Sunday, November 18, 2012

Deja Vu and Russian Interlude.

Way back in March 2010, none of the people gathered at the playing fields in Larne, Northern Ireland, to watch the departure of Norman Surplus and his tiny flying machine (that would affectionately come to be known as ‘Roxy’) had any idea or inkling that two and a half years later the pair would still be half way around the world waiting to make that final flight back home.
With a strong feeling of Déjà Vu we have to announce that the circumnavigation has had to be put on hold for the winter; once again bureaucracy has forced this brave adventure to stall due to paperwork.

Anyone who has been following the story over the last 12 months will know that Russian permission to fly into and through their country has not been forthcoming, which has meant many days and weeks of pleading and visiting embassies and suchlike. In the end, Norman decided to go and see the people on the ground and put his case to the people involved. This meant a journey to Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East to meet aviators, officials and the local people in an attempt to get them on side for a continuation of the flight next spring…Here, in Norman’s own words, is what happened…

23rd October 2012 saw me taking a “time travelling” journey… flying as a regular passenger with Vladivostok Air.
First, I flew from the 21st century marvels of modern Tokyo (Narita) airport, Japan, directly back in time to the mid 20th century, soviet era, Khabarovsk Airport in the Russian Far East. This was quickly followed by another quantum leap forward again on a connecting flight to the brand new Vladivostok International Airport, a quantum leap forwards perhaps but with a few anomalies which would suggest this was indeed the 21st century, but perhaps in a parallel sort of universe, one where many things would not appear to be exactly as you would expect them to be…
Norman at the sign for Vladivostok

Passing briefly through Khabarovsk Airport I saw a surprising mixture of new and old technologies working in perfect harmony, at one level they employed the seemingly ubiquitous modern X-ray security scanner (set up in the entrance hall), but at the same time they also had the wisdom to employ an airport cat, who busied himself strolling around the same foyer (with an air of self importance worthy of any 1950’s branch line railway station master) confidently greeting various passengers as they arrived. One could only presume that this “old technology rodent catcher” was employed to keep check on any of the more “unwanted customers” who might be lurking under or behind the rows of empty and darkened counters dotted about in the huge expanse of the old soviet style building, a building which had clearly seen many, many better days in the past…. All seemed to be working in perfect harmony however until the cat’s strolling reached the security scanner’s desk, where, in a fantastic display of technology misalignment, the security guard promptly leaned down to stroke the cat rather than keeping a close watch on his screen…would be International smugglers take note - I think I have found a loophole for you - before heading to the airport, simply equip yourself with a remote controlled cat….
Norman at a Vladivostok landmark, celebrating the city's maritime history

First impressions of Vladivostok were similarly surprising, but for very different reasons - the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit was hosted by Vladivostok in September 2012 and it was clear that all the stops had been pulled out to achieve a regeneration of the area worthy of holding such a prestigious global event. A huge new conference centre (soon to become a new campus for Vladivostok University) was constructed on a nearby Island along with 2 fantastic new road bridges, the new International Airport terminal, rail links and miles of new dual carriageways. The city of Vladivostok is a great mixture of architectural styles, reflecting perhaps its colourful history as the principal trading post and sea port of this region for hundreds of years. Some of the heavy shoreline fortifications are still preserved (now in museum form) from the time that the port served as a strong strategic base for the Soviet Pacific Fleet. The port was so well guarded by its shore defences that it is proudly stated that no attempt has ever been made to conquer it from the sea. Such grandeur all around, but with it some quirky anomalies, most noticeable was the number of buildings old and new (even including one of the newly built train stations) where the steps in the stairwells were often not of uniform height. Some would see a good 4-6 cm difference in height from the next tread. Such a basic requisite for safety - treading on evenly spaced steps - you could perhaps forgive the odd 1-2 cm and simply put it down to the builders having a bad day or perhaps suffering from the occasional hangover…. 4-6 cm however perhaps suggests the builders simply never actually reach the hangover stage… 
An aerial view of Vladivostok taken during one of Norman's local flights with the flying club.

My main reason to visit Russia at this time has been to meet with local contacts, Airport officials and flying club members of the Primorsky Flying Club. I was royally treated everywhere I went and my hosts ensured that I experienced a flavour of their real Russian Far East hospitality. 
Norman at the rather rustic but functional clubhouse of the Primorsky Flying Club

Pre-flighting...the Russian way!

