How We Searched for Alsib's Planes. Part Five: "Ponomarenko’s Plane". Was There a Mine?

31-й рейс майора Пономаренко на С-47, увы, оказался последним. Фото: Алексей Никулин
31-й рейс майора Пономаренко на С-47, увы, оказался последним. Фото: Алексей Никулин

23.07.2022. We are flying out to search for Major Fyodor Ponomarenko's C-47.

Our RGS search party is again "light" today – at 10:00 we take off on the Mi-8. We will have to look for the plane next to the bed of the Bystraya River. The weather is sunny, and the search area is relatively uncomplicated – tundra. However, there are no exact coordinates and the directions are so-so: "the bed of the Bystraya River ... 18km from Gerasimov's plane." It is unlikely we’ll be able to land by the river: in our experience, everything that is next to the rivers that have a name is a swamp. However, anything can turn out to be a swamp.

To begin with, we located "Gerasimov’s plane", circled once over the crash site, then headed for the upper reaches of the Bystraya River, and from there followed its course downstream. After a few minutes of flight, we see a lot of debris – that is our starting point. The commander makes a couple of laps to assess the spread – everything lies quite compactly, mainly on the left bank.

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Садиться у такой реки вертолёту рискованно: земля может оказаться болотом. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Садиться у такой реки вертолёту рискованно: земля может оказаться болотом. Фото: Алексей Никулин

On the right, on a small elevation, more fragments are visible. The left bank is swampy; it is clear that we cannot land next to it. But the main thing is that we found it.

We landed a kilometer away. The hummocks deflate; but our Mi-8 doesn’t seem to be sinking.

Our commander inspects the landing gear, pressed into the thick grass, groaning and crouching around the helicopter like Winnie the Pooh. Then he sighs and gives us four whole hours for examination. Taking backpacks with dry food and a stele, we move towards the river. We jump from hummock to hummock. It will be easier farther along the riverbed on the rocks. Along the river, we quickly get to the crash site – the first fragments lie right on the rocky shore, the rest are to the side.

From archival documents: "On November 25, 1943, a C-47 plane crash occurred, tail number No. 223986. The crew was killed, buried in Yakutsk."

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У нас есть четыре часа на обследование местности. Фото: Алексей Никулин
У нас есть четыре часа на обследование местности. Фото: Алексей Никулин

According to the official version, "the cause of the crash was a fire from a short circuit of the control wiring in the cockpit. The collision of the aircraft with the ground occurred due to difficult piloting conditions caused by the fire and the smoke in the cockpit."

There is, however, an unofficial version put forward by Viktor Glazkov. It’s in the realm of conspiracy theories. About it, a little later.

There was no detailed inspection of this aircraft, except for the examination of the crash site by the senior geologist of the East Chukotka Geological Exploration Expedition G. N. Kaplenkov: "July 13, 1974. Clear, windy. Linking route. The wreckage of an American twin-engine aircraft was found in the area of the Bystraya River. The cargo fell on the right bank. The cabin is barely visible from the channel pebbles, the wreckage of the hull and wings lie on the left bank. The wreckage is spread from south to north. The aircraft's tail number is 223986, with five-pointed stars on the wings and fuselage. The date of manufacture of the motors is 1942. The cargo included propeller blades, heaters, canisters. A thorough examination of the surroundings allowed us to find the remains of the pilots' belongings. The documents were not found. Version of death: here, 150 km from Uelkal, when approaching the Zolotoy Ridge, the plane either got into fog or made an emergency landing due to an accident. The fate of the crew is unknown."

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Бортовой номер читается хорошо, сомнений нет: это "борт Пономаренко". Фото: Алексей Никулин
Бортовой номер читается хорошо, сомнений нет: это "борт Пономаренко". Фото: Алексей Никулин

We scatter in groups and begin to inspect the crash site. The wreckage of the aircraft lies quite compactly, in a strip of 150m by 400m. But it obviously wasn't falling vertically. From the very first steps, it is clearly the "American": most of the fragments are marked. Large fragments – the wing, the tail – are also "marked", only not by the manufacturer, but by the 6th reindeer herding brigade. Closer to the shore, traces of their all-terrain vehicle are visible, which remain in the tundra for decades.

