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Tennessee Special Edition of Southern Living Magazine 
(August 2001

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Rhonda Miles (left) and Nikki Mitchell, posing with Nikki's plane, Mary Beth, built a friendship stronger than steel while re-creating a 1938 history-making flight from Moscow to Siberia by three Russian women.

Flying Into the Past

Most of the time, Nikki Mitchell and Rhonda Miles each lead very different lives.  Nikki runs country star Waylon Jennings's Nashville-based business, while Rhonda flies for the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain.  But in 1998 they shared an adventure that built a bridge between former Cold War enemies and bound these two women together like sisters.

Rhonda and Nikki, both pilots, took off chasing a dream with a purpose: to follow the flight path of the historic Rodina ("motherland"), which three Russian female combat pilots flew from Moscow to Siberia before World War II.


How They Met
Nikki, an Abilene, Texas, native, met Rhonda in 1996 when she needed someone to teach her the finer points of flying Mary Beth, the 1974 Maule M-5 that she had found in a barn.

"I was in the process of buying a single-engine tail-dragger," Nikki says.  "I needed an instructor to help me make the transition from a nose-wheel to a tail-dragger."

There were people I know who thought we'd be turning back halfway.

Nikki Mitchell


Enter Rhonda, an Arkansas transplant and an experienced tail-dragger instructor.  She became Nikki's instructor, and they hit it off right away.  Both shared Southern senses of humor and a thirst for excitement.  "My crop duster dad put me in an airplane at 3 months old," say Rhonda.  "He gave me my love of adventure, my love of flying."


Rhonda and Nikki re-created the path of the nonstop Flight of the Rodina but landed many times en route.  "There were several places we would land with just a dirt clearing," Nikki says.  "It was flat, and they had leveled it out.  It was very, very, very primitive."

Within a short time, they strengthened their friendship enough to try the tribute flight to Valentina Grizadubova, Paulina Ossipenko, and Marina Raskova.  The Russian women made the nonstop Flight of the Rodina in 1938, opening the air route from Moscow to Siberia for the first time.  "I love Russia," explains Nikki.  "I'm very big on their history, and Rhonda is just very adventuresome."  Nikki and Rhonda wanted to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Russian event.


The two Americans dubbed their proposed adventure the "Bridge of Wings" flight.  

 

Financing the Flight
Originally they lined up corporate donors to fund the flight, but the closer they got to the trip, the more sponsors disappeared.  "The main reason was that there was quite a bit of unrest and unpredictability in Russia," Nikki says.  "We ended up with a few small donations.  We pretty much financed it ourselves."

"We got so close (as friends).  I asked Nikki, "have you got the title to the Trooper?'" Rhonda says.  "She said 'Yes.' I said, 'I wanted to make sure, because I hocked it.' She was hocking my stuff.  I was hocking her stuff.  I really learned what it was like for the first time to have a really good friend."

Still the "Bridge of Wings" flight did have additional supports.  Nikki's boss, Waylon, helped sponsor by sending out letters and making phone calls on their behalf, and Cracker Barrel made a donation to the flight in support of its own pilot, Rhonda.  And manufacturers outfitted Mary Beth with state-of-the-art equipment, as well as donating labor.

Some people scoffed at the two pilots who wanted to fly from Tennessee to Russia and cross the Bering Strait.  The trip required navigating mid-Atlantic air and Moscow's bureaucracy.  "They thought we'd be turning back halfway. Nikki says. "I think they just thought that we'd taken on a much larger project than we realized."

 

Other Obstacles
Re-creating the Flight of the Rodina required navigating bureaucracy in the former Soviet Union.  The American pilots began seeking permission from Russian officials early in the planning stages; still, the go-ahead came down to the 11th hour.  "Five days before the flight we were at the bank hocking the last of our stuff.  We got permission from the Russian authorities three days before we did it," Rhonda says.

Even then, they had other obstacles to fly through.    For example, aviation fuel is not exactly plentiful in Russia, where few people fly purely for pleasure.  In this and other instances, the Russian government came to the rescue, bringing them aviation fuel (avgas) on a military plane.  In one remarkable instance, a village even forfeited its weekly ration of avgas, Nikki recalls.  "When you have one plane coming in and out once a week bringing the needs of a village, that's a really big deal,' she says.

The Russian people embraced the flight. "It was all over the news," Nikki says.  "It had become such a big event.  There was an air traffic controllers' strike planned--it was supposed to be all over the nation, But they agreed they would not strike until after Rhonda and I left Russian airspace.  I've never experienced anything like it."


She was hocking my stuff,
I was hocking her stuff.  I
really learned what it was
like for the first time to have
a really good friend.

Rhonda Miles

Mary Beth Takes Off
By the time the Russians gave the official go-ahead for the flight across 3,700 miles of their territory, Rhonda and Nikki were acting on faith that the flight would happen.  But not everyone shared that faith.  "There were people I know who thought we'd be turning back halfway," Nikki remembers.  Few people saw them fly out of the airport in the town of Lebanon July 4, 1998, on the 15,000-mile trip north over Greenland to Russia.  

Fear to me now
is just the place
I haven't been yet.

Nikki Mitchell


The Russians, who insisted that Nikki and Rhonda have navigators and translators, arranged for them to fly with two accomplished native female pilots, Khalide Makagonova  and Natassia Vinokourova. But this meant splitting up, putting each American in a plane with a Russian.  "I was flying in a Russian An-2 with Natassia, and Rhonda was in the other plane with Khalide," Nikki explains.  "I was glad it worked out that way.  It was truly a unified effort."  A military crew in another An-2 accompanied them.  "We were not just flying all over the place," Nikki says, "They were constantly talking over the headset and giving directions.  They had total control over everything."

Across Russia With Love
The trip took 49 days from start to finish.  Unlike their Russian predecessors who flew nonstop, the American pilots made 53 landings by the time they had circled the Northern Hemisphere.  In the process, they witnessed how much their adventure really meant to the people in that country.  "(The era of the original flight) was a very big time in their history," Nikki recalls.  "The older people who were alive when this history-making flight happened were coming (to see us). Every place we stopped, they would wear their native costumes."

Friendly villagers dipped their bread in salt and shared with the pilots--a gesture of profound hospitality.  Russian women treated the Americans like daughters.  And Nikki and Rhonda saw walls between peoples fall as they crossed the county with Russians.  "By the time it was over, we had become so close." Nikki says.

The flight across Russian went smoothly despite some dangerous conditions--air traffic controllers guiding the plane by sound, shouting instructions in Russian that had to be translated mere seconds before they had to be carried out.  Nikki and Rhonda could have died when Mary Beth's engine, running on a mix of avgas and low-grade Russian auto fuel sputtered over the Bering Strait.  And they nearly died again when their wings iced over Alaska, forcing Rhonda to fly at a lower-than-safe altitude.

They returned in Triumph, however touching down in Lebanon on August 22, the day after Nikki's birthday.  There, the cheering crowd included family and friends, representatives of avionics companies, a state senator, USA Today, and CNN.  "There was quite a difference from when we left than when we came back," Nikki says.

There also was a difference in the two pilots.  "There were many things we learned during the building up to the flight and actually during the flight."  Nikki says.  "Fear to me now is just the place I haven't been yet."

Nick Patterson