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Boy’s Plane Flips, Burns in Alaska : Entourage Escapes Injury as Aircraft Falls Into Bog

Times Staff Writer

Eleven-year-old Tony Aliengena and seven members of his round-the-world flight crew escaped serious injury Tuesday when their fully loaded plane flipped over and burned in a crosswind during takeoff from this remote Alaskan village.

Aliengena, the San Juan Capistrano youth seeking to become the youngest pilot to circumnavigate the globe, and the rest of his party scampered to safety after the plane crashed and began to burn in a bog just off the gravel landing strip. Tony’s father, Gary Aliengena, 39, was at the controls at the time of the accident, which took place during a fishing trip detour from the record flight.

Federal officials said the plane was destroyed. Four members of the party suffered facial cuts.

“It was a real blessing that there was nobody killed,” said Paul Steucke, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Alaska Region.

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‘Too Far to Turn Back’

The single-engine, high-wing Cessna Centurion was destroyed by fire, Steucke said. He said the weather at the time of the crash was “lousy,” but conditions were flyable. Clouds were down to 800 feet and it was drizzling.

Despite the crash, Gary Aliengena said he hoped to get another plane and continue his son’s globe-trotting journey.

“We’ve come too far to turn back,” he said just before the group boarded a commercial charter flight at about 11 p.m. Tuesday for Nome.

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The crash occurred in sun-lighted conditions around 8:45 p.m. local time as the boy and his passengers tried to fly from this Alaskan Eskimo village to Nome after a fishing trip. A Seward Peninsula community of 120 people situated on the Bering Sea 90 miles from Nome, Golovin is inaccessible except by boat and air.

Members of the expedition were shaken and disconsolate.

“I don’t care about the Friendship Flight right now,” said the boy’s mother, Susan, who is accompanying Tony on his journey along with other family members, friends and members of the media. “I’m just glad that we’re all alive.”

Tony, meanwhile, was in tears at the Golovin Community Health Clinic. “This is the worst stop yet,” he muttered.

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On Tuesday, a severe storm brought high winds, and heavy rain swept through the town on the Peninsula, where Tony and the others had stopped just days before he was scheduled to complete his seven-week odyssey, which began June 5 at John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

Of the eight passengers on board, four suffered facial cuts--Tony, his Soviet pen pal and traveling companion Roman Tchermenykh, the boy’s father, Gary, and Joseph Lee, 29, of Los Angeles, a member of a film crew making a documentary on the flight.

Eager to give Tony a rest in anticipation of a planned 1,000-mile flight Wednesday from Nome to Juneau, the father was at the controls for the short hop Tuesday evening.

The aircraft was roaring down the runway at about 50 to 60 m.p.h., well short of its takeoff speed of 80 m.p.h., when a gust of wind lifted the plane off the runway, which sits along a 50-foot-high embankment.

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Before the pilot could react, the plane careened off the embankment and into the bog alongside the runway, hitting wing down and catching its wheels in the muck. A fire broke out immediately as the right wing hit the ground.

“We bit the dust,” Gary Alienga said later, describing the crash.

As the passengers freed themselves and ran from the wrecked plane, a fishing guide who had watched the group take off ran down the runway yelling for them to get away from the burning aircraft.

“I saw a cloud of smoke and flames,” said Eddie Smith, the guide. “I didn’t think there would be any survivors.”

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No one needed encouragement. Despite the goo of the swamp, which tore at least one passenger’s shoe off as he stepped through it, the group managed to get away from the plane within seconds after the crash.

The trip across the United States and through Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, the Soviet Union and then back down the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada was designed to make Tony the youngest pilot to circumnavigate the globe.

The 17,000-mile journey also was significant because the boy became the first Westerner in recent memory allowed to pilot a plane across the Soviet Union. He was carrying “friendship” messages to Soviet children signed by their counterparts in the United States.

He was originally scheduled to Southern California on Thursday.

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While in Moscow, Tony was scheduled to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and present him with a 1,000-foot-long scroll with the children’s signatures. But the meeting with Gorbachev never took place because of the Soviet leader’s busy schedule, and Tony met instead with other Soviet officials.


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