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Bay Area pilots slowed by wind in record flight

Bay Area pilots slowed by wind in record flight

Communications trouble leaves families nervous as attempt to break mark slowed

By Sean Holstege
STAFF WRITER

Friday, May 14, 2004 - Three Bay Area pilots are more than halfway into an attempted 70-hour world-record flight, but have traveled barely one-third the distance in their effort to circle the globe in a small plane.

Unseasonable 100-mph winds and cumbersome customs issues forced two unscheduled stops in the first day of the mission. While family members back home fretted, at a remote Russian outpost in the far east, the frustrated trio talked about going home.

Instead, on Thursday (Pacific time), they detoured to another Russian outpost and forged ahead, reaching Osaka, Japan.

The "World Flight" crew of Matt Brooks, the 52-year-old flight commander from San Francisco, pilot Fred Lohden, 62, of Oakland and San Ramon navigator Tim Weber, 32, are now 12 hours behind schedule. At their current pace, they expect to return to Teterboro, N.J. on Saturday afternoon.

"I think they're finding out why nobody tried this before," said Darryl Young, who manages the flight's logistics as "Red Team" chief at Universal Weather and Aviation Inc. in Houston.

Without notice, the twin-engine Cessna Citation made an unscheduled stop in Williams Lake, a dot in the center of mountainous British Columbia, roughly 150 miles northeast of Vancouver.

"They called me from the ground in Canada and said they stopped for gas," Young said. "Everything was going pretty smoothly until the leg from Salt Lake City to Juneau."

Williams Lake is about the mid-point of the 1,241-mile trip. Young ordered the team a pepperoni pizza in Juneau, a break from peanut butter-and-crackers and granola bars.

But the landing required unforeseen customs clearance by Canadian authorities, and because the team had landed in Canada, they needed a second customs clearance again in Juneau.

In Nome, Alaska they got stuck on the ground for more than one hour. They had hoped for 20-minute refueling stops. Over the Bering Strait they were slapped in face with 100-mph headwinds at 40,000 feet.

"That's fairly odd for this late in the season," Young said. "Those are some of the worst winds we've seen all year there."

The trio still had enough fuel to reach the Russian port of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula, after the trickiest leg of the entire adventure. Once there, they were grounded again, this time three hours.

That's why Young's phone rang at 2 a.m. back in Texas.

"Matt told the team that if they stayed on the ground they were going home," Young said. "They seemed fine, but a little frustrated."

The winds were too strong to reach Osaka, Japan, and the closer alternate landing at Sapporo was closing. Even though Young had convinced the Japanese customs officials to wait two hours past the end of their shift, the crew couldn't get there in time. They diverted to Khabarovsk, 926 miles out of the way to the west.

After more paperwork shuffles they got to the Russian industrial border city, near China's Manchuria region. They had traveled 38 hours, 51 minutes and 8,191 nautical miles.

Back in the Bay Area, relatives of the crew had been in the dark. The on-board satellite phone was not receiving their calls, and messages went unanswered.

"I'm not feeling good about it. I'm kind of a nervous daughter," said Lindsay Lohden, who lives in the Los Angeles area. "The communications make it worse. It makes me feel a little more out of control, just not knowing anything."

She said she thought the worst when her phone rang at 3 a.m. It turned out to be an old friend.

"The toughest problems are behind them," Young said, noting that the remaining stops are in all-night airports and the World Flight team has seen the worst of the winds. The next potential pitfall could be Vietnam. If authorities don't approve an overflight permit, the team will have to fly around the country, far to the south of the flight path.

Lindsay Lohden worries most about the upcoming crossing over the Arabian Desert and five Middle Eastern countries. She blames her fretting on "the state of affairs" there.

If her father, a former Navy pilot, succeeds in reaching New Jersey, he and his two colleagues will be the first crew to circle the globe in a plane as small as the 12,500-pound Cessna, passing over 38 countries.

Progress of the flight can be tracked on www.ardenflight.com

Contact Sean Holstege at sholstege@angnewspapers.com