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Russian Pilot Visits, Reflects on Grandfather’s Role in Alaska Aviation History

Tim Ellis/KUAC

Two Russian civilian helicopters visited Fairbanks Friday, a bit more than halfway through their round-the-world flight to test the helicopters’ performance in the subarctic. The stopover allowed one of the pilots to catch up with a veteran Alaskan bush pilot who was celebrating little-known role his grandfather played in Alaska aviation history.

Art Mortvedt paces around just outside the tarmac on the west side of Fairbanks International Airport, keeping an eye on the sky. He’s waiting for two R66 helicopters and their Russian crews who were running late.

Mortvedt is a bush pilot from Manley Hot Springs and something of a modern-day adventurer. Earlier this year, he flew his Cessna 185 to the North Pole, on the second leg of a circumpolar expeditionto demonstrate the utility of single-engine aircraft for polar research.

That’s when he met the Russian helicopter pilots.

“I arrived at the North Pole on April 6,” Mortvedt said. “And on April 7th, in the morning, I heard a helicopter outside the tent. And it was an R66, flown by a guy named Mikhail Farikh, from Moscow. He had just flown to the North Pole – the first time that an R66 has ever gone to the North Pole. And so I was invited to have some tea and a light meal with him and his copilot and some other people.”

Mortvedt says he’d hoped to return the hospitality someday. And he says he found out a few days ago that he was going to get a chance to do just that.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Mikhail Farikh maneuvers his R66 into position to land near the west end of the airport.

“Lo and behold,” he said, “a friend of mine in England, who’s a helicopter pilot, contacted me telling me Mikhail is on his way around the world with an R66, and he’s coming to Alaska!”

Soon, two sleek helicopters approached from the south, hovered briefly, then touched down. The crew members were met by U.S. Customs and TSA officials, who escorted them into their offices.

After the aviators cleared Customs, Mortvedt welcomed them to America.

“There’s my friend, Mikhail,” Mortvedt said, shaking Farikh’s hand. “Welcome to Alaska. Great to see you again!”

“Thank you,” Farikh said.

Farikh says the crews were delayed because they’d decided to fly around the restricted airspace in the several military operations areas around the Interior.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Mikhail Farikh

He says the crews will stay in Fairbanks for a day, then depart and stop at Galena and Nome, as required by Customs, before crossing back over into Russia.

Farikh says the two helicopters performed well throughout the journey, which began Aug. 2 in Moscow. They followed a mostly northerly route, with a brief diversion southward to Vancouver, B.C.

“So, we are very happy,” he said. “And now, we are going home.”

Farikh says coming to Alaska, and then returning home from here, holds special significance for him. That’s because his grandfather, Fabio Farikh, was also a Russian aviator who came to Alaska back in 1930. He says his grandfather and another Soviet airman were part of a search-and-rescue operation in Siberia to find legendary Alaskan aviator Carl Ben Eielson, the namesake of the Air Force base.

Eielson and his mechanic, Earl Borland, had been reported missing in early November 1929.

Credit UAF Library archives
Carl Ben Eielson

“Eighty-three years ago,” Farikh said, “two Russian pilots made their search and rescue operation in Russian Siberia, and they found two American pilots from Alaska – Carl Ben Eielson and his mechanic-technician, Borland.”

Eielson’s plane went down as he and Borland were on another rescue mission, to bring supplies to the crew of a ship that had become icebound off the coast of Siberia, and to salvage its cargo.

“These two Russian pilots found (the) American pilots’ bodies,” Farikh said, “and (the) American government asked (the) Soviet government to let (the) Russian pilots deliver the bodies here to Alaska. And one of these Russian pilots was my grandfather.”

Farikh says he’s honored to follow the same route home that his grandfather took after he delivered he remains of Eielson and Borland in April 1930.

He hopes to work on an English-language translation of the book his grandfather wrote about the recovery mission.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.