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Rambler's Top100

15 2003  . 
Rangers: Not only does Kovalev fly on the ice, he flies in the clouds, too - Star-Ledger

BY BRIDGET WENTWORTH

It's 20 degrees and cloudy at 6,000 feet above North Jersey, and Alexei Kovalev is happy to demonstrate the de-icing feature of his twin-engine Cessna 414.

"Keep your eye on the black rubber strip," he says, pointing to the right wing.

The strip suddenly undulates, knocking off pieces of ice that had been invisible. Kovalev grins and folds his arms contentedly across his chest, delighted there was enough buildup on the wings to make the de-icing necessary.

It adds to the adventure.

Kovalev, though, is no showboat. He might be known for his fancy maneuvers on the ice at Madison Square Garden as a winger for the Rangers, but the airspace over the New York metropolitan area is no place to get cute. Kovalev has been flying planes for about seven years, ever since a friend took him on a sightseeing flight around Manhattan in a small Cessna. He was hooked.

"He gave me the controls on the way back, and I got the feeling of it and got interested," Kovalev said. "Hockey is hockey, and sometimes you want to be able to get away from it. I get away and clear my mind. It gives you a little more freedom."

And there is plenty to flee. The Rangers are on the brink of a sixth consecutive season out of the playoffs. Kovalev is the big gun they acquired for the final push. In 14 games since coming over from Pittsburgh, he has six goals and three assists. He is producing, but the Rangers are struggling. The team's margin for error is nearly zero and the pressure to win each night can be overwhelming.

To escape the stress, Kovalev heads to the airport. At 30, he is licensed to operate multi-engine planes and is instrument-rated, which means he can fly in zero-visibility conditions. Kovalev has 713 hours of flying time and has made 947 takeoffs and landings, 207 of those landings done solely with instruments.

He uses his plane, bought slightly used two years ago for $255,000, the way some people use their cars. While with the Penguins for four years following his first stint with the Rangers, Kovalev flew from Pittsburgh to New York and back for nights on the town or to run errands. When his 9-month-old son, Nikita, gets older, he'll pack the baby and his wife, Eugenia, into the six-seater to reach vacation spots.

But Kovalev's favorite flights are the types that captured his imagination initially -- the low-flying, sightseeing tours that allow him to practice his skills and give passengers eye-popping views of the world below. On a recent late afternoon trip from Westchester County Airport to Atlantic City and back, Kovalev treated his guests to what personal aviation has to offer.

UP, UP AND AWAY

Takeoff is smooth, and the hills around the airport, dotted with expensive-looking homes, recede as Kovalev banks the plane to the right and heads for the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Hudson River. Air traffic controllers on Long Island have switched the route he will take to the New Jersey coastline. Instead of going over Long Island and out over the Atlantic in the airspace around JFK Airport, Kovalev flies west toward New Jersey and then south, in the airspace around Newark Liberty International Airport.

The flight suddenly becomes unnerving as cloud cover begins to build. Somewhere near Newark airport, it is as if someone has pulled a down comforter over the plane. All is white outside, and it is difficult not to imagine the jumbo jets taking off and landing in the murky weather nearby.

Although Kovalev has switched to auto pilot for this part of the flight, he keeps an eye on his instruments. A global positioning system gives him a good idea of where he is geographically.

"You really have to concentrate when it's like this, you really have to watch your instruments and pay attention," he says. "My wife and I once flew for an hour and 45 minutes on instruments. We finally saw the runway when we were 400 feet above it. In these conditions, it's important to know where you are. It's good that nothing (bad) is happening (with the weather) but if something did happen, you need to know where you are."

Suddenly, the clouds brighten, and the sun shines through. At 6,000 feet over water, the clouds part in Kovalev's path.

"This is my best time," he says. "When I fly into the clouds."

Air traffic controllers check with Kovalev when his plane nears each individual sector of airspace. He has an unmistakable Russian accent, but it doesn't prevent him from speaking the rapid-fire language of aviation so all the controllers listening in can understand him. Vectors. Headings. Delta. Niner. Roger that. Affirmative.

"That's why I took the time to learn, to make sure they could understand me," Kovalev says. "You learn by talking and listening. Some (flight) students are afraid to talk, but you have to. You have to learn the language, and you have to come back quick. You listen to experienced pilots talk, and you take something out of it until you are speaking the same language."

A.C. FROM ABOVE

Twenty minutes from Atlantic City, Kovalev begins to descend to 1,000 feet and cancels the original flight plan, which had him landing there. He asks for permission to fly low for a sightseeing tour past the casinos on the water, and permission is granted. The shore line is visible off the left wing as the clouds gather again.

"I hope it's not bumpy," Kovalev says.

The cloud ceiling is about 600 feet above Atlantic City, low enough to partially cover the sign on the Taj Mahal at the north end of the boardwalk. But Kovalev is undaunted, and makes several passes while looping out over the Atlantic at 500 feet above the water. He has disengaged the auto pilot and is maneuvering the plane himself, using flaps and landing gear to slow it down so his passengers can get a good look at the city.

The Taj Mahal, Bally's, Caesar's, Trump -- they are all lined up, just like the tour buses clearly seen jockeying for position at the end of the Atlantic City Expressway. The cloud cover grows rapidly, and Kovalev goes back to auto pilot for the flight north up the coast at 3,000 feet. The return trip seems to go faster than the trip down -- but both ways were surprisingly smooth -- and, with the weather improving, the beaches at Sandy Hook are visible.

But just ahead comes the part of the flight that gets emotional for Kovalev, and probably always will.

From this vantage point, he used to be able to look past the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and see the World Trade Center getting ready to greet him at the tip of Manhattan.

"After Sept. 11, with those two buildings gone, it's definitely different now. It's not the same anymore," Kovalev says. "New York is New York. It's always beautiful. But you would descend to 1,000 feet and fly by the city and be at the same height as the buildings. And there was a little more excitement when you'd fly by those two buildings and they were still higher than you were.

"There are still tall buildings, but definitely not like it was when you're coming over that bridge and you're heading right towards the corner of the island where those buildings were. The city starts from them. Without them, it's not even close to the same."

Three bridges guide Kovalev toward his destination in Westchester.

First, the Verrazano at 2,000 feet, with the Statue of Liberty coming up quickly on the left side of the plane as the bridge disappears under the plane. Ahead, the George Washington Bridge is clearly visible, but first there is the city, close on the right now as Kovalev descends to 1,000 feet. He passes Lower Manhattan in silence as the bright lights at Ground Zero shine into the pit where the World Trade Center once stood.

The landscape is passing quickly, and Kovalev asks his passengers to watch for the Garden. There it is, a gold disc in the middle of skyscrapers. The reservoir in Central Park seems huge, and suddenly, the plane is low over the George Washington, with the Tappan Zee coming up quickly ahead.

A right turn, and the airport is in sight in the hills. Kovalev is cleared to land, but is forced to snake low above Interstate 684 to get to the correct runway.

"Sorry for my scary approach," he says as cars zip along the highway just underneath the plane, which seems to be only 10 feet off the ground. Of course, it's more than that, and Kovalev straightens out the wings just seconds before landing.

And it's a smooth one, the mark of a good pilot.

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3 . Kovalev faces uncertain future - Tribune - Review

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