Team Tony Grows Into a Family

Times Staff Writer

Susan Eisner had a problem. The 28-year-old film director was trapped in an airplane, at 19,000 feet, in search of a deck of cards.

"I don't know where they are," Eisner of Los Angeles said with a yawn as she contemplated the hours of monotonous flying ahead. "Joe (Bell, 29, a co-director for a film about Tony Aliengena's Friendship Flight) has some, but they're in his bag--in the nose of the plane."

The disappearance of Eisner's playing cards on a six-hour flight over a barren Canadian landscape one day last week was just one more rigor of life on the road with Tony, 11, the San Juan Capistrano boy trying to fly around the world.

Eisner and 16 other members of Tony's entourage have been accompanying the boy aviator since he left Orange County two weeks ago Monday. They have found life on the fly and at close quarters a challenge that has brought them together as a team.

The group includes an eclectic mix of U.S. and Soviet reporters, the Los Angeles film makers, Colorado business people and a San Joaquin Valley orthopedic surgeon. Before June 5, they were strangers who might not have nodded at one another on the street.

But after days of braving rough weather, shuttling baggage among hotels and putting up with the psychological stress of crossing the inhospitable North Atlantic in three small planes, they have become almost like family, sharing times of triumph and hugging one another in moments of distress.

The team spirit was clearly evident June 11, when five members of the entourage who had been left behind after a breakdown in one of the chase planes caught up to the others at an Aliengena family barbecue in Massachusetts.

"We all felt what you did," said Julia Roberson, 27, a Los Angeles film producer, while embracing one of the people who had been aboard a twin-engine King Air that filled with smoke and was forced to return after takeoff from Washington's National Airport on June 10. "It's not the same without you guys."

The back-yard barbecue at the Ware, Mass., home of Tony's grandparents provided the entourage with a rare break from worrying about such details as where to go for dinner, how to get around on the ground and what pills to take for airsickness.

Although no formal designations have been made, the entourage members have found themselves taking responsibility for particular tasks. This reporter, for instance, became responsible for helping to put together at each U.S. stop a platform for Tony's friendship scroll in hotel lobbies, so local schoolchildren could sign messages of good will for their counterparts in the Soviet Union.

Soviet journalists Maxim V. Chikin and Aleksie Grinevich found themselves lugging the 100-pound scroll, which was carried in one of the twin-engine chase planes.

The difficulty in moving around the heavy scroll became a joking matter by the end of the journey across the United States. Guy Murrel, 28, public relations consultant and flight coordinator, laughingly spoke to it as a living entity while aboard a commercial flight between Washington and Hartford, Conn., which is near the Aliengena barbecue.

Seat Booked for Scroll

Murrel actually booked a seat on that flight for the scroll, after the King Air was delayed in Washington. Murrel said the scroll, made of fiberglass, would "shatter in a thousand pieces" if it were checked through with other luggage.

Concern for the scroll's welfare became so paramount that Dr. Lance Allyn, pilot of the King Air, almost got into a fight over it at the Hartford airport. Allyn pressed his chest up against a security guard and snarled, "Back off!" when the guard angrily tried to remove the scroll from a wheelchair in which Murrel and Allyn had placed it while taking it to a rental car.

"I'm not going to let anything happen to that scroll after what we've been through to get it here," Allyn said later.

Some of the chores of removing the luggage for 17 people every day were eased during Tony's just-completed Atlantic crossing. When the group was crossing the United States, the three planes were hauling up to 200 pounds more than they were designed to carry. The loads were lightened considerably in Boston, when the scroll and the heavier luggage was shipped commercially to Europe, ahead of the group.

Living in close proximity for such long periods has brought out a few tempers. Susan Aliengena, Tony's mother, found herself snapping back, "Yes!" at her husband when he asked whether she had their hotel room key in Salt Lake City.

U.S.-Soviet Fishing Dispute

Even Tony and his Soviet pen pal, Roman Tchermenekyh, have expressed occasional irritation over minor things. In Lawrence, Mass., for instance, Roman flung his fishing pole at Tony and tangled the line after Tony suggested that they fish elsewhere along a river that runs by their hotel.

And at a refueling stop in Shefferville, Quebec, Roman pouted as Tony tried to urge him not to eat a large dinner before continuing on to Iqaluit in Northwest Territories.

"Roman, this is lunch," Tony tried to explain to his 10-year-old pen pal, who speaks only a little English.

Roman, arms folded defiantly, shot back: "I no like lunch."

More than anything, perhaps, the hardest part about the traveling has been the long waits between flights. Most days, Tony has been scheduled to fly only about three hours. And even though the entourage is hustled out of bed early each morning to go out to the airport, the fliers invariably wind up having to wait for refueling and mechanical adjustments.

The Waiting's the Worst

"It's the hurry up and wait that's the hardest part for me," said Janet Wiesner, 52, wife of Pat Wiesner, pilot of the second chase plane.

Despite the rigors, the participants have retained their enthusiasm, particularly now, as the flight has reached Europe and its tourist attractions.

The aviators also know that they are participating in the incomparable experience of flying around the world. "As a flier and an aviator, I think it's spectacular," Pat Wiesner said as he guided his red-white-and-blue Cessna through the clear skies of Canada.

"Another thing that's great is to be part of the symbol--a friendship flight. I think that's nice."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°