Billings may well find itself a part of Belarusian history after two pilots seeking to be the first from their small nation to fly around the world touched down Thursday night at the private hangars west of the airport.
Gary Blain of Billings Flying Service, an aircraft contracting and service company in Billings, recently met pilots Alexander Tsenter and Andrey Borisevich while on business in Seattle. After hearing of their journey and their need for impending plane repairs, he invited them to Billings for a tuneup on their Cessna 182 single engine plane.
The plane landed shortly after 10 p.m. Thursday night before it was pushed by hand into the Billings Flying Service fixed wing aircraft hangar.
Attempting the worldwide flight and making history for his small central European nation is a matter of "honor," Tsenter said, and an adventure that required extensive planning.
The fuel budget alone is $15,000, he said.
Opening a tube and unfurling a map marking their course, Tsenter explained that for a year he, Borisevich and another team member worked to negotiate permission to pass through Russian airspace.
A landlocked country of about 10 million people, Belarus is bordered to the south by Ukraine, the west by Poland, the north by Lithuania and Latvia, and to the east by Russia.
On August 18, Tsenter and Borisevich took off from the Belarusian capital of Minsk and began their journey headed directly toward their eastern neighbor.
Russian air traffic control would often demand their estimated distance from three points ahead. As the pair flew further and further to the east, eventually ranging into remote Siberian country, those locations — small villages and local landmarks — sometimes weren't even on the maps they carried.
Flying over such remote areas made cellphone service oftentimes impossible to find, complicating their attempt to notify U.S. officials of their impending arrival in Alaska as they crossed the Bering Strait. When they finally reached Nome, Alaska, it may have been the first time a plane with the Belarusian tail numbers EW, or "echo whiskey," had come to the United States, Tsenter said.
The pilots said they've been averaging 800 miles and more than 7 hours per flight. Some days they said they'd land around midnight and grab as much sleep as they could before waking up early in the morning to prepare for the next flight.
In order to make up for the Cessna's fuel capacity, Tsenter said they purchased a special rubber fuel bladder from Australia and installed it inside the back seat area, allowing them to nearly double the amount of fuel they carry.
Tsenter said they've sent barrels of gasoline to projected landing points ahead of their trip.
The two are longtime friends and said they've gotten along fine so far during the trip, despite the long hours.
Along the left side of the plane's body are the stenciled outlines of the 10 countries where their trip will take them. Each time they make it to a new nation, the outlines are covered with full-color decals of that nation's flag. The United States is the most recent. The last outline is for the Swedish flag.
"Two main impressions," Tsenter said. "Land and people. Land from above, and people on the ground."
People they've met along the way have been curious but mostly friendly, he said, leading to "wonderful discussions" but sometimes "thousands of questions."
Overall though, "they help us as much as possible," he said.
They've asked people to stamp their map and write messages and well-wishes. The margins of their flight log are beginning to fill in with the handwritten notes.
Tsenter spoke excitedly of the beauty and majesty of the landscapes they've passed over, from Lake Baikal in eastern Russia (the largest freshwater lake in the world), to the mountains throughout Alaska and Idaho.
"I think it's a unique chance to understand the size of our planet," Tsenter said. He's hoping their flight will inspire other Belarusians, especially younger ones, to participate in air sports and aviation.
The pair have connected their GPS to a website that pings their location and Belarusians have been following their journey online and on TV, Tsenter said.
For updates on Tsenter and Borisevich's journey, check out their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/letim.by.