One Thursday in January, Tim Slater, an assistant chief pilot for Oakland, Calif.-based KaiserAir, received a call from his dispatcher telling him he would have a trip for the weekend.
“‘Pack a bag for a couple of nights, including your passport, and sit by the phone,’ is what I was told,” Slater recalled. The next morning he received another call, “You’re leaving Saturday morning at 0400 hours for Magadan, Russia.” “Magadan, Russia?” he thought. “Where the heck is that?” Turning to the Internet he discovered it was a city in Siberia with a long and troubled history. The city (population about 100,000) is a seaport that supports commercial fishing, at least for the four months a year that the sea isn’t frozen. It’s not the most hospitable place to be in January.
An Unexpected Stop in Siberia
The operators of a Gulfstream IV found that out the hard way. A Toronto mining company regularly operated a GIV between Anchorage and Yakutsk–a small town some 600 miles west of Magadan. The GIV crew was scheduled to make the trip the Monday before Slater received the call from the dispatcher. Noting that the airport at Yakutsk had been closed on and off for the better part of eight weeks due to heavy fog and low clouds, they listed Magadan as their alternate.
En route to Yakutsk, and near Magadan, the crew learned that the weather had gone below minimums and they had to make a decision: they could fly four hours back to Anchorage or land in Magadan. They chose to land in Magadan.
They landed, taxied into a tiedown spot and waited two hours for someone to drive out to the airport to meet them. They refueled and checked the weather and, discovering that Yakutsk had improved, they planned a 1 p.m. departure. Unfortunately, the local Russian authorities gave them a 6 p.m. departure clearance.
If they launched at 6 p.m., flew the two hours to Yakutsk, discovered the weather was down again and returned to Magadan as their alternate, it would be 10 p.m. The airport closes at 9 p.m., but the Russian authorities agreed to leave the runway lights on.
The daytime high temperature at Magadan was -35 degrees C (-31 degrees F) and the overnight low was forecast to be -50 degrees C (-58 degrees F). If they returned after 9 p.m. there would be no one at the airport to meet them and no way to get into town; they would be forced to spend the night in the airplane. Realizing that if the APU failed for some reason they could die in the airplane, they opted to spend the night in a Magadan hotel.
On Wednesday morning the crew returned to the aircraft to find that the struts were flat because of the cold. The airport had a large World War II military truck with a half-dozen 12-inch canvas heater hoses hooked to a huge diesel engine on the back. It proved to be a highly effective, if somewhat unusual, system as it blasted hot air on the struts, inside the engines and cabin. Eventually, the crew determined it was OK to go.
Stranded in Siberia
The APU lit but when the crew attempted to activate the alternator to get electrical power online it immediately flamed out. During a second attempt, the APU got to 20 percent rpm and the crew heard the sound of twisting metal in the back of the airplane as the APU froze.
This presented a real problem because there is no GPU at the airport. Worse, the air telephone wouldn’t work because there’s no MagnaStar service outside the U.S. and they had no satcom capability because there was no power to drive the inertial reference system that would locate the satellite for the antenna. Then they discovered their cellphones didn’t work in Magadan.
Oddly enough, there was charter service available, so the crew arranged for the passengers to get to Yakutsk, which at that point had acceptable weather. With the passengers safely on their way, the crew returned to the hotel to try to call home, only to learn no hotel phone could call outside of Russia.
Eventually one of the crew-members discovered that his Blackberry was operating and he sent the following message to Gulfstream Tech Support: “HELP! Stranded Magadan [the number of a payphone] and Please Call!” About an hour later KaiserAir received a call from Gulfstream Tech Ops.
Slater said Tech Ops called KaiserAir because of the company’s JetCare program. “It’s essentially like AAA for airplanes,” he said. “We are certified to provide major service and overhauls on Citations, Hawkers and Gulfstreams. Operators can bring their aircraft to our Oakland facility or, if they have a problem on the road, we make house calls–even to Siberia in winter.”
Planning the Rescue Mission
Later Friday morning Slater learned that there had been a change of plans for his flight and was instructed to be at an afternoon meeting. “I get to the meeting and the room is packed,” he said. “There are 10 people at least. David Campbell, director of operations; our chief pilot, David Mancebo; accounting guys; maintenance department heads; Bronte Marshall [captain for the trip]; Georges Wansek [copilot]; Ken Fadrigon and Andy Thenard, mechanics for the trip, and me, slated to be the co-captain.
“Campbell explained we would be taking an airplane to Magadan to jump-start a GIV. Right away that narrowed our choice to a GII or GIII because they are the only ones that can be a donor airplane for pressurized air,” Slater said. Gulfstream models after the GIII can only receive pressurized air; they can’t donate it. Fortunately, KaiserAir had a GIII, though it was in Eagle, Colo.
