How We Searched for Alsib's Planes. Part One: Mysticism Without Secrets

Чукотка разрешает вылет. Фото: Вадим Витовцев
Чукотка разрешает вылет. Фото: Вадим Витовцев

Our friend, a member of the RGS, Alexey NIKULIN, was also part of the expedition of the Russian Geographical Society and the Ministry of Defense of Russia searching for the aircraft that were transported along the Alaska–Siberia Air Route (the famous ALSIB) during the war. A well-known journalist, documentary filmmaker, author, and ideologist of the project "Russkiy Sled" (eng. “Russian Trace”) has prepared a series of materials, which are particularly valuable due to the feeling of the search atmosphere they create. Today we publish the first part of his notes.

...The effectiveness of our searches is strongly influenced by the weather, about which, after a month spent in Chukotka, I can tell you a lot. In a month, you can definitely learn a lot about all kinds of local rain and wind here. I will be learning about the types of blizzard next time. Or not – better do it on the Internet.

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Погода на Чукотке командует всем и всеми. Фото: Евгений Лоснов
Погода на Чукотке командует всем и всеми. Фото: Евгений Лоснов

At 8:30 in the morning – this is our time of collective prayer – the weather gods will either graciously let us fly or indifferently nail us to the ground. Here you inevitably begin to believe in omens, symbols, amulets, and talismans. And other mysticism. In everything, just to persuade search luck to cooperate.

Members of the RGS search party, for example, received as a gift a Chukchi amulet – an eagle head carved from a walrus tusk. In addition, I took with me a watch that had traveled at least once along the ALSIB during the war. This is a Swiss Longines watch of my grandfather Nikulin Ivan Ivanovich, which, according to the family legend, was brought to him by an ALSIB pilot from America. However, based on the specifics of his service and the classified period of service from 1942 to 1945, I have reason to believe that my grandfather brought it across the ALSIB himself.

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Эти часы уже однажды побывали на Алсибе. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Эти часы уже однажды побывали на Алсибе. Фото: Алексей Никулин

Before leaving for Chukotka, for some reason I got it into my head that if I took his watch with me and put it on for the search, capricious luck would be with us. Brought as a talisman, the "Swiss" worked right away. However, later the watch helped us several more times.

The first Li-2 aircraft we found, produced in 1957 at the 128th aircraft factory in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, was slightly disappointing – it crashed on the ALSIB Air Route after the war.

However, the experience of the first exploration of the 2022 season itself showed that we are lucky! The joint work of the crew of our “dragonfly” Mi-26, archival work, the work of the search party, and, finally, work with the population together gave a tangible result. And, it turns out, the local "Radio Purga" (eng. “Radio Blizzard”) has a large and caring audience – after our trip to the studio there were a lot of calls from reindeer herders concerning the crash sites.

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Наш надёжный помощник Ми-26. Фото: Фото: Алексей Никулин
Наш надёжный помощник Ми-26. Фото: Алексей Никулин

And in general, people in Chukotka are familiar with the topic of the ALSIB – you go to a store, and there is a short five-minute spot on the radio "On This Day on the ALSIB Air Route".

It is not surprising that reindeer herders respond so readily. An interesting thing that we found out later when detecting the crash sites: planes that fell not in the mountains, but in the tundra, serve as a kind of waymarks for them when driving deer from one camp to another. The inscription "5th brigade", scrawled on large fragments, we subsequently would see at the crash sites. However, there are usually no exact coordinates, and there are no clear landmarks either. And all the information regarding the crash sites of the aircraft, their coordinates, the causes of accidents, the availability of cargo and crew burials is scattered, approximate, and needs to be checked and clarified. Actually, a single database that would combine all the information obtained as a result of archival work, field search, and work with local residents is the main goal of the RGS’s expedition.

Read also: Why the Secret Air Route from Alaska to Siberia Became a Real Road of Life for the USSR During the War

At first glance, the Li-2 we found did not seem to advance us in our search in any way. But, as it turned out later, I was wrong.

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Фрагмент найденного ранее Ли-2. Фото: Евгений Лоснов
Фрагмент найденного ранее Ли-2. Фото: Евгений Лоснов

Chukotka was the most difficult stage of the ALSIB Air Route and the first segment on the territory of the USSR after Fairbanks and Nome. It is for this reason that the village of Egvekinot has become another base for us to continue the search: the first airfield on the Soviet side of Uelkal is also located in Kresta Bay. The crash sites of several aircraft lost on the ALSIB are marked in this area.

The village is considered a record holder for the number of sunny days a year, and looks very cheerful – architecture and life-affirming colors are designed to please the eye against the background of gray mountains decorated with eternal snow gray.

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Посёлок Эгвекенот. Фото: Александр Морев
Посёлок Эгвекинот. Фото: Александр Морев

There is a very nice museum of local history in the village, which has a fairly extensive exhibition dedicated to the ALSIB Air Route.

A very important document – the notes of the radio operator E. D. Glazkov – sheds light on many moments of the ALSIB and the crashes that occurred on the air route. The notes are in the museum, where they were transferred by the author back in the early 90s. And who else could be given such a unique document? The museum has long gone beyond the museum function and has become a kind of search center that unites enthusiasts and devotees.

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Фрагмент музейной экспозиции, посвящённой Алсибу. Фото: Вадим Витовцев
Фрагмент музейной экспозиции, посвящённой Алсибу. Фото: Вадим Витовцев

In this case, the driving forces of the search are the director of the museum Elena Rogozina and the search specialists Evgeny Morgun and Vadim Bereznikov. We joined forces, and our first joint reconnaissance was the search for the transport Douglas C–47 that crashed in the mountains on May 29, 1943.

For simplicity’s sake, we called each plane we were looking for by the name of the commander among ourselves...

To be continued.