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Tony Lands a Spot in Record Book : Youngest Global Pilot Welcomed at John Wayne Airport

July 23, 1989|JIM CARLTON and RICHARD BEENE | Times Staff Writers

Eleven-year-old Tony Aliengena landed his plane at John Wayne Airport on Saturday after a grueling and sometimes dangerous 21,567-mile odyssey, becoming the youngest pilot to circumnavigate the globe.

The fourth-grader from San Juan Capistrano performed a low fly-by, then brought the borrowed Cessna 210 Centurion to a stop at a red carpet on the same airstrip he and his family left June 5. The 2:28 p.m. arrival brought applause and cheers from a welcoming crowd of about 100 that had gathered on the balloon-festooned airstrip.

Completion of the seven-week voyage--dubbed Friendship Flight '89 because of its international friendship theme--earned Tony recognition by the National Aeronautic Assn. as youngest pilot ever to fly around the world.

The trip drew criticism from some in aviation who said it was ridiculous to think an 11-year-old could fly around the world without extensive help from adults charting the course, monitoring the weather and filing flight plans. They said anyone could fly a plane with such help.

While Tony's father--a certified pilot who sat next to Tony for the entire trip--never denied he helped his son, he said that the job of charting courses and filing flight plans falls upon the co-pilot even in a commercial airliner. Gary Aliengena, 39, said his son also proved his flying mettle on more than one occasion by piloting the aircraft manually when the autopilot failed and negotiating treacherous airport landings by himself.

Aliengena also said the trip had created warm memories that no one in his family will forget.

"This whole trip has been just fantastic," he said. "There have been so many nice people in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. We had such a tremendous reception in the Soviet Union, and everyone was so nice. If I look back at all the smiling faces, it's hard not to get choked up about it."

During a half-hour welcoming ceremony on the airstrip at Martin Aviation on Saturday, Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley presented Tony with a resolution of congratulations. Eddie Martin, the 87-year-old patriarch of Orange County aviation, welcomed the boy aviator with a smile and a hug.

"I'm real proud of you, real tickled to death," said Martin, founder of the first airfield in the county.

Stepping on a box so he could see over a lectern, Tony answered reporters' questions and said he had no immediate plans to match or surpass his around-the-world flight.

"I might fly pole to pole," Tony said jokingly. What he most looked forward to doing now was seeing his dog, Rags, and riding his bike, he said.

Gary Aliengena introduced and thanked all 14 members of the entourage, which included a four-member film crew from Los Angeles, a chase plane pilot and a Soviet journalist, who made a speech in halting English.

"I think Tony is a brave pilot," said Aleksie Grinevich, correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Soviet Culture. "He saw many cities (in the Soviet Union). He saw (that) our kids want to laugh and live in peace."

Another member of the entourage, Gunter Hagen, an observer for the National Aviation Administration, verified Saturday that Tony remained in sole control of the aircraft, thus setting the round-the-world record he sought. Hagen said Tony never had to repeat a flight leg, as he did last year in his record-breaking flight as youngest pilot to cross the United States. Then, a flight instructor riding in the co-pilot's seat grabbed the plane yoke during a Tennessee thunderstorm, forcing Tony to redo the leg.

Tony's global flight also earned him recognition as the first private pilot to fly the breadth of the 7,000-mile Soviet Union. In so doing, Tony traveled for days over terrain so inaccessible that he was not within radar reach much of the time.

Tony's arrival in Orange County was marred somewhat by the crash that took place Tuesday night off a gravel airstrip in the tiny Eskimo village of Golovin, Alaska, where Tony's father had brought the entourage for a three-day fishing respite.

While ferrying Tony and six others out of the village that night, Aliengena lost control of the aircraft, and it veered off a 50-foot embankment down to a swamp below. The right wing caught fire on impact, but all eight escaped without serious injury.

The day after the crash, Aliengena borrowed another Cessna 210 Centurion from Alaskan businessman Ralph C. Meloon Jr.

The final leg of Tony's long journey back home began in Seattle. Tony and chase pilot Lance Allyn of Hanford, Calif., who had ferried journalists and an independent film crew throughout the trip, at times flew side-by-side Saturday over the California desert as spirits rose and the homecoming neared.

On landing at John Wayne Airport, passengers in Allyn's plane burst into applause when an air traffic controller was heard over the radio saying, "Welcome home, Tony."

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