FRIENDSHIP FLIGHT: Tony Circles the Globe : Flight Was Turbulent Before the Takeoff

Times Staff Writer

The negotiations have gone on for nearly one full year, sometimes in person and sometimes on the phone. There have been problems at times, last-minute hitches to be resolved. But if all goes as scheduled, the months of wrangling will result Monday in a momentous event: the landing in Moscow of an 11-year-old pilot from San Juan Capistrano, Tony Aliengena.

Thousands of requests are filed each year by foreigners hoping to travel through parts of the Soviet Union, long off-limits to outsiders. Among those bidding to take advantage of the new policy of glasnost, or openness, are men and women seeking to make flights in ultralight aircraft, others wanting to kayak across the Bering Strait between Alaska and the Soviet Union, and even American logging champions trying to travel to the Soviet Union for a log-rolling competition.

Ambitious Request

But Tony’s request to pilot a single-engine plane across the breadth of the world’s largest country was by far the most ambitious. And his pledge to deliver to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev a friendship scroll bearing 250,000 good-will signatures from U.S. schoolchildren convinced the Soviets that the proposal was so worthwhile that they not only granted him flying permission, but agreed to underwrite all his expenses in their country.

So Saturday found Tony Aliengena in the Soviet Union, spending the day fishing and preparing for the next part of his trip, during which he will meet with the nation’s leader.

“We’re particularly sensitive to the ideas of young people,” said Priscilla Huber Cotler, U.S. representative for the Soviet Foundation for Social Inventions, a Soviet agency sponsoring Tony’s three-week trip through the Soviet Union. “We realize that if the children get together, we all have a chance.”

Gennady P. Alferenko, founder and director of the foundation, added, “For me, it is very important just to open the door for millions of children to see that it is possible to fly around the world.”

Getting permission to cross the Soviet Union was no easy matter, however. The road to Moscow has been filled with bureaucratic potholes, forcing Tony’s father, Gary Aliengena, to fly to Moscow once and to negotiate details nearly every day for weeks.

The process began simply enough last summer when Tony, a fourth-grader at St. Margaret’s School in San Juan Capistrano, sent Gorbachev a letter asking that he be allowed to fly across the Soviet Union in his quest to be youngest person to fly around the world.

“I would like to fly into your country for a friendship flight and I will give you a friendship letter signed by kids in the U.S.,” Tony wrote to Gorbachev on school notebook paper. “And if someone could give me a friendship letter from kids in Russia, I will give your letter to whoever is President of the U.S. then.”

Pacific Too Wide

The very day Tony had completed a record-breaking flight across the United States and back during April of last year, he announced he wanted to fly around the world. His father told him that the only way he could do it would be to cross the Soviet Union; the Pacific was too wide to cross safely in a single-engine plane.

“I thought that would be the end of it,” said Gary Aliengena, 39, a real estate investor and certified pilot who taught his son to fly.

But, four months after sending the letter, Tony received an answer. The Soviet government was, indeed, receptive to the flight request and had agreed to grant him permission to fly into the Soviet Union as far as Moscow.

“This project is of great interest and importance for us,” Alferenko wrote in a return letter.

While pleased at the Soviets’ response, Tony’s father said that permission to fly only to Moscow was meaningless for an around-the-world flight. So in January, his father flew to Moscow to personally press Tony’s case for crossing the whole country.

Aliengena said he spent several days in the snowbound Soviet capital trying to get appointments with this bureaucrat and that one, all without getting an answer to his son’s request.

Finally, Aliengena landed a meeting with Sergei Tchermenkyh, a high-ranking official in Aeroflot, the government-run airline. Aliengena said the Soviet official was brief and to the point.

“He shook my hand and said he had heard about Tony and that we had permission to fly all the way across,” Aliengena said.

Tchermenkyh eventually would have a highly personal stake in the friendship flight. He later told Aliengena that after the two men met, he went home and told his 10-year-old son, Roman, that he had just spoken with the father of “the famous boy pilot from the United States.”

Roman soon became pen pals with Tony, who eventually invited him to join the flight. Tchermenkyh agreed.

At this point, the trip seemed set. Aliengena had permission for Tony’s Cessna 210 Centurion and one chase plane to fly from Leningrad, on the western border, to Providenia on the eastern border, about 7,000 miles.

Expenses Paid for

Alferenko’s Foundation for Social Inventions also agreed to pay the estimated $75,000 in food, lodging and plane fuel that Tony’s entourage was expected to need in the Soviet Union.

The foundation, which is a public institution supported by donations to a national bank account, solicited donations from the public through articles in Soviet Culture, a Moscow newspaper of 3 million circulation, and Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Moscow youth newspaper of 18 million circulation.

Elated at the Soviet support, Aliengena began organizing the flight in earnest, working with an itinerary provided by the Soviet Union. The itinerary calls for a strict regimen of four- to five-hour flights nearly every day, with a rest break every fifth day or so. Tony is scheduled to leave the Soviet Union on July 15 from Providenia, re-entering the United States at nearby Nome, Alaska, only 45 minutes later.

Although permission had been secured for the trip, Aliengena has had to wrestle with some unexpected problems. One was the much-delayed handling of Soviet visas for Tony, his family and an entourage of 11 Americans. Several of the visas were denied at the last minute for technical reasons, such as submitting glossy rather than non-glossy photos.

The visas were finally approved as Tony set out on his flight June 5 from Orange County’s John Wayne Airport.

Aliengena said he experienced even more problems with the U.S. government, which held up travel visas for two Soviet journalists on the trip until the day they were scheduled to leave Moscow for California. He spent several sleepless nights, haggling on the telephone with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Third Plane Rejected

And during the trip, Aliengena encountered a firm nyet in his request to have a third small plane join the entourage through the Soviet Union. The request was for Colorado businessman Pat Wiesner, 53, who was ferrying a four-member film crew making a documentary about Tony’s flight.

The Soviets had agreed to visas for the film crew, but not for Wiesner, his wife, Janet, 52, or their son Michael, 10, who were all flying in the chase plane.

At a stop in Denver, Aliengena lost his composure over the refusal to let the Wiesners in on short notice. Aliengena, Wiesner and a third pilot, Lance Allyn, of Hanford, Calif., had pitched in $13,000 each to finance the documentary film.

“Look, we’ve spent a lot of time and money on this,” Aliengena, red-faced, told a Soviet representative in Moscow. “Tell your people that I am very upset.”

In the same conversation, Aliengena threatened to ground the entourage at Helsinki, Finland, until the entry visas were granted for the Wiesners. The dispute became a moot point, however, after Wiesner dropped out of the trip after an equipment breakdown over Greenland.

The Soviets have agreed to shuttle the film crew members from stop to stop across the Soviet Union, via Aeroflot.

In the Spotlight

While his father has been doing all the behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Soviets, Tony is the one who has faced the media spotlight and been asked time and time again what he will tell Gorbachev in their meeting this week.

“Um, I’m gonna shake his hand. Then I’m gonna say ‘hi.’ And then I’ll give him the friendship scroll,” Tony has said.

At a press conference in Stockholm, last week, Tony modified that pat statement, demonstrating one phrase he has quickly learned in Russian, one he promised to tell the Soviet leader: “I am very pleased to meet you.”

Three representatives from the Soviet media nodded their heads in approval.