July 24, 1998
We are now in Moscow, Russia.
There is no air conditioning and by 9am your room is like a sauna. Come on Siberia! You get up, take a shower with cool water (no hot water, but 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 with the Russian pilots, Aviatrissa, Flight Safety Foundation International and the Orenburg Airlines. We knew we were getting great help from the Russians but this is where we really realized it. They had their own press packets printed up for the “Bridge of Wings” flight, which looks great. The back of the packets says “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 WWII Pilots- the Night Witches. We thought it would be a small meeting of 4 or 5 people. We walked into a room of around 50 women with medals covering 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 speak also. These heroic women 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, two 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 his four gold front teeth and then the ultimate in wooing…. He did a duck call for her. I drug her away reluctantly and we went to the outdoor cafe behind the hotel where 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. We couldn’t get a cab at the hotel so we walked a few blocks past the ladies of the night and stood on a street corner and waited. You need to watch Nikki negotiate a Russian cab ride then see six people crawl into a Fiat. Jeremy is 6’4″ and he had to fold up like a pretzel. As we rode sitting on each other’s laps, the driver and Nikki argued over how to say “Red Square.” Us six 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, 19
There was a press conference at the airport this morning. We sat at the head table with the Russian pilots, with mcrophones on the table, cameras all around the room, reporters, and everything was the real deal. The Moscow government was there, Intrastate Aviation, Flight Safety Foundation, and more. Nikki spoke, I spoke, Khalide and Natassia spoke, then about 6 – 7 others spoke before the questions. After the press conference, we flew the AN-2, with Natassia and Nikki flying first, then Natassia and me. It’s just like driving a truck with no power steering….I loved it. Today our altitude never got over 150 ft and we landed in a field 45 minutes north of Moscow. There were YAKS and SU-26. I met another female World Aerobatics Champion there, who was great. This is a place where the runway is crappy, the planes sit outside and the grass is high. We flew back to Moscow is about an hour, 150 ft above the ground, and think I saw someone through their window taking a shower. We 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.
P.S. Just think about how cool this is – we flew a Maule to Russia and are now flying an AN-2 over the City of Moscow at 150 ft.
July 26, 199
We’re up and at it this morning. May and Terrie wanted interviews with the 4 pilots for the documentary so we went out to the air field and everyone got theirs done but me. We ended up running out of time because we needed to film Marina Roscova’s and Paulina Ossipenko’s memorial plaques and the spot where their ashes are in the walls of Red Square. Then we went to the cemetery and filmed where Valentino Grizodubova is buried. 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 on board.
After all the cemetery stuff, we ate and went back to the air field, where 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 and basically today was a “tie up loose ends” kind of day. Tomorrow morning, we will start our flight through Siberia. In important preparation, Nikki had Flight Safety take her to the store to look for Werthers Candy and pistachio nuts. Nikki can’t fly without a sack lunch.We are having to ship all kinds of things home before we leave. The region of Orenburg in the Urals gave us gifts of onyx jewel boxes and babusus (finely woven shawls) and we have berets and shirts from the Airborne Services of Russia. The list goes on and on and we’ve found that the Russian people are very generous.
Nikki is going in the AN-2, I’m in the Maule and Mikey and Jeremy are in the support AN-2. We’re off to an adventure of a lifetime and wondering how we pulled this off so far. Khalide’s mechanic told us that we were very strong to have organized this with the Russian government and 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 so far. Let’s see how the next 2 weeks go.
OH MY GOSH! The big day that we have worked almost two years for is here. We put everything we had into it, our heart and soul, money, tears, laughter and sweat. Lots of people didn’t understand us. Some gave emotional support and some didn’t. This is the hardest thing Nikki and I have ever done. Now, here we are in two buses on our way to the Tushino Airdrome in Moscow. CNN is waiting for us and our Russian friends and pilots are there. Sitting on the grass are two Antonov 2’s and Mary Beth is in the hanger. We pull up at 8:30am for a 10am departure. What a sight – I bet there are between eight and ten 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 – we want to get the airplane ready and fly. But it doesn’t work out that way today. One of the officials came up and said, “You have to have a Russian medical exam to fly this flight and the doctor is on the way to the airport.” In Lebanon, TN, I had a broken foot, a tooth problem and bronchitis, which was all “treated” at the airport. Now am I so lucky to get to have a flight physical on the ramp at a Russian airport.
In comes a beat up red Fiat with a female 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” and I looked at her 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” were my answers. We signed our names and she stamped our medical. Off she flies in the back of that Fiat. Incredible!
Well it is 20 minutes until departure and finally, the old military fuel truck arrives. Mikey starts fueling the Maule, but the nozzle is too big for my tanks. Khalide 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 were 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 perched in the right seat of the AN-2, smiling and waving out the side window.
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!! It’s starting – The Commemorative Route.
For 4 1/2 hours we flew from Moscow to Kazan. The two guys in the support plane and Natassia and Nikki will probably have an easier time flying than us. I feel like I am flying an overloaded 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 is great. I just keep outrunning the AN-2’s. Go, Mary Beth, Go!