Alaskan aviators make demonstration flight to Provideniya
Two Alaskan pilots, Marshall Severson and Dan Billman, flew from Nome across the dateline to Provideniya and back in Severson’s Cessna 172 on June 14. The entire trip took only a day—it’s just three hours and 270 nautical miles from Nome to a Provideniya airport—but the goodwill journey represented much more than a few hours in the air.
The preparation for the boarder crossing was time consuming, but overall smooth sailing, the pilots said. It took the pair two days to get to Nome, where they spent an additional two days waiting for paperwork. In total, clearance took about three months; the pilots needed visas, passports and flight permission from Moscow to enter and land in Chukotka. This document did not come until 3 a.m. on the day they left. “There’s a little bit of faith involved,” Severson said half-jokingly.
There was good weather on the day of the flight, during which pilots used only basic instruments, a GPS that connected to a mini iPad. Billman and Severson both wore wetsuits equipped with inflatable life vests, and they also carried a life raft in the plane, just in case. Severson reported that his radio contact with the Russian side about weather during the flight was all good.
The men said they were met with a professional yet cordial welcome in Russia. Officials, which Billman described as being “stern,” flew from Anadyr to Provideniya to perform customs checks. The Russians took photos of the Americans, but when Billman asked for a photo he was told no. However, when the time came for the pilots to take off, the icy demeanors had thawed. “When we left they all gave us hugs,” both Billman and Severson recounted. To Severson, this re-affirmed that they were doing the right things.
While in Provideniya, the two toured with a guide and took photos while a guard protected their aircraft. Despite its close proximity to the U.S., Russia remains “another world,” according to Severson, who also used the descriptors “barren” and “gnarly.” Billman agreed, saying it was “dark and wintery.” Though Nome was green in mid-June, Provideniya still looked like it was early spring instead of early summer. There were blue skies on the Alaska side, but the Cessna crossed over the dateline and into overcast weather.
After a few hours on the ground, Severson and Billman headed back to Nome. Because the pair crossed the dateline, “we left on Thursday and came back on Wednesday” Severson joked.
There were a multitude of reasons for the trip, ranging from practical to political to personal.
One of those was to validate Route B-369, which Severson said is the safest because it goes over the Bering Strait—the longest stretch of open water is only about 40 miles. Severson, who retired from the Federal Aviation Administration last year, has experience with Route B-369: He flew it in 2002 with the Alaska Airmen’s Association. However, it has not been utilized much since then.
Severson and Billman, both experienced aviators, helped to pioneer the route in the early 2000s. Like Severson, Billman, who works with the FAA, became interested in Russia several decades ago. Billman flew out of Nome in the early 1970s and recalled making a trip to Wales, from which he could see Russia. He thought, “Man, I want to go there.” After a few unsuccessful attempts, including one where his GPS stopped functioning upon crossing the dateline, Billman finally made it. “It’s about time we got over there,” Severson laughed.
Severson and his wife adopted two children from Russia and he wanted to maintain ties to their home country. The 62-year-old grew up in Alaska during the Cold War, when the lack of knowledge about what lay beyond the so-called “Ice Curtain” piqued his curiosity. “People said that Russians are the bad guys, but I think it’s a little more complicated,” Severson said. “They’re people like us.”
Like Severson, Billman has always supported general aviation venturing over to Russia. Families, though divided by boarders, are still connected, so “it seems so natural” to maintain that connection. His ultimate goal is for small planes to be able to fly over and stop in Russia en-route to Africa and Europe.
The trip comes at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are once again complicated. Despite both old and more recent political drama in Moscow and Washington D.C., Billman and Severson hope to reestablish and reinforce friendly relations between the countries by maintaining direct ties between Alaska and the Russian Far East. “It’s so different from global politics on the other side of the world because we’re direct neighbors,” said Severson.
Although Severson said he has no formal plans to return, he would like to go back next summer and stay for a longer period of time. “It would be great if it was just a 270-nautical-mile flight, but the foreign nature makes it special,” Severson said.
For the trip, the ice curtain melted. “It can happen,” he added.