Normally when you take a small aircraft on a very long trip there is a reason to do it, like it’s being delivered to a new owner or the plane is being ferried from a factory to its new home. It’s not too often you take a small plane part way around the world and back again. The first time I did such a return flight was a few years ago when I brought a DA42 to Europe, flew it around Europe with the owner and we flew it back together. That was around 12,000 miles and involved crossing the North Atlantic both ways. It was a fantastic trip with great memories as well as some spectacular videos and photographs to document.
My co-pilot on that trip was sharing one of those thrilling videos with a rental client of ours one day when the client said he really wanted to do a trip like that, but slightly different. Our client decided that he wanted to take a DA62 to Tokyo and back. So we started planning.
The client, Jonathon, approached Angel City Flyers and made a rental reservation on the DA62 for two weeks and we set our plan in stone.
On Saturday morning, July 27th, 2019 we met at 7 am at Long Beach Airport and did an inventory check of our equipment (including a life raft, water survival suits, gallons of spare TKS and plenty of beef jerky). Another client of ours, Alex, decided he’d join us for the trip looking to log time towards the cross country requirements of a multi-engine commercial rating. He was not going to fall short on his requirements after this trip. Alex and Jonathan would alternate sitting in the left seat while I would do my best to be a nice instructor in the right.
The first leg was to Clearlake (102) to pickup some mountain high oxygen gear we stole (with the pilot’s permission of course) from another one of our DA62s. It was convenient the aircraft was sitting along our route since we discovered our equipment needs were incomplete during our inventory check. Next we continued on to Salem, Oregon (KSLE) to stop for lunch and meet up with some family friends, and then we made a stop in Bellingham, Washington (KBLI). This provided a good launch pad to hop to Ketchikan, Alaska (PAKT) without having to make a stop in Canada, and thus negating any customs paperwork. Ketchikan was rainy as ever with the necessary ILS approach through the Fjord, then a ferry ride to our hotel for the evening.
The next leg was a 6.5 hour flight up the Alaskan coast (mostly in IMC) while diligently and as sparingly as possible using our TKS to keep the plane as ice-free as possible. We decided to land in Talkeetna, Alaska (PATK). After some fuel for the plane and our tummies, we decided to go for an impromptu scenic flight up the glaciers that ring the great Denali. That flight alone made the whole adventure worthwhile. After our tour of Denali, we continued on to Nome, Alaska (PAOM) where we would lay the final preparations to fly the Bearing Sea and on to Russia.
After a day in Nome, awaiting the finalization of the necessary permits to enter Russia that always seem to come at the last possible moment, we took off over the Bearing Sea to Anadyr (UHMA). With more IMC and more TKS flowing, we sighted land and lost a day crossing the international date line. With all the paperwork in place and our visas stamped by Russian officials, we fueled up and headed off to Magadan (UHMM) on a 7 hour leg against the wind. The flight planning had showed that we had a good fuel reserve, but if the winds were worse than forecast, or we got too much ice impacting our airspeed and increasing our fuel burn, we had to be prepared to turn back considering the lack of alternate routes. As we approached our point of no return, we recalculated our flight plan and continued on to Magadan. A night in a remote city of Siberia famed for its place in the dark history of Stalin’s gulags was an interesting proposition and it did not disappoint. An interesting confluence of poverty and ruin with the touches of modernity that together seem to define Putin’s Russia.
The next morning we set off for Khabarovsk (UHHH) on another 7 hour trip with similar metrics and decision processes. As we approached the point of no return, we doubled our bets deciding to continue on to our destination (in the knowledge that we were navigating through an area of thunderstorms without the situational awareness afforded to us by satellite weather we would have in the United States). As we passed the most intense of storms, we were relieved to see the airport appear in the vast expanse of wilderness before us. Due to the slower speeds we flew to conserve fuel and the bureaucratic delays at the airport, we could no longer make the slot into Sendai, Japan (RJSS). Through a lot of negotiation with flight planners, Russian ATC, and handlers in Japan, we found ourselves bound for Sapporo (RJCC) on our last leg eastward at Flight Level 180 watching the vibrant hue of light from the sunset behind us.
Japan ATC was a welcoming sound. (Their radio phraseology is more akin to America and more understandable than the thick Russian accents we had begun to get used to.) In Japan everything happened like clockwork, from the ATC services to handling, customs and immigration.
However, we now found ourselves in a strange paradox of Japanese bureaucracy. Sapporo only had parking for two days and it would take three to get a domestic flight permit to an airport with parking available. Our only other option was to fly back to Russia and then back to Japan each day, since an international permit only took one day. Nuts! This still wasn’t really an option as our visas were for a double entry into Russia and we would need the second entry for the trip back. We decided to call their bluff and told them we would accept a fine for overstaying our parking. The Japanese having no place in thought for complicity in breaking the rules relented and magically found us parking for the duration of our stay.
After three fantastic days immersing ourselves in Japan’s unique culture it was time to make the trip home. The route back was different. Our first leg was to Sakhalin Island (UHSS), a part of Russia that was once Japan (and still claimed by them). The waypoint delineating both countries was called ANIMO, which we took as short for animosity. From UHSS we flew onward to Petropavlovsk (UHPP) on the Kamchatka Peninsula; another remote location covered in towering snowcapped volcanoes. The flight to Petropavlovsk was six hours over water with us flying fast enough to arrive before the airport closed, yet slow enough to conserve fuel for a healthy reserve. We struck a healthy balance arriving 5 minutes before closing with the the weather a couple of hundred feet above ILS minimums and enough fuel to attempt the approach a few more times if necessary.
The next morning we took off to Anadyr (UHMA) flying through a signet for an active volcano and sure enough we spied the mountain and the trail of smoke and ash coming from its summit cone. As per our briefing, the winds were blowing the off-ending particles away from our course. The weather was cooperative on our flight to Anadyr, where we fueled up again, launched back to Nome, Alaska (PAOM) and landed a day before we took off. Feeling refreshed and excited to be back on American soil, we quickly went through customs processing and launched into the darkening night sky for Anchorage (PANC). On the way to Anchorage, we again got good use out of the TKS before descending into warmer air. Upon arrival, we discovered there was not a hotel room available within a hundred miles. So we drank a few cans of Sake we smuggled through Russia and had the one of the best sleeps ever in the FBO’s crew lounge chairs.
The next day we said goodbye to Alex meeting his family in Alaska and Jonathan and I headed off for Ketchikan (PAKT). This time the weather was glorious, so we decided to cancel our IFR flight plan on the northern edge of Glacier Bay and choose to fly low level through the Alaskan wilderness the whole way to Ketchikan. From there we flew to Boeing Field in Seattle (KBFI), stayed the night somewhere familiar, and next morning made a non-stop flight from Seattle to Southern California in this crazy little airplane.
Author: Seosamh Somers