Two rare flights from Alaska to Siberia were turned...

By JEFF BERLINER  |  Feb. 28, 1989
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Two rare flights from Alaska to Siberia were turned back Tuesday half way across the Bering Sea when fog closed in on their Soviet destination, Anadyr, and made landing impossible.

Both jets left Anchorage more than 24 hours behind schedule Tuesday morning because Siberian storms had closed the airport Monday in Anadyr. The weather cleared Tuesday, but the fog moved in while the planes were en route.

A Soviet Aeroflot plane turned around and came back to Anchorage while an Alaska Airlines jet went to Nome, on Alaska's Bering Sea coast.

The move caught everyone by surprise, and people who had played host to the Soviets for eight days scrambled to get back to Anchorage International Airport and figure out what to do.

'It was a surprise to us,' said Steven Rouse of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, which helped sponsor the Soviet visit. 'Parting is such sweet sorrow, but this returning is bittersweet.'

'It a shock,' said someone at the downtown convention center which was beginning to return to normal after a week of serving as headquarters for the Soviet delegation.

Normally, no planes fly between Alaska and Siberia. But Aeroflot was bringing home a planeload of Soviet visitors dropped off Feb. 20. Alaska Airlines was delivering businessmen and the American half of the U.S.-Soviet Bering Bridge Expedition.

Visas for all the Soviets had expired, but everyone was admitted anyway when they unexpectedly returned, said Dale Haynes, airport inspector for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

'Their visas expired but everything's beyond their control,' Haynes said, adding, half in jest, 'Actually, they never really left the United States. They were just up sightseeing so we don't really have to readmit them.'

Haynes said, 'There's also five Soviets stuck in Nome on the Alaska Airlines flight. There's nothing they can do about that either.'

Both Soviet-bound flights were canceled Monday, but left Anchorage shortly after 10 a.m. Tuesday for a two-hour flight, shorter than the flight between Anchorage and Seattle. About 90 minutes into the flight, over St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, word came that Anadyr had become socked in by fog.

The Aeroflot craft was back in Anchorage at 1:45 p.m., and aviation officials said the Soviets would make a third try at returning home Wednesday morning.

The Alaska Airlines plane went to Nome, hoping for a break in the weather to zip into Anadyr with 70 people, including six adventures who were to join six Soviets traveling 1,200 miles for two months by skis and dog sled along the Chukotka Peninsula, across the U.S.-Soviet Bering Strait border, and up Alaska's Seward Peninsula.

Aeroflot left Anchorage with 82 Communist Party and government officials, folk singers, teachers, students, journalists and Eskimos returning to towns in eastern Siberia. The first stop was to be Anadyr.

More than a dozen Soviet rock musicians from the Stas Namin Group and the band Rondo stayed behind for more concerts in Alaska, Washington and Idaho.

The Aeroflot plane brought 91 Soviet citizens -- some from Moscow but most from eastern Siberia -- and six Moscow-based foreign journalists to Anchorage on Feb. 20, becoming the first Aeroflot passenger jet to fly from the Soviet Union to Alaska.

The Soviets' weeklong visit became an eight-day stay when high winds and blowing snow on the Soviet Bering Sea coast prevented Monday's departure, and Anchorage hosts reopened their doors to the many Russians staying in private homes. The Hilton held a final dinner, and the Soviets got an extra day of leisurely sightseeing, shopping and socializing.

Now the trip has turned into a nine-day stay.

'I guess my guy's back again,' said an Anchorage woman who took one Russian into her home for a week and two more who were out of hotel money when Monday's flight was canceled.

The chamber of commerce, state, city and private businesses suddenly went into action on almost no notice to try to accomodate the unexpected return of the Aeroflot jetload of people.

Buses and translators -- in short supply to begin with -- had to be rounded up again, and officials were trying to keep the Soviets together in a group so they could leave more quickly Wednesday if and when weather lifted at Anadyr.

Soviet officials werein Alaska for border trade and travel talks.

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