On June 20, 1937, a Soviet-built ANT-25 monoplane lands at Vancouver's Pearson Air Field, completing the first airplane flight from the Soviet Union to the United States across the North Pole. The unfamiliar-looking aircraft, with long, red, albatross-like wings, passes over the field in preparation for an unscheduled and unexpected landing. And although the arrival at Pearson Field is a complete surprise, there is no mystery as to the aircraft's identity. For the past several days people around the world have anxiously followed its progress as its crew sought to be the first to cross the North Pole from Moscow to San Francisco.
Heroes of the Soviet Union
Three Soviet flyers, pilot Valery Chkalov, co-pilot Georgy Baidukov, and navigator Alexander Belyakov, operated the ANT-25 single-engine monoplane on this attempt to be the first cross the polar regions. All were experienced cold-weather pilots, each having been made Hero of the Soviet Union and awarded the Order of Lenin for their achievements in a pioneering flight in the same aircraft across the Soviet Union’s frozen Siberian provinces, from Moscow to Udd Island (now Chkalov Island) on the Soviet Union’s Pacific coast.
Long and careful preparations were made for the flight, as a forced landing in the Polar Regions would mean certain death for the entire crew. Finally, after receiving last-minute permission from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Chkalov lifted the heavy, fuel-laden aircraft off the runway at Moscow’s Shchelkovo airport at dawn on Friday, June 17, 1937. Unlike the well-publicized flights of the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post, and other aviation record-setters, the closed and paranoid nature of the Soviet Union attempted to keep all knowledge of the flight a secret. It was a full 24 hours into the flight before word of it leaked out. When it did, people around the world were captivated, and eagerly devoured what little information could be gleaned from their newspapers.
Flying Blind with Ice for Water
The first 24 hours of the trans-polar flight proved to be routine and uneventful, but the remainder of the long flight would test the mettle of the Soviet Union’s elite flyers. As the flight neared the Polar Regions, the aircraft’s magnetic compass became inoperable; navigation would have to rely solely on dead reckoning and a solar heading indicator, with corrections made by regular sun and star observations. Unfortunately, bad weather awaited the flight and only rarely could navigator Belyakof take accurate sightings.
Adding to the crew’s worries were frequent storms, strong headwinds and dangerous icing conditions. The headwinds and storms slowed the ANT-25’s progress and consumed fuel at an alarming rate. These impediments to progress also threatened to stretch the crew’s meager oxygen supplies to the limit. Icing of the planes fabric-covered wings was a constant hazard, and only the plane’s propeller had any de-icing capability. At one point in the flight even the coolant for the ANT-25’s engine began to freeze up. The crew quickly thought to utilize their supply of drinking water, only to find that it, too, was frozen. In the end, the reservoirs of the pilots’ own urine were used to solve the problem (and stored for later study by Soviet flight surgeons).
Over the Pole
The flyers crossed the North Pole on Friday night and the plane headed into northern Canada. With little opportunity for navigational sightings and no radio stations in Canada’s far north, the Russian’s were literally flying blind, while on the ground millions waited eagerly for any word from the plane. It wasn’t until early Saturday morning that a Canadian Signal Corps outpost in the Northwest Territories heard from the plane. They forwarded word from the Russians that the ANT-25 would have to come down somewhere between Seattle and Oakland, depending on how long their fuel held out. Spectators and reporters flocked to airfields in Seattle, Portland, and Oakland on the chance that they might be fortunate enough to witness the end of this historic flight.
To avoid the heavy weather and headwinds, the crew turned their aircraft to the west to cross the Rockies over northern Canada, then fly down along the coast from the Queen Charlotte Islands. South of Eugene, Oregon, the ANT-25 developed a problem with its fuel pump, so the trio decided to turn back to Portland for their landing. As the plane broke through the clouds and rain over Portland’s Swan Island airfield, however, the Russians were surprised to find huge numbers of cheering spectators waiting below. Remembering how the Paris crowds had literally torn Lindbergh's plane apart, Chkalov ordered his co-pilot "Let’s not land here! They will take the aircraft apart for souvenirs. Let’s go to the other shore," indicating the military airport in Vancouver marked on his map.
With the throngs across the river in Portland, only the regularly posted guards were on hand when the big Russian plane touched down at Pearson Field. The three Russian aviators had endured 63 hours and 16 minutes in their cramped and cold aircraft and covered 5,288 miles. Later examination would reveal that a mere eleven gallons of fuel remained in the aircraft’s tanks.
Within minutes of the aircraft’s arrival the base commander was summoned and General George C. Marshall (who would later achieve fame as Army Chief of Staff, Secretary of State and author of the now famous Marshall Plan) drove straight across the post golf course to greet the Russians. Baidukov would later relate how the newly promoted General seemed to bask in the limelight and publicity surrounding the three fliers.
Heroes of Vancouver, Washington
From the moment the Russians touched down in Vancouver they were welcomed as heroes. For the remainder of the day cars streamed across the Interstate Bridge from Portland full of well wishers. This was merely the beginning of a long nation-wide tour of the United States, which included a visit with President Roosevelt and a parade in New York City. Their fame was even greater in their homeland, with Chkalov acquiring the nickname "The Russian Lindbergh." Such was his popularity that by year’s end he was made a Deputy of Soviet Nationalities and a member of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union.
Sadly, Chkalov’s reign as the Soviet’s premier aviation hero would be short-lived. Eighteen months after his transpolar achievement the Russian hero was dead, killed in a controversial flight test of a new Soviet fighter plane. Such was Chkalov’s fame that both Stalin and his Foreign Minister Molotov served as pallbearers, although rumors persisted that the Soviet dictator might have played a role in the aviator’s death. His remains were deposited in a place of honor in the Kremin wall.
In 2004, the Pearson Air Museum in Vancouver is home to a small but interesting collection of materials about the Soviet Transpolar Flight of 1937. Pictures, documents and other items from the flight and from other aspects of Chkalov’s career, including his Hero of the Soviet Union medal, are either on display or preserved in the museum’s collections. The families of the celebrated fliers donated many of the items. Outside the museum stands the monument to the flight, erected in 1975. It is the first monument in the United States commemorating an achievement by the Soviet Union.