north of Moscow. Primarily a civilian helicopter field, it has a 1,950 t. runway, beautiful facilities, a five-star restaurant, hotel rooms, cabins, a lake, and an expansive children’s playground. Konakovo hosts helicopter competition events, and the club located there boasts several international awards. My hosts here were fellow Earthrounders Maxim and Natalia Sotnikov, who flew their Bell 407 around the world in 2017. They have done an excellent job of developing Konakovo, and it was one of my favorite stops.
From Konakovo, three stops were made at general aviation airports around Moscow. First was Myachkovo (UUBM) home base for the busy flight school Aero Region Training. With an impressive fleet of G1000-equipped Cessna 172s and Tecnam aircraft, they have graduated over 500 Private Pilot students in the last two years, and that’s during the pandemic. They currently have an impressive 12 instructors and approximately 60 students. I presented Carrabelle Flying Club t-shirts to two of their flight instructors. They quickly produced a bottle of Beluga vodka in exchange!
Next was Novinki (UUDN), probably the most excellent airport in Russia and maybe just about anywhere. The general aviation-only terminal features a restaurant, bar, pilot’s lounge with a billiards table, and hotel rooms with beautiful facilities. Novinki even has hangar homes. The piston power Cessna/Beechcraft sales and service center is selling two new aircraft every month. Notice “sales and service.” Getting service done in Russia, even on a Cirrus, was no problem. I found the facilities and maintenance technicians to be excellent throughout Russia.
Then on to Torbeevo (UUCT). Here the second largest airline in Russia, S7, has built a general aviation training center. Beautiful hangars, modern classrooms, and G1000-equipped 172s. The flight school at Torbeevo is separate from their Boeing and Airbus airline training campus located just outside of Domodedovo (UUDD). S7 happens to own the Epic Aircraft Company located in Bend, Oregon. Everyone at S7 is very proud to be involved in a US manufacturer. There are several local airplanes based here, including a new Cirrus SR22 that was parked next to an Ilyushin 11-2 Shturmovuk, fully restored to flying condition, except for the bullet hole that shot it down in 1942
To practically fly east from any of the Moscow GA airports, you generally follow the Trans-Siberian Railway. This historic railway dates back to 1916 and connects Moscow with the Russian Far East. It is the longest railway in the world, with a length of over 5,772 miles.
To follow the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia is the flying adventure of a lifetime. Along the way, GA-friendly airports, beautiful scenic cities, five-star hotels, fantastic exotic restaurants, and friendly, helpful people are all in abundance. In addition, this is a weather-friendly route in the summer months that can be flown using VFR flight plans. Avgas is not available everywhere, but it is readily available and not an issue.
One of the stops along this route was Krasny Yar, Samara (UWWQ). Here fellow Earthrounders Sergey Alafinov and Dmitriy Sislakov greeted me and toured me through the Aero Volga faculties. Aero Volga produces amphibious seaplanes, and the current production includes the twin-engine LA-8 and the LSA Borey. Both models were flown around the world in 2018. I had the opportunity to fly a Borey with its designer Dmitriy on the Volga River. Dmitriy, an avid fly fisherman, has ensured ample space for fishing and camping gear in this beautiful flying boat. US certification is scheduled for 2021.
I tried to stay away from big airports, as one of the goals of this trip was to meet as many Russian GA pilots as possible. Most large cities along the railway have smaller airports located nearby. At almost every stop, I was greeted eagerly by Russian GA pilots. They were helpful, friendly, interested in the Cirrus, my route, and in showing me their planes. Photos, dinners, beers, and of course, vodka always followed. I cannot say enough about the generosity and hospitality that Russian pilots, mechanics, and airport workers showed me. General aviation in Russia is alive and well, welcoming pilots from anywhere in the world.
Following the railway, as I did to Vladivostok, is not the shortest route across Russia. It ends in the very southeastern part of Russia near the Chinese and North Korean borders. From Vladivostok, it’s another 2,000+ miles north with stops at Sakhalin Island, Petropavlovsk, and Anadyr, before crossing the Bering Sea to Alaska. One of the advantages of this route is that it over-flies the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Volcano National Park, one of the most spectacular flying opportunities in the world. In total, my odyssey across Russia was over 7,500 miles.
There are some differences between flying in Russia and the US. Russia has technically converted to the use of QNH from QFE. QFE provides for altitude above ground level versus sea level. I found that QFE was still in limited use, depending on the region flown in. When given QFE, I would ask for QNH, and it was provided. Altitude in meters is also sometimes used. G1000-equipped aircraft altimeters can easily be switched to meters; otherwise, having a conversion chart handy would be necessary. Transition levels for standard altimeter settings, 29.92/10.13 are generally around 7,000 ft. However, this is not the same everywhere. Usually, this is noted on the airport information page or contained in the ATIS.
Both VFR or IFR flight plans are allowed, but you must be on a flight plan. Either way, plan on routings via airways with regular position reports required. Russian databases are part of the Jeppesen International coverage. They can be purchased from Jeppesen and include four downloads. Their database does not include all Russian airports, and the coverage is generally limited to airports with instrument approaches. The Russian pilots I met all use the app Air Navigation. This app has all of the Russian airports with their associated information pages. I ran one iPad with ForeFlight and the other displaying the Air Navigation VFR display.
Weather briefings are technically available in some places but only in Russian. You are basically on your own for the weather in Russia. I found Windy Pro, Storm Radar Premium, and ForeFlight to be the most practical for determining the weather.
Both the CAA and ATC must approve flight plans for foreign-registered aircraft. MAK Aviation Services makes all of this look easy. Their service includes having the flight plans and the routing approved, validated, and filed. The approved flight plan is then transmitted via email the night before departure. IFR and VFR flight plans require validation.
Russian entry requirements for private aircraft allow for 30 days in the country. Extensions are permitted for weather and maintenance issues. I spent 25 days and flew over 7,500 miles just crossing Russia. The country, the people, the airports, the cities, the sites, the hotels, the restaurants, and the flying experience were all beyond my expectations. While visiting some of the smaller Siberian towns, I was stopped several times by people wanting a picture with me. They had never seen an American before. One waiter asked me if I could show him some American money. “One day,” he said, “one day I will go to America.” It was the trip of a lifetime.
Flying across Russia does not require any additional fuel tanks or special avionics. Communications across some areas of Russia are somewhat limited below 10,000 ft. Although not required, I found a satphone to be a convenient device and prefer the Iridium GO. This device, operated through an app and paired to a headset, makes it possible to make and receive calls over the headset. Survival equipment similar to that typically carried for flights to the remote areas of Alaska and Canada is also recommended.
Crossing from Anadyr, Chukotka to Nome, Alaska, the airway follows a route that allows for the shortest overwater time of the Bering Sea, 63 miles. This route passes over the Diomede Islands (Big Diomede in Russia, Little Diomede in the US). The distance between them: 2.6 miles. 2.6 miles separate these two great countries.
Following is a list of my airport stops in Russia:
UWTK: Karaishevo, Kazan
UWWQ: Krasny Yar, Samara
UNCC: Gorodskoy, Novosibirsk
UNKK: Krasnoyarsk Severny
UIII: Ulan Ude
UHHS: Kalinka, Kharbarovsk
Any long-range international trip requires much planning and preparation. This is undoubtedly true in planning a flight across Russia and around the world. However, in the words of French author and Nobel winner Andre Gide, “The drawback to a journey that has been too well-planned is that it does not leave enough room for adventure.”
Russian Flying Resources: