Frustrated with bureaucracy created by the Russian military, pilot Michael Farikh challenged a broken general aviation system that prevented personal helicopter flights, and won, changing general aviation forever in Russia.
Men and women who boldly go where few have gone before are a select group of human beings that have defied the odds to achieve an outcome that many thought impossible. For Russian helicopter general aviation, Michael Farikh is that man. He has become known to many as the “Godfather” of modern day helicopter aviation in Russia, opening doors to aviation that many thought closed forever in the former Soviet Union.
“Aviator” is the first thing that comes to mind while watching Farikh with his fervent devotion and soaring dreams, as witnessed during the “Heli-Russia hour”, an event held at Heli-Expo in 2012 in Las Vegas, NV. Farikh spoke during the event of his many years of frustration due to the bureaucracy in Russia that prevented Russian citizens from flying personal rotorcraft and prevented him from realizing his childhood dream of flying his own personal helicopter around the world.
It was evident that Michael’s conviction and devotion to his goal was unwavering. So evident, that it made you think: “How can I help this guy.” Ultimately, after all is said and done, my only contribution to Farikh’s dream has been telling his story here, sharing with the aviation world the type of person he is. He is a pilot’s pilot. Like many of us in this game, an adventurer, an aviator, and comrade to all who have an appreciation or love of aviation.
The disintegration of the former Soviet Union left widespread chaos in the regulation of general aviation. Farikh’s thirst for adventure and love of general aviation would cause him to lead a “revolution” of sorts. That ultimately led to him forcing the hand of the government in post-communist Russia for the good of the entire industry. This love of aviation, ultimately led to Farikh open the flood gates to what is now a booming general aviation market for helicopter operations and in aviation circles, made Michael Farikh a household name.
UNDERSTANDING THE ADVENTURE
In the summer of 2013, I traveled to Russia. Arriving at an airport north of Moscow, in a town named Tseevo. Meeting Farikh for the first time at his Aeroclub. At Avia Market heli-port. Farikh explained in depth his battle with the aging soviet bureaucracy. His ultimate aim was to change the general aviation industry in Russia for the better. The battle was to obtain freedom for aviators to fly at will, as in other civilized countries, yet Russia still did not permit for its citizens.
Seven years prior to his around the world journey, Russia had only a handful of private rotorcraft. Fast forward to the Russia of today after Farikh’s campaign to change the rules, and the industry seems to grow daily. To date, 30% of all Robinson aircraft produced, are being shipped to Russia in a market that like Brazil, now bustles with daily helicopter traffic from personal transportation aircraft in the skies.
Michael Farikh has aviation in his blood, his thirst to explore, sparked at a young age. As a child, Farikh recounts the tale of an American adventurer named Ben Eilson a known explorer that went missing in Siberia. Eilson, who became the namesake of Eilson Airforce Base in Alaska, led many polar aviation explorations. In 1929, Farikh’s Grandfather, searched for the downed explorer in the arctic tundra, eventually locating the wreckage of Eilson’s aircraft and the remains of Eilson and his mechanic in the North Cap who perished when the aircraft went down due to unknown circumstances.
Farikh went on from that fascination as a child, to challenging a mountain of bureaucracy that so far no one was able to conquer in Russia. When Farikh began his quest, rules were in place that meant that it was technically illegal to fly a general aviation flight, unlike thousands of flights taken in many countries daily without restrictions. Government permission needed to be granted in advance for any and every flight in Russian airspace, giving pilots in Russia almost zero chance to fly at their own leisure, lest they be tied up in governmental approvals for every single flight. According to Farikh “the problem was simple, common sense needed to be used. However, the solution was not that simple” Farikh explained.
Just a few short years ago, Farikh achieved his FAA rotorcraft private pilot rating taught by none other than Robinson Helicopter legend, Tim Tucker. Mastering the ways of the American airspace system, he quickly realized that lack of infrastructure was part of the problem back home in Russia.