Hospitality, that included rapidly drinking at least (!) 5 toasts of very fine Cognac with some local sausage, cheese and chocolate immediately prior to being strapped into a Yak 52 Aerobatic aircraft for a quick 10 minute sortie above the runway. Numerous dives, loops and barrel rolls followed with a low pass and a wing waggle to finish for the club members watching below.
Norman is strapped into the rear seat of the Yak-52 ready for take-off

Norman thanks the Yak-52 pilot, Valeri Tamarovski, for the experience.

We returned to that lovely, flat, stable, concrete runway and on climbing out of the aircraft I was then informed by my highly experienced pilot that we had pulled around 6 Gs (the meter in my rear cockpit seat had actually registered 7 G) in the turns….by comparison a high speed roller coaster reaches about 3 G…another smoked sausage anyone?  The hospitality carried on into the evening and after I had presented a talk on the GGG circumnavigation, I was hosted by the Chief of the Air Club for a fine supper. However this time I lost count after about 10 Cognac toasts, but thankfully the drive back into town afterwards didn't involve any impromptu aerobatic manoeuvres …
Norman with members of the Primorsky Flying Club.

Norman receives a complimentary Primorsky FC cap from the 'Chief of the Air Club'... Aleksander Urbanovich 

A further delightful bonus of the trip was to make contact with a local Language school in the town of Artem (close by the international airport), where I was staying in a local hotel. I was asked to give my GGG talk to a number of the English speaking classes. To have a native English speaker was seen as quite a rare event in this outlying town and so, yet again, I was royally treated. 
Norman's talk about the flight is greatly appreciated by the staff and pupils of  the Artem language school.

A local tradition on the arrival of any traveller is to be presented with some heavy black bread and salt. The bread is broken and then dipped into the salt and eaten. We enacted this tradition in the first classroom which was very interesting for me, but I then had to try to start my talk with a mouth full of very hard to swallow bread much to the amusement of the students!
(Read more about Norman's visit to the language school via their website - Click Here)  
Norman is presented with the traditional Black Bread and Salt by local children.

Maybe not the best starter to have before trying to give a talk.

A further unexpected bonus came later in the trip when the Air Club Chief offered to take me for a 45 minute local flight around the Artem and Vladivostok area. It was a bitterly cold day with a fierce wind chill standing on the concrete runway, but the compensation was that the visibility aloft was excellent and we had a great view around Vladivostok’s famous Golden Horn Bay. 
Norman prepares for his flight around the Vladivostok area on a bitterly cold day with suitably attired Flying club members

Norman returns to the ground after the flight in the Tecnam P2002JF, piloted by Aleksander Urbanovich  

Another anomaly, best appreciated perhaps from the air, is the fact that a very impressive, newly built, dual carriageway road goes all the way out from the City Centre, over the 2 new bridges to the APEC summit campus buildings, then carries on past the campus entrance and on over and around the next few hills until it was well out of the sight of any of the delegates, then, in the middle of the island, it simply and abruptly stops…. quite literally, a road to nowhere!   
Good to see that there are other rotor-craft in this part of Russia. Norman gives the thumbs up to the Kamov  KA-27 with its contra-rotating rotors!
I am very pleased to report that the trip was able to produce some very positive results for the continuation of the circumnavigation (which due to the onset of the long winter season in the Bering Sea will now be in the late spring of 2013). It is perhaps best to wait for a little while longer to firm up these plans before we present the full details to the GGG blog, but we are confident moving forward, that we have now found a good way to break through the bureaucratic logjam that has kept us grounded in Japan for all this time.
I would also like to thank personally our main contact in Vladivostok, Dmitri Igrushin, who looked after me extremely well during my stay there. 
Best Regards
Just time, before heading back to Japan, for Norman to join in the Halloween fun with local children, who gave this years party an aviation theme in honour of Norman. 
As Norman says, we are finally feeling confident that 2013 will see the completion of this flight, which will still be a world record breaking achievement as Norman will still be the first to fly an autogyro around the world.
Since writing the article for us, Norman returned to Japan where he was able to secure ‘Roxy’ for the long winter hibernation and has since returned to Northern Ireland for a long awaited reunion with his family.
We all wish Norman and his family a well earned rest and a joyful reunion and hope that all Norman’s followers will be back in 2013 to witness the climax of this marathon adventure.

The Gyrox Team