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

June 25, 1989|JIM CARLTON | 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

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