The gearbox with the blades flew the farthest; the second one lies about 30 meters away: patent, batch number, delivered, inspected ... The Pratt&Whitney star-shaped engines are almost completely stuck in the swamp, but we have already noticed the characteristic elements of the C-47.

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Термос, принадлежавший экипажу С-47. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Термос, принадлежавший экипажу С-47. Фото: Алексей Никулин

The tail stabilizer has a clear tail number 22398. There is no doubt – we have found Fyodor Ponomarenko's C-47.

The left wing with the remnants of a star on a blue background lies very close to the shore, as well as the landing gear, but there is no right wing, or the remains of the cabin. Perhaps they got directly into the riverbed and were eventually carried away. The geologists in their report indicated that they’d seen part of the cabin in the river pebbles, but 48 years later there is no trace of it. It's a pity. The answer to the mystery of the crash of this C-47 could be there.

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Остатки эмблемы ВВС Армии США. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Остатки эмблемы ВВС Армии США. Фото: Алексей Никулин

After examining the left bank, we move to the right bank – there must be cargo somewhere! The right bank seems to be high and should be drier, but alas! We hunt for every piece, jumping from hummock to hummock. If the geologists could probably see the entire cargo, we got only what still sticks out of the muddy ground. The blades indicated by the geologists as transported cargo are nowhere to be seen. Maybe they are lying somewhere, but using the probe takes time. Which we don’t have. But five air heaters were still found. Although the devices are deformed, their operation principle is quite understandable: there is a small motor on the frame, a starter with a wooden flywheel, a supercharger, a heater block with a pipe, and a canister for fuel. From above, the unit had an outlet to a branch pipe and a cloth extension tube; warm air was supplied through it to the engine to warm the aircraft.

Without such simple devices, the air route could not even theoretically exist in the conditions of winter Chukotka – a strategic cargo! Take away the air heaters from the technicians at -40°C, and what will become of the air route? That's right – it will freeze.

From the notes of Viktor Glazkov: "In the autumn-winter period, the ferrying of the aircraft was complicated by climate and meteorological conditions. Frosts of up to -60°C were not uncommon, and even with a breeze. The hydraulic hoses for extending and retracting the landing gear and braking system froze together and would often burst. There were not enough American stoves to heat the engines; homemade ones were used. The hands and faces of the engineering staff were all frostbitten."

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Та самая "стратегическая" воздухогрейка. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Та самая "стратегическая" воздухогрейка. Фото: Алексей Никулин

Here it's time to recall the conspiracy theory of Viktor Glazkov:"... The crew of Ponomarenko F. L., after the departure of the plane from Uelkal heading to Markovo, exploded after 11 minutes in the air. The wreckage of the plane was scattered within a radius of one kilometer. The commander of the 8th Air Transport Regiment(ATR) Lieutenant Colonel Pushchinsky V. A. went to the crash site on a tractor with a sledge. He brought three corpses of our comrades wrapped in parachutes. The crew of Benkunsky G. S. with which I flew as a radio operator, with Pushchinsky on board, delivered the corpses to Yakutsk, where they were buried. The causes of the explosion of the aircraft were not found at the scene. They put forward a version that in the States, where Ponomarenko had delivered our trade delegation earlier, a time bomb was planted on him. The explosion occurred on the seventh day after returning from Washington."

However, we were unable to detect any traces of explosion, no traces of burning, or melted metal. So we will not stoke the fire of this conspiracy theory.

Major Ponomarenko was an experienced pilot: "The crew of Ponomarenko's C-47 made 30 flights in March, flew 35,920 km, transported 240 people and 28 tons of cargo."

Actually, one of the most important elements of the existence of the ALSIB Air Route is the Douglas C-47 workhorses, which carried diplomatic mail, government delegations, spare parts for aircraft, strategic cargo. They were leaders, like a caring mother, leading and plotting a route for groups of fighters, transporting pilots to Alaska to get batches of aircraft. Look at your grandfather's uniform – perhaps you will see on it one of the 249 million plastic army buttons delivered by the ALSIB’s planes from Alaska. Fyodor Ponomarenko, Evgeny Gerasimov, Evgeny Spiridonov, and other pilots of the ALSIB transport aviation – you were the Atlases supporting this whole "construction".

