Meet Mary Beth
Ladies of the Rodina
Special Edition of Southern Living Magazine
Rhonda Miles (left) and Nikki Mitchell,
posing with Nikki's plane, Mary Beth, built a friendship stronger than
steel while re-creating a 1938 history-making flight from Moscow to
Siberia by three Russian women.
Flying Into the Past
Most of the time, Nikki Mitchell and Rhonda
Miles each lead very different lives. Nikki runs country star Waylon
Jennings's Nashville-based business, while Rhonda flies for the Cracker
Barrel restaurant chain. But in 1998 they shared an adventure that
built a bridge between former Cold War enemies and bound these two women
together like sisters.
Rhonda and Nikki, both pilots, took off
chasing a dream with a purpose: to follow the flight path of the historic
Rodina ("motherland"), which three Russian female combat pilots
flew from Moscow to Siberia before World War II.
|How They Met
Nikki, an Abilene, Texas, native, met
Rhonda in 1996 when she needed someone to teach her the finer points of
flying Mary Beth, the 1974 Maule M-5 that she had found in a barn.
"I was in the process of buying a
single-engine tail-dragger," Nikki says. "I needed an
instructor to help me make the transition from a nose-wheel to a
people I know who thought we'd be turning back halfway.
Enter Rhonda, an Arkansas transplant and an experienced tail-dragger
instructor. She became Nikki's instructor, and they hit it off right
away. Both shared Southern senses of humor and a thirst for
excitement. "My crop duster dad put me in an airplane at 3
months old," say Rhonda. "He gave me my love of adventure,
my love of flying."
Rhonda and Nikki re-created the path
of the nonstop Flight of the Rodina but landed many times en route.
"There were several places we would land with just a dirt
clearing," Nikki says. "It was flat, and they had leveled
it out. It was very, very, very primitive."
Within a short time, they
strengthened their friendship enough to try the tribute flight to
Valentina Grizadubova, Paulina Ossipenko, and Marina Raskova. The
Russian women made the nonstop Flight of the Rodina in 1938, opening the
air route from Moscow to Siberia for the first time. "I love
Russia," explains Nikki. "I'm very big on their history,
and Rhonda is just very adventuresome." Nikki and Rhonda
wanted to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Russian event.
The two Americans dubbed their proposed adventure the "Bridge of
Financing the Flight
Originally they lined up corporate donors to fund the flight, but the
closer they got to the trip, the more sponsors disappeared.
"The main reason was that there was quite a bit of unrest and
unpredictability in Russia," Nikki says. "We ended up with
a few small donations. We pretty much financed it ourselves."
"We got so close (as friends). I
asked Nikki, "have you got the title to the Trooper?'" Rhonda
says. "She said 'Yes.' I said, 'I wanted to make sure, because
I hocked it.' She was hocking my stuff. I was hocking her
stuff. I really learned what it was like for the first time to have
a really good friend."
Still the "Bridge of Wings"
flight did have additional supports. Nikki's boss, Waylon, helped
sponsor by sending out letters and making phone calls on their behalf, and
Cracker Barrel made a donation to the flight in support of its own pilot,
Rhonda. And manufacturers outfitted Mary Beth with
state-of-the-art equipment, as well as donating labor.
||Some people scoffed at the
two pilots who wanted to fly from Tennessee to Russia and cross the Bering
Strait. The trip required navigating mid-Atlantic air and Moscow's
bureaucracy. "They thought we'd be turning back halfway. Nikki
says. "I think they just thought that we'd taken on a much larger
project than we realized."
Re-creating the Flight of the Rodina
required navigating bureaucracy in the former Soviet Union. The
American pilots began seeking permission from Russian officials early in
the planning stages; still, the go-ahead came down to the 11th hour.
"Five days before the flight we were at the bank hocking the last of
our stuff. We got permission from the Russian authorities three days
before we did it," Rhonda says.
Even then, they had other obstacles to fly
through. For example, aviation fuel is not exactly
plentiful in Russia, where few people fly purely for pleasure. In
this and other instances, the Russian government came to the rescue,
bringing them aviation fuel (avgas) on a military plane. In one
remarkable instance, a village even forfeited its weekly ration of avgas,
Nikki recalls. "When you have one plane coming in and out once
a week bringing the needs of a village, that's a really big deal,' she
The Russian people embraced the flight.
"It was all over the news," Nikki says. "It had
become such a big event. There was an air traffic controllers'
strike planned--it was supposed to be all over the nation, But they agreed
they would not strike until after Rhonda and I left Russian
airspace. I've never experienced anything like it."
She was hocking my stuff,
I was hocking her stuff. I
really learned what it was
like for the first time to have
a really good friend.
Mary Beth Takes Off
By the time the Russians gave the official
go-ahead for the flight across 3,700 miles of their territory, Rhonda and
Nikki were acting on faith that the flight would happen. But not
everyone shared that faith. "There were people I know who
thought we'd be turning back halfway," Nikki remembers. Few
people saw them fly out of the airport in the town of Lebanon July 4,
1998, on the 15,000-mile trip north over Greenland to Russia.
Fear to me
is just the place
I haven't been yet.
The Russians, who insisted that Nikki and
Rhonda have navigators and translators, arranged for them to fly with two
accomplished native female pilots, Khalide Makagonova and Natassia
Vinokourova. But this meant splitting up, putting each American in a
plane with a Russian. "I was flying in a Russian An-2 with
Natassia, and Rhonda was in the other plane with Khalide," Nikki
explains. "I was glad it worked out that way. It was
truly a unified effort." A military crew in another An-2 accompanied
them. "We were not just flying all over the place," Nikki
says, "They were constantly talking over the headset and giving
directions. They had total control over everything."
Across Russia With Love
The trip took 49 days from start to
finish. Unlike their Russian predecessors who flew nonstop, the
American pilots made 53 landings by the time they had circled the Northern
Hemisphere. In the process, they witnessed how much their adventure
really meant to the people in that country. "(The era of the
original flight) was a very big time in their history," Nikki
recalls. "The older people who were alive when this
history-making flight happened were coming (to see us). Every place we
stopped, they would wear their native costumes."
Friendly villagers dipped their bread in
salt and shared with the pilots--a gesture of profound hospitality.
Russian women treated the Americans like daughters. And Nikki and
Rhonda saw walls between peoples fall as they crossed the county with
Russians. "By the time it was over, we had become so
close." Nikki says.
The flight across Russian went smoothly
despite some dangerous conditions--air traffic controllers guiding the
plane by sound, shouting instructions in Russian that had to be translated
mere seconds before they had to be carried out. Nikki and Rhonda
could have died when Mary Beth's engine, running on a mix of avgas and
low-grade Russian auto fuel sputtered over the Bering Strait. And
they nearly died again when their wings iced over Alaska, forcing Rhonda
to fly at a lower-than-safe altitude.
They returned in Triumph, however touching
down in Lebanon on August 22, the day after Nikki's birthday. There,
the cheering crowd included family and friends, representatives of
avionics companies, a state senator, USA Today, and CNN. "There
was quite a difference from when we left than when we came back,"
There also was a difference in the two
pilots. "There were many things we learned during the building
up to the flight and actually during the flight." Nikki
says. "Fear to me now is just the place I haven't been