ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- American and Soviet aviation officials were making last minute preparations for Sunday's first-ever scheduled flight across the Pacific between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, will fly from Khabarovsk, a city in the Soviet Far East, to Anchorage, Alaska, and then on to San Francisco, before turning around and flying back the same way, inaugurating weekly service between the Soviet east coast and the American West Coast.
'While this flight may not go down in the history books as being nearly as monumental as Orville and Wilbur Wright's first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., or Yuri Gargarin's first trip to the heavens above our small planet, it is still a proud moment in aviation history for all the Americans and Soviets who worked to make it happen,' Alexei Goryashko, Soviet first deputy minister of commercial aviation said in a statement.
'We are proud to be the first carrier to offer direct Pacific service connecting our two great Pacific Rim nations,' Goryashko said.
Aeroflot will beat a U.S. air carrier, Alaska Airlines, by one month in offering flights between California and the Soviet Far East via Alaska.
Starting June 17, Alaska Airlines begins flying to Magadan and Khabarovsk three times weekly.
From Khabarovsk, connections can be made to other parts of the Soviet Union.
'Aeroflot considers this new route to be integral to its plan to serve all major world aviation markets from cities in the Soviet Union,' Goryahko said. 'We hope that after years of having to travel through Japan or Europe to get to the Soviet Far East, American businessmen and women will find this time-saving San Francisco-Anchorage-Khabarovsk route especially convenient.'
Aeroflot has long sought access to San Francisco while Alaska Airlines has been seeking entry into the Soviet Far East ever since its pioneering June 1988 'Friendship Flight' from Alaska to Provideniya, on the Soviet side of the Bering Strait.
Last June, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a bilateral air service agreement that opened several new routes, including this trans-Pacific route.
An Aeroflot IL-62M carrying 120 passengers, many of them dignitaries coming to celebrate in Anchorage and San Francisco, was due in Anchorage Sunday at 7:10 a.m. Alaska time after a 5-hour-50 minute flight from Khabarovsk, said Mark Butler of Soviet Services, an Anchorage company.
After a two-hour stop, the plane will go on to San Francisco for a 2:10 p.m. Pacific time arrival and a three-hour stay, said Ron Wilson, San Francisco International Airport spokesman.
However, plans for Aeroflot, the world's biggest airline, were so uncertain and had changed so many times that as recently as Thursday, San Francisco airport officials were unsure even what day the inaugural flight would be.
It was originally scheduled for last month, then last week, then this Sunday, then next week, then back to Sunday -- leaving some planners, who were making elaborate arrangements for the arrival, with a feeling of uncertainty and uneasiness.
But Aeroflot officials began gathering Friday in Anchorage to make plans, and Butler said, 'The flight is on.'
As Aeroflot prepared for its first U.S. West Coast flight, the Soviet airline still had no ticket offices in Anchorage or San Francisco, no telephones, no airport counters nor any other facilities for a company starting up regular service. Butler and Wilson and Aeroflot initially would rely on Alaska Airlines for counter, gate and ticketing assistance. San Francisco has a Soviet consulate; Anchorage does not.
There have been an increasing number of charters, cargo and passenger flights, by Aeroflot and Alaska Airlines between Anchorage and several cities in the Soviet Far East. And Bering Air, a small Nome, Alaska, airline also flies charters to Provideniya, across the Bering Strait from Nome. But Sunday's Aeroflot flight will be the first regularly- scheduled service.
The recent thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations, and a virtual meltdown of the Alaska-Siberia ice curtain border, has generated interest in trade and travel that, until now, has required charters to the Soviet Far East or flights across the Atlantic on existing Aeroflot routes between New York or Washington and Moscow.