“The number-one priority discussed in our meeting is that we’re not going to be the rescuer that needs rescuing,” Slater said. “We agreed that no matter what, we were not going to spend a night in Magadan. To make sure things went smoothly we assigned each person on the team a specific job. Marshall would coordinate with the GIV crew and the Russians. I would stay aboard our GIII and monitor the instruments and systems with an occasional trip outside for a quick walk-around to be sure nothing was going wrong. On one such tour I took a cup of coffee out with me to look around–it froze in the cup in five minutes.
“Wansek was the utility man and would support anyone who needed an extra pair of hands or set of eyes. Fadrigon and Thenard would be doing the real rescue work by doing whatever had to be done to get the aircraft started and prepared for takeoff.”
The team was given a 6 p.m. departure time for Anchorage; they would spend the night there and leave for Magadan on Saturday morning. Meanwhile, the GIII crew from Eagle was flying to Rapid City, S.D., to pick up a special hose needed to connect the two aircraft for the jump-start. Gulfstream Tech Ops didn’t have the hose but they knew where one was: Fighter Town USA in Rapid City. They used it to start their F-5s off a GII they kept on their ramp.
Once they picked up the hose in Rapid City the original charter crew flew to Gulfstream in Long Beach to pick up spare parts and a replacement APU, then to Oakland, where Slater’s crew took over the aircraft for the trip.
“Before I left home to go to Oakland for the trip, it occurred to me that it was going to be a long day,” Slater said. “I figured there wasn’t much likelihood of a McDonald’s in Magadan, so I bought $200 worth of tv dinners, fruit and high-calorie foods. There would be the five of us and I figured the three stranded crewmembers were probably getting pretty tired of cabbage soup. We ended up taking two large coolers and bags of food that we stuffed in various compartments all over the GIII.”
By 6 p.m. Friday everything came together in Oakland: aircraft, crew, hose, parts, a spare tire, life rafts and food; the APU was shipped to Anchorage. “We looked like a flying Home Depot,” Slater said. “I figured customs was going to be interested if we showed up with half a million dollars’ worth of parts in our airplane when we tried to get back in the U.S. It would look as if we were trying to bring Russian-made parts into the U.S. and they’d slap us with a huge import tax. So Marshall called customs in Anchorage and gave them an overview of the whole deal.”
Across the Strait to Nowhere
As planned, the crew arrived in Anchorage on Friday and headed to Russia on Saturday morning. “We launched out of Anchorage and went across the Bering Strait to Magadan. I’m looking out the window and thinking we’re in Russian airspace, and everywhere you look is miles and miles of white wasteland,” Slater said.
“The high-altitude chart for that area covers roughly 200,000 square miles. In the U.S., there would be something on the order of 2,000 airports in that much space. On the Eastern Russian map, there are exactly five. At least the weather was forecast to be clear. Believe me, all three of us were up front listening to the radio to be sure we did everything exactly right. I’m thinking, ‘If we mess up we’re not going to get found until there’s global warming.’”
Slater said they were cleared to begin their descent into Magadan about 150 nm from the airport and spotted the 11,000-foot runway about 40 miles out. “The weather was perfectly clear, not a cloud on the horizon,” he recounted. “You couldn’t miss the airport; it was the only thing out there and we were the only airplane in the air. We landed on a runway built during the Cold War that had experienced several uplifts in the permafrost. It was more than a tad bumpy.”
A Very Cold Start
After landing they taxied in and parked. “We kept the engines running and Marshall got out of the airplane with a diagram in his hand to show the Russians how we needed to position the two aircraft to set up for air transfer. I noted the outside air temperature was -35 degrees C [-31 degrees F],” Slater said. “Then they went to pull the GIV out of the hangar.”
Slater said the hangar door couldn’t close, so the aircraft had sat in the cold and wind all night. When they tried to tow it out the towbar sheer pin snapped, but one of the mechanics made a makeshift pin out of a large screwdriver he had in his toolkit. Finally, they lined up the two aircraft, and the behemoth heater truck began applying hot air.
Once the crew had repositioned the GIII they shut down the engines and ran off the APU to wait for the GIV to warm up. “I was amazed to observe that our engine oil temps were cooling at the rate of about 5 degrees C [41 degrees F] every 15 minutes,” Slater said. “I had no choice but to relight the engines twice during the wait to keep the oil temps from going below the -20 degrees C [-4 degrees F] minimum start temperature.”
“Four hours after we arrived, we were finally ready to attempt the jump start and the planning paid off; we got an engine start the first time we tried,” Slater said. “At that point the other crew was able to recharge their batteries and cross-bleed-start the second engine. Even at that it took another hour to get the internal temperatures up to a comfortable level for the avionics and other equipment to operate. Finally, at 3 p.m., we thanked the Russians for their hospitality and departed for Anchorage together.”
Slater said the process at Anchorage customs was a breeze because KaiserAir had provided a manifest of all the parts in advance. Both crews spent the night in Anchorage, and on Sunday Fadrigon and Thenard replaced the APU with one that had been sent to Anchorage. “On Monday the GIV crew fired up the APU for the first time and it went without a hitch,” Slater said. “They were then able to start their own engines and the trip was officially a success!”