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Friendship Flight: Tony Circles the Globe : Orange County Boy Takes Off on Odyssey

June 06, 1989|MARCIDA DODSON and JIM CARLTON | Times Staff Writers

There were no final instructions from father to son Monday morning before 11-year-old Tony Aliengena of San Juan Capistrano nosed his family's single-engine plane into the gray spring sky, beginning a journey that is designed to make him the youngest aviator to circle the globe.

But the fourth-grader--who must pilot the plane unaided to land a spot in the record books--had some emphatic advice to his father, who will sit beside the youngster in the cockpit during the entire odyssey of seven to eight weeks over the Arctic.

"He told me, 'Don't touch anything, Dad!' " Gary Aliengena said with a smirk.

With those instructions--amid speeches, hugs and clicking cameras--the pint-size pilot with the buzz-cut hair climbed into a booster seat to see over the cockpit and took the controls of the red-white-and-blue Cessna 210 at John Wayne Airport.

Tony's 17,000-mile trip has been dubbed the Friendship Flight because he will deliver more than 50,000 letters from U.S. schoolchildren to Soviet youngsters. He also hopes to present Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev with a massive "friendship scroll," filled with youngsters' signatures gathered along the way.

It is a heady undertaking for any pilot, but at a press conference before his takeoff, Tony, in his own way, gently reminded the reporters shouting questions at him on the Tarmac that he is, after all, only a kid.

Asked how he envisions his meeting with Gorbachev, Tony replied: "I'll shake his hand. Then he'll say something. Then I'll show him my scroll."

And he insisted that he is not nervous about flying so far and over the forbidding breadth of the Soviet Union.

"It's like flying anywhere," he said, standing on a stool so he could be seen while speaking.

Waved to Crowd on Takeoff

Then, after more interviews, autograph requests and pictures, Tony and his entourage were off, waving to the crowd of friends and journalists lining the runway. In his plane were his father and mother; his sister, Alaina, 10; a Soviet pen pal, Roman Tcheremnykh, and an observer from the National Aeronautic Assn., who is along to verify that Tony piloted the aircraft. Two chase planes, carrying luggage, letters, journalists and a film crew, are also making the trip.

During the flight, Tony was confidently sassy, joking over the radio with Lance Allyn, owner and pilot of one of the two chase planes, about the chance for clouds and thundershowers. And when Allyn's bigger and faster twin-engine King Air plane was catching up to Tony's craft, the young pilot treated it like a friendly race, remarking, "Get your butt in gear!"

His landing 3 1/2 hours later in Salt Lake City was marked by another moment of adolescent expression: a mad dash by Tony and his sister to the vending machines to fill up on junk food.

Roman, however, lagged behind. The aircraft had hit turbulent skies, which were cloudy up to 19,000 feet. Tony's plane flew in clouds at an altitude of 15,000 feet, unable to ascend higher because the cabin of the six-seater is not pressurized. The 11-year-old pen pal was plagued by airsickness three times during the 650-mile first leg, his first flight in a small plane.

Tony, who suffered from the same malady during his record-setting flight across the country and back last year, made it through Monday's flight without recurrence.

By late Monday afternoon, Roman was feeling well enough to venture out with Tony in a small boat on a man-made lake at the Salt Lake City airport hotel. However, the two quickly returned to solid ground when their vessel began taking on water.

Before the first air mile was even logged on the Friendship Flight, Tony received a hero's send-off at Martin Aviation at John Wayne Airport. The site was marked by a giant arch of helium balloons in blue, red and yellow--the mingled colors of the United States and the Soviet Union. Members of the group that organized the trip wore T-shirts emblazoned with the flight's logo: two hands--one with stars and stripes, the other with sickle and hammer--reaching across the globe.

One Soviet official at the press conference at Martin Aviation called Tony's trip "a historical moment."

Tony's trip will touch "millions and millions of children and open the door for global communication," said Gennady P. Alferenko, chairman of the Foundation for Social Inventions of the U.S.S.R., the Soviet organization that sanctioned the flight.

Tony, he said, "is very famous in the Soviet Union" because newspapers there have already published many of the schoolchildren's friendship letters.

"Before, my country was very closed. There was no chance to see other places," he said.

Traveling to other places and seeing other cultures used to be "crazy ideas," Alferenko said. "It's time now. Let's be crazy!"

Edward J. Martin, 87, whose airfield eventually gave way to Orange County Airport, presented Tony with a bolo tie clasp emblazoned with the words Aviation Pioneers.

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