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First direct flight USSR-USA. History of aviation

Updated on April 3, 2013
ANT-25 from a public domain
ANT-25 from a public domain

1937. The aviation industry of the Soviet Union was on the wave of success, but engineers and Stalin wanted more. They wanted to achieve a thing absolutely impossible that time – to make a non-stop flight from the USSR to the United States over the North Pole. The plan was supported directly by Josef Stalin. He wanted to open a direct airline connection between the USA and the USSR. Personal participation of Stalin in the project gave an unlimited access to all reserves the Soviet country had that time. To make this flight possible a model ANT-25 (Antonov) and a team of 3 were chosen: 2 pilots – Chkalov Valeri and Georgi Baidukov and a navigator – Alexander Belyakov. Chkalov was the most known of them. Newspapers of that time described him as a “hooligan in the air” for his incredible flight tricks and for disobeying orders. Stalin liked Chkalov and that was probably the reason of his quick career of a pilot.

the crew of the non-stop flight
the crew of the non-stop flight

This flight had a long period of preparation. First the plane made a 56 hours long trip from Moscow to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski in 1936 and covered distance in 9375 km. This route got a name “The route of Stalin” and had it till 1956.

The resources of the whole country were used to prepare aircraft for this flight. Anything the pilots needed was delivered immediately. But in a week before the start the whole flight was on the edge of cancellation. The aircraft was accidentally damaged by another plane. The long repair would doom a successful flight because the weather turns hot. A heavy loaded aircraft will not be able to take off in a hot weather.

Nevertheless the plane was repaired in a very short time. Just in a week it was ready again to make an outstanding flight. Chkalov insisted to fly as soon as possible and to pay no attention to the bad weather forecast. At the same time meteorologists insisted to postpone it due to heavy cyclones on the way. Stalin put the end to their argument and set his own date of departure. He had a meeting with the Chkalov and meteorologists and the flight was scheduled on the June, 18.

The crew consisted of 2 pilots and 1 navigator. Pilots were changing each other and had a chance to sleep. But the navigator had no such a possibility and was awake almost all time. Before this flight he had special courses in a flight school and could, if necessary, also take a position of a pilot and to land the plane.

This flight was under complicated weather conditions. Heavy cyclones escorted the plane most of the time. Sometimes they had to rise at 6100 meters altitude to go over the clouds. But the cabin was not hermetic and they suffered severely of oxygen lack. There was a certain amount of oxygen onboard but the crew tried to save it. Aside from lack of oxygen they suffered much from a low temperature. Their cabin was not heated well, and sometimes the temperature went down below -9 C.

The pilots had new clothes made especially for this flight. Leather pants and jackets with filling consisting of gagra down protected them perfectly from low temperature, were waterproof and had a light weight -4.5 kilo. Fur boots, wool gloves and hats were also made especially for them.

The ration for the flight consisted of sandwiches with ham and beef, cheese, caviar, pieces of cake, chocolate, apples, oranges and lemons. 24 hour ration per person weighted 1 kilogram. For a drink the pilots had a tea with lemon. Later they said they did not eat anything. In a state of oxygen starving a person has no appetite. Still precautions were done and they also had an emergency ration necessary to stay alive for a month. It was around 100 kilos of high-calorie cans packed in a folia and rubber bags. The crew was also equipped with a silk tent and inflatable boat, a kerosene stove and other things which could be used in a case of emergency landing. Everything was as light as possible. Wooden parts were changed by aluminum. Numerous supplies took valuable space and even a toilet was a problem. All urine was collected in rubber containers to be examined by doctors later.

Stalin loved Chkalov. From a public domain
Stalin loved Chkalov. From a public domain
Stalin and Chkalov. From a public domain
Stalin and Chkalov. From a public domain
from a public domain
from a public domain

The flight was difficult from all points of view but the most horrible moment of flight was when the pilots found out that the cooling system leaks and they almost do not have coolant. Without it the engine will stop and the plane will inevitable fall down. To save themselves the crew started to pour all liquids they had in the cooling system and when it has gone as well they added the urine they had in those containers and tea. There was some water in the emergency kit but it turned into ice.

Despite tiredness and difficulties of the flight the aircraft landed safely on a runway of a military field in the suburbs of Vancouver (Washington DC). The navigator Belyakov made a record in a log book: June, 20, 1937. Time spent in the air – 63 hours 16 minutes. Fuel consumption 7933 liters or 5658 kilograms, 77 kg left. Average velocity - 200 km/per hour”. Next day they were met by journalists and cameramen. They had a trip over the United States and meetings with thousands of people. In the White house they were warmly welcomed by Roosevelt.

Chkalov and his crew returned home by a ship “Normandy” together with Marlene Dietrich. They say she felt offended when the ship came to England because thousands of people in a harbor came to welcome soviet pilots, not her!

These 3 people became heroes in the USSR for many years. They were awarded by the highest award - the “Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union”. Chkalov was the only person in the USSR who had his own plane! Government also presented Chkalov an american “Packard” and hired a personal driver for him. Alas the glory of Chkalov was not long. He died on December 18, 1938 at an airplane crash.

Chkalov flight

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    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile imageAUTHOR

      Pavlo Badovskyi 

      5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Hi Audrey. Nice to read your comment again. I believe always there are challenges. Latest news of parashootig from stratosphere is a confirmation that people want to meet challenges.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 

      5 years ago from American Southwest

      Also missed this article! I remember a quote by Lindbergh, can't remember when but I'm sure it was before WWII, that flying had become boring because all the challenges of the air had been tried and conquered. I am guessing he did not say that before this flight happened!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile imageAUTHOR

      Pavlo Badovskyi 

      6 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Thank you! Stalin would be proud to get a credit for that :) Mostly people say just unpleasant words about him. :)

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      Excellent post and information. All credit to Stalin for this flight

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile imageAUTHOR

      Pavlo Badovskyi 

      6 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Yes, I have such a story about soviet pilots who managed to hijack the Nazi aircraft and escaped from a death camp. Thank for an idea!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Pavlo, this is yet another bit of history that I never remember reading or hearing (it's always Lindbergh or Earhart). Thanks for writing. Flying over the North Pole in 1937 is not my idea of fun. I wonder though, do you know of any such flights (like secret missions) during WWII?

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