It was January in Siberia and the sun was in the process of dropping below the horizon while I was about to intercept the localizer to a localizer only approach. The Chinese-registered CJ1 technically had three crew, me in the left seat, a Chinese pilot from the company that owned the plane in the right seat, and a Russian translator who was kneeling between the pilot seats holding the handheld microphone. He was my only lifeline to the Russian controllers that were giving me clearances and altitudes for the approach.
We had picked up the Russian translator in Khabarovsk, Russia (UHHH). The plane had several restrictions as to how it had to be flown, due to damage that occurred after it had been tugged into a hangar door in central China. Temporary fixes had been made so it could be ferried to the factory in Wichita, Kansas, where permanent repairs would be made using jigs and fixtures to assure every piece was aligned correctly.
It gets really cold in Siberia in January, so a hangar was a necessity and unfortunately the route I would like to take did not have hangars. UHHH to UHMM would have been the preferred route, and certainly the way I would have gone in the summer months. So I was making a very long diversion inland to put the plane in a hangar overnight. The only airport available to land at for a fuel stop enroute to our hangar (UELL) did not allow anything but Russian-speaking pilots.
I was glad to be landing to the north because it had the most accurate approach. It was a localizer only, which means I would be descending on my own without the guidance of a glideslope. Not really a big deal, but I was glad the winds were favoring the north runway because the south runway only had an NDB approach and I haven’t flown one of those in years. It was state of the art technology in the ’40s.
I was in the clouds with the sun nowhere to be seen. I adjusted the lighting of the instruments while the localizer began twitching, indicating it was about to come alive. As soon as the needle was one dot out from being centered, I began turning inbound and started to descend. I was starting to feel better about this situation. After beginning my descent, I looked over and noticed the Chinese pilot was adjusting the altimeter setting. The altimeter is crucial to the safety of an approach and I had it set correctly in preparation for flying the approach. If the altimeter setting is off, I would not know how low I could descend safely.
I yelled, “what are you doing?! The reply was, “QNE, QFE? QNE, QFE?” He was asking if the altimeter should set to the current altitude in relation to a sea level pressure, or to a setting that would allow the altimeter to read, “0” when touching down on the runway.
I yelled, “Don’t touch that!” The Chinese are wonderful people, and very proud. My yelling was as bad as slapping him in the face. I absolutely did not want to cause him to feel disgraced but our safety was at stake. At the same time this drama was going on, the Russian, kneeling between the pilot seats, was speaking in Russian to controllers, the responses blaring over the speaker above our heads. He then began yelling, “No approach, no approach!” Of course what I heard was, blah, blah, blah, babble, babble, babble in what was a combination of Russian and very broken English. But his tone seemed very urgent.
The approach had gone from a nice, peaceful setup to a cacophony of noise and confusion, all within a split second. I marveled at how life could go from a happy place to pure confusion in a single beat.
As the plane descended, the Russian yelled, and the Chinese pilot fiddled, I saw the ground. And more importantly, I saw a big, flat, empty area that looked like a runway. The overcast layer I had been descending through laid in a very helpful line for me, allowing the sun’s remaining rays to shine underneath it, giving me a hint of the terrain below me. A beat later and I was officially in visual conditions. In the distance, I could make out a flat, empty area with an occasional light outlining the area. It had to be the runway. At this point, any landing, even on the open Siberian tundra, would be a welcome end to this flight.
I told the Russian translator I had the runway in sight: “Look!! Look!! Runway!” He looked and nodded in agreement. He spoke unrecognizable Russian into the handheld mic then nodded, “land now.”
The area was 90% snow-covered with snow blowing across the runway—a pretty good indicator of wind direction and speed, letting me know the information I had been given about the velocity wasn’t even close. The runway lighting was terrible; I guessed that only about one third of the lights were working. Maybe they were just covered in snow, but either way, they were little help. I touched down smoothly, glad this was the runway and not just an open field in the Siberian tundra.
I’ve had several moments in my aviation career when I just thought, “how the hell did I end up in this situation?!” Flying an approach with a Russian kneeling between the pilot’s seats, yelling, “No approach, no approach”, and a Chinese pilot in the right seat, yelling, “QNH, QFE,” was certainly one of those times.
The next issue was that the tower was going to close soon. The translator told me we only had fifteen minutes to fuel and depart. I asked what the result of not making that time was. He said simply, “spend night” in his thick Russian accent. I sure as hell couldn’t do that. There were no hangars available and if the plane sat outside in the brutally freezing temperature, it wasn’t going anywhere until spring.
I told him I just had to pee, really bad. I could just jump out and drain my internal tank while they fueled the plane: “Are you guys OK with that?” The translator said, “HET!” NO in Russian.
I said, “I’m not going to pee on the truck and this area of the ramp is so desolate, no one is there to be offended.”
In the thick Russian accent, at an increase volume, “HET!”
As we taxied to the parking spot, I asked, slightly annoyed, “why not!?”
The translator replied in a softer Russian tone with no smile on his face, “you pull it out of pant, it freeze before get back in!”
Ooh! I get it. It was something like -40 Celsius. He was only slightly kidding and showed the closest thing to humor I had seen from any Russians so far. I told him we could NOT stay here overnight. He simply said, “Go inside.”