Examining the legislation surrounding Russian airspace, Farikh noted there was no “G” or even “E” class in Russia. In fact, the entire system was more a Class C airspace that emphasized rules and requirements similar to American Class A airspace, mainly utilized for high altitude operation of airliners. In Russia, to fly, the rules required rigid flight paths and radar contact 100% of the time under an assigned squawk code. Noting the ineffectiveness of this system relating to helicopters, Farikh set out to change things.
Farikh’s solution; prove the need for airspace reform in Russia.
To prove this, Farkh devised a plan, the plan entailed going East, far east to the Siberian Tundra. The Siberian tundra is a long stretch of barren land, terrain only occupied by far reaching military outposts.Which to Farikh, made a logical argument for a ‘type’ of class G airspace. Farikh’s idea centered on being able to demonstrate uncontrolled airspace using the Siberian tundra as a test bed, then taking his testing results to Russian aviation administration to plead the case. Calling in favors from his previous Military career, Farikh organized stations with fuel drums to be trucked in and staged at locations plotted along his planned route for this flight.
On September, 25th, 2012, Farikh completed Russia’s first general aviation helicopter trans-Siberian flight in a helicopter. He explained the lack of common sense used by Russian aviation authorities was not a barrier to his ambition. Stating when he put his case to authorities after the flight, he said “I can fly in my country right? Ok, so I need radar but you have no radar in Siberia?” This obvious logic proved that the government’s system was under regulated and lacked adequate equipment, yet was over enforced needlessly complicating any general aviation flying for general aviation pilots.
THE JOURNEY TO VICTORY
To change the minds of aviation authorities for good, Farikh needed to step up his mission to prove that general aviation flying could happen in an unregulated environment and everyone would be just fine, despite the government opposition. To push the envelope, Farikh decided that he was going to begin his preparation for his around the world flight. He had dreamed of this since the day he started to learn to fly and purchase the helicopters needed.
In the summer of 2010, Farikh and two friends purchased three Robinson R-44 helicopters directly from the factory in Torrance, CA. Farikh’s original plan had consisted of him departing the Robinson factory and beginning the flight directly from there. However, Robinson had a policy that no assembled aircraft could leave the factory direct on an international flight. This forced Farikh to ship the helicopter in boxes to a certified Robinson service center where the helicopters were also equipped with additional twenty-five gallon fuel bladder tanks under the rear seats.
The three pilots commenced their journey on Aug 8th from Redlands, CA heading east, proceeding north to Canada, over to Greenland, through Ireland until forced to pause their journey on August, 25th in Stavanger, Norway (ENZV) as they awaited permission to reenter their home country with the new helicopters. On October 16th Farikh and his comrades were finally allowed to enter into Moscow after a battle with his government to gain reentry and permission to fly their helicopters back into Russian airspace that lasted almost 6 weeks. Michael explains the entry of the all-Russian crews in American made helicopters was monumental “This was the single greatest advancement to our general aviation development to date.”
PREPARATION FOR THE TRIP
Farikh went to Spain to obtain his EASA Rotorcraft Certification with CFI Jonny Greenall through Balearic Helicopters. Then completed several larger trips in preparation for the around the world flight, including trips in 2011 from Moscow to Italy. A 15 day trip in June-July 2012 covering over 13,000 kilometers in 79 hours. Farikh covered 16 countries and landed at 36 different airports as he flew through western and eastern Europe, looping through Scandinavia during the trip. April, 29th through May, 8th 2011, Farikh flew from Moscow to Italy and back. This was yet another step towards circumnavigating the globe at five hundred feet, practice if you will!
FLYING AROUND THE WORLD
After the completion of several “dry runs”, Farikh’s dream was within reach. After four years of building licenses through the FAA, the CAA and EASA, finding the perfect aircraft for the journey, achieving type certification for an American made helicopter in Russia, and breaking down the barriers of several legislative airspace barriers, Farikh was ready to embark on his journey around the world. The only barrier remaining, was a single country that would not give blessing to the flight. The United States of America, a crucial point for an around the world flight. Needing to make a crossing through the Bearing Strait and into Alaska then Northern Canada.