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Лётчики Алсиба. Фото из книги воспоминаний Виктора Глазкова (справа)
Лётчики Алсиба. Фото из книги воспоминаний Виктора Глазкова (справа)

From the notes of Viktor Glazkov: "In the summer of 1943, the Americans increased the supply of aircraft to the USSR. The load on the flight crew has also increased dramatically. On some days, fighter pilots and bombers drove two planes each, flying for 10-11 hours. An even greater burden fell on the transport crews, who had to take off before the group for the purpose of weather reconnaissance and cargo transfer for the front, and on the way back to deliver the transporters to their bases. Given the relatively low speed of the C-47 aircraft, the flight of the crews without rest was up to 23-24 hours. During the day, a plane was flown by a co-pilot and a flight mechanic, at night, the commander of the aircraft and the radio operator."

List of those killed on the Douglas C-47 No. 223986

Ponomarenko Fyodor Lukich. Born in 1907 in Shpola, Kiev Region . In the Red Army since 09.1929. He graduated from the Krasnodar School of Agricultural Aviation Pilots in 1932. Since 04.1939  pilot of the 17th ATO of the Azov-Black Sea Civil Aviation Administration.

At the front: from 06.1941 – commander of the aircraft, deputy commander of the PS-84 squadron for the flight unit of the 6th Air Squadron of the Moscow Special Purpose Air Group. He made 483 combat flights behind enemy lines.

On the air route: from 08.1942 – commander of the Heavy Aviation Unit of the KVT, commander of the Heavy Aviation Unit of the 2nd ATR; from 10.03.1943 – squadron commander, squadron commander of the 8th ATR.

Major (2.09.1943). He was awarded the Orders of the Red Banner (21.07.1942), the Red Star (6.12.1941).

From the award certificate dated 07.20.1942: "The commander of the PS-84 made 350 combat flights, including 52 at night behind enemy lines and nine with landing. From June 21 to July 1, 1942, he made 14 combat flights at night with a landing at Kherson Mayak Airfield. He brought 14 tons of ammunition to the besieged Sevastopol, evacuated 110 wounded, flying over the sea on a land plane and landing at the airfield under constant enemy shelling."

Buried in Yakutsk.

Deribin Leonid Aleksandrovich. Born on 25.05.1907 in the village of Kurishevskaya, Vozhegodsky District, Vologda Region. In the Red Army from 1.11.1929. He graduated from Leningrad Military Theoretical School of Pilots in 1931. Since 09.1932 in the Civil Aviation Administration: aircraft techician, head of the airport, engineer of the Research Institute of the Civil Aviation Administration, deputy commander of the Yenisei Aviation Group for political affairs, commissioner of the Krasnoyarsk Aero Club of the OAH. Since 08.1940 – aircraft technician of the Uzbek Civil Aviation Administration.

At the front: from 08.1942 – flight mechanic of the Moscow Special Purpose Air Group.

On the air route: from 28.08.1942 – military technician of the 2nd rank, flight technician of the 4th ATR, from 10.03.1943 – flight technician of the 8th ATR.

Buried in Yakutsk.

Popov Ivan Vasilyevich. Born in 1911 in Leningrad. In the Red Army from 1934 to 1938 and from 1941. He graduated from Military Theoretical School in 1934. In the Civil Aviation Administration from 1938 to 1941.

At the front: from 09.1941 – radio operator of the Moscow Special Purpose Air Group.

On the air route: from 08.28.1942 – on-board operator of the C-47 TAO KW, from 02.1943 - senior air gunner-radio operator of the TAO of the 2nd ATR, from 03.10.1943 – flagship air gunner-radio operator of the 8th ATR.

Foreman. Awarded the Order of the Red Star (03.13.1944).

From the award certificate dated 09.8.1943: "At the front, as part of the Moscow Special Purpose Air Group, made 30 combat flights behind enemy lines in the area of Vyazma, Leningrad, Sevastopol. On the air route since August 1942. Flew 300 hours. Transmits and receives 160-170 characters per minute, trains young radio operators on the ground and in flight."

Buried in Yakutsk.

Mikhail Ivanovich Khavronin. On the air route: in 1943, he was a fuel and lubricants technician at Uelkal Airport. Was on board as a passenger. Was buried in the village of Uelkal.

To be continued.

Алексей Никулин