So the race was on. The World War II-vintage fuel truck was sitting in front of the plane practically before we came to a stop. We grabbed our coats from the back of the plane and after jumping out, quickly closed the door to hold in every degree of warmth we could.
I asked the translator to tell the fuelers to put every drop of fuel possible into the tanks and with my head bowed to keep the frigid wind from my cheeks, I jogged behind a lineman who lead the way to the bathroom. We quickly took care of our physiological needs and headed back to the plane. While they were still fueling, I turned on the battery and asked the translator to get our clearance. The top of the hour was closing in and I felt like if we got the clearance, they would have to let us go, wouldn’t they? I had no idea how departing VFR rules worked in Siberia. Did they have VFR departures? Again, I had no idea. I just knew I was leaving, tower closed or not.
The vintage fuel truck jerked forward and my finger pushed the start button. The reassuring whine of the engines spooling up was sweet music. As quickly as possible, I had the flight plan loaded in the flight management system and had turned the airplane to head to the single runway that was our gateway back to civilization. At this point, my definition of civilization was a warm hangar… warm being a very relative term here. I just wanted a hangar that would not allow the little airplane to freeze up like a block of ice.
The Russian translator said we could taxi to the runway on the single taxiway that led to the end of the runway. Upon reaching, he said, “Go now.” I guess that’s official for, you’re cleared for takeoff.
I lined up on what looked like the closest thing to a runway. I could make out lights occasionally on the flat expanse of blowing snow in the general direction of the runway’s magnetic heading.
The takeoff went well and we started our climb out toward the airport that would house the damaged airplane and keep her from freezing solid overnight. Departure procedures over the icy tundra are really not a big deal. What could be out there to hit in the climb? We had cleared the overcast layer that laid to the south and the moon shone bright for the remainder of the flight.
We made a visual approach into Yakutsk (UEEE), landed, and taxied to the ramp, following the aptly named, “Follow Me” van. In most larger airports around the world, they use a car, van, or truck to lead pilots to their parking spots. This seldom occurs in the US, were you are expected to know where you are going.
I was concerned about shutting down because they had parked us out on the ramp, between mountains of snow. Did they expect us to walk across the ramp the miles it appeared to be? I was sure that my Ecco dress shoes would allow my toes to get frostbite long before I cleared the ramp. Seriously, at this point, long johns and a puffy coat covered by a leather jacket just wasn’t going to cut it. The temperature was -50 Celsius. I had officially hit the coldest temperature I had ever experienced. I was concerned my life would be held in the balance while I made it to the hangar.
I turned to the translator for some reassurance we hadn’t been abandoned, and he was gone. The door was open and he was just… gone. I don’t know where, I don’t know if he lived through it or not, but he was gone! I looked to the Chinese pilot and he gave me a “holy crap” look. It’s a universal look and I’m sure he saw the mirrored look on my face. We both were dressed in the same, un-arctic attire. Of course my Ecco shoes, Hagar slacks, Hanes long johns, hat, and gloves came from China but did you have to come to the United States to buy them or were they available in China? Regardless, we were dressed alike and we would not last long in the elements.
The reason the translator took off was because we only needed him for the one airport in Russia. The remainder of the airports would have English-speaking controllers. His job was done, so he didn’t earn any more money from hanging around. I have to admit, I thought he would say, “thanks, been fun. Let’s hang out the next time you’re in Siberia.” Pretty stupid on my part actually. I appreciate the reasons he dispensed with formalities and just bailed. There was nothing to be gained. We met for strictly business reasons and would likely never meet again. If we do, I won’t recognize him, so I get it. Plus, it was colder than hell outside!
So with it so cold outside, here is the irony; the rooms in the hotel were hotter than hell! I’ve had this exact same issue in so many cold places. I don’t know why, but it appears that making the room hot as hell makes up for the cold as hell outside world. I had to work hard to cool the room down. I can’t sleep if the temperature is above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I ended up opening the window wide to try to get the temperature down to a more dignified range. I fiddled with the thermostat to no avail but the window helped.
The next morning, the ice fog was thick. I was concerned about finding the runway, and the wings frosting over, but neither came to fruition. The takeoff went well but the gear didn’t want to come up. I was concerned but really did not want to land back at the fogged in airport. After taking off, I could see why fog was such an issue: the airport and town lie in a valley. The fog was only in the valley so after departing, the skies were blue and clearer than anything we had experienced on this trip so far.
I leveled off to work out the gear issue. I was certain it was just due to the cold, so I slowed down and cycled the gear again. Now two the three gear lights turned green. Making progress! I slowed even further and put in a notch of flaps, to keep us well above stall speed. I cycled the gear again. This time the comforting clunk of the gear hitting the up-locks on all three legs was easily heard, and the lights all turned green with the red unlock light extinguishing.
It was time to climb and head for Magadan (UHMM). It had been a long diversion and quite an adventure just to get a hangar for one night. The flight was uneventful and pretty boring. We made a landing at Magadan, fueled and were off for Anadyr (UHMA), where a hangar awaited our plane and we would spend the last night before landing on US soil. Another uneventful approach and landing and then the coolest tug I had ever seen maneuvered the plane into the heated hangar.
Wesley Randall (Randy) Lane is a 12,000-hour ATP with type ratings in aircraft from the C510 to the 737. He has held positions as the chief pilot of a major aircraft manufacturer, international ferry captain, corporate captain, and flight instructor.