After several attempts at gaining a special flight permit, Farikh was growing disheartened with no response from American officials. Farkh was attempting the flight in an R66, and due to FAA red tape and his classification as being born in a “special interest country”, the FAA required that the flight be completed as an IFR flight and tracked (much like the original issues with Russian regulations).
Farikh not being one to lose a battle, enlisted the help of friend and pilot, Canadian, Robert “Bob” Kellie, a Skycrane pilot and instructor pilot Farikh met while completing specialized training in Canada. Kellie said he may be able to assist Farikh, “I would have done the same for any fellow aviator in the same position….having said that, I liked the guy and what they were doing.”
Kellie then went to work with the US authorities and also put in place a back-up plan for Farikh’s journey if his original idea failed.“It was an arduous process of many phone calls and emails with the FAA and Homeland Security and Customs and Immigration to try for an exemption. I amassed all information from the Russians with full disclosure of their personal back grounds, details of the aircraft, pilot information and passports. Also a precise itinerary of their flight through US airspace. The alternate plan I had also as a back-up, was to reregister their 2 aircraft as Canadian.” said Kellie.
On August, 2nd, 2013, Michael Farihk and fellow pilots Vadim Melnikov, Dmitry Rakitsky, and Alexander Kurylev embarked on their around the world odyssey. An expedition that only has seen completion 10 times previously in the history of otorcraft aviation. This journey was still to set a new world record as the first dual helicopter team to make the approximately 26,000 mile journey around the globe. They left Moscow to find Finland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands, utilizing the extra range granted by installation of extended bladder tanks. They made it to Iceland after five hours of nothing but ocean, pushing onwards to Greenland, and into Northern Canada.
After many days in the pilot seat, with the journey half complete, they fast approached the one obstacle that had been their biggest hurdle. The trek across North America. Bob Kellie recalls getting provisions ready for Plan B, but receiving a call only a day before the world record setting Robinson aircraft arrived at Abbotsford airport in Canada. The FAA had approved their request! Bob and Michael both agreed that social media and publicity gained throughout their journey certainly aided in the graces of a permit. “I guess the FAA did not want to be the bad guys in such a positive aviation event” said Kelley.
FLYING THE POLES
Farikh and his crew of fellow pilots flew around the world, broke barriers, and in doing so enriched their own countries general aviation community. Often asked what was next while we were together in 2014 by other media, Farikh said he would be setting out to reach the three poles. The geographic pole, the magnetic pole and inaccessibility pole. In 2015, Farikh and a team of five R-66s Achieved just that.
AN AVIATOR LOST
In a cruel twist of fate, the day before release of the magazine, we were notified that Michael Farikh and two others, Russians Alexi Frolov , a fellow pilot and scientist Oleg Prodan were killed in a crash in the northern arctic region of Russia near Sabetta. According to Russian pilots that have flown in the area, the island of Bely which was the destination of the ill fated flight, was renowned for unpredictable weather. Farikh was piloting a Robinson R66 owned by Frolov in a three helicopter flight from the Russian city of Sabetta destined for the small island of Bely where they were to land at a weather station on the island.
During the flight, two of the helicopters diverted to the nearby town of Sabetta with Farikh stating that he was going to recon the landing area as severe IFR conditions moved in rapidly. Farikh‘s helicopter failed to arrive at the destination by 2230 local Russian time and a search party was launched, finding the wreckage of the aircraft less than a mile from the landing zone with no survivors.
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Michael Rocks-Macqueen is a freelance journalist and pilot currently living and working in Nepal at the base of Mt. Everest. Rocks-Macqueen is an accomplished journalist, having been published in multiple aviation publications writing about his experiences as a pilot in locations around the world while flying various missions and writing a book about his experiences and meeting pilots around the world.