How We Searched for ALSIB's Planes. Part Three: "Gerasimov's Plane"

Автор дневника экспедиции Алексей Никулин (слева) и её научный руководитель Павел Филин. Фото: Алексей Юрьев
Автор дневника экспедиции Алексей Никулин (слева) и её научный руководитель Павел Филин. Фото: Алексей Юрьев

19.07.2022. Our search party is flying again. And this time we are again looking for a C-47, only now our goal is the "Gerasimov’s plane" – the Douglas of Senior Lieutenant Evgeny Gerasimov.

This is the second attempt, the first one was unsuccessful. A few days earlier, we flew around Lake Gornoye several times between the slopes of two peaks, but we didn't see anything. Later I realized why.

The first pass, the second – and there is something. We land by a stream. The search party is large this time, in accordance with the tasks for this day. In addition to the main RGS search party, we have 18 contractors with us. The expedition to explore the objects of the ALSIB is a joint one – of the Russian Geographical Society and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. Therefore, the larger the search party, the more those who guard us.

It is interesting to look at the bears only from above, from the window of the helicopter, especially when they look around and run away with their fluffy butts up, frightened by the roar of the engines. A close acquaintance with a bear is not included in our plans. Although during my forced stay at the base, I listened with great interest to a lecture on the psychology of white and brown bears. Very informative…


Место падения самолёта на склоне у озёра Горное. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Место падения самолёта на склоне у озера Горное. Фото: Алексей Никулин

We started finding broken parts almost immediately across the stream. And from the markings on the duralumin it became clear right away – this is the "American".

And it also became clear that the climb would not be easy – the height difference is 600-700 meters, in a straight line it is almost 3km.

Underfoot, the stones are large, sharp, and, the most disgusting thing, "alive". You lose focus for a moment and you’re in trouble. We break up into small teams and "rake" the slope, recording the broken off parts and fragments on camera. Our security help us: they search for fragments, and drag the stele to the top of the peak taking turns. The higher up the mountain, the more often we come across fragments and the larger they become. Pieces of fuselage, a wing with a Dietz Reflector headlight . And here is the tail. We examine it carefully – there it is! The tail number 25644 is readable on both sides!


Один из самых крупных фрагментов - крыло "Дугласа". Фото: Алексей Никулин
Один из самых крупных фрагментов — крыло Douglas. Фото: Алексей Никулин

We continue to climb. It's hard to walk and it's also hot, considering that we are dressed in many layers – for all occasions. 18°C is too much for Chukotka. Rather, Chukotka does not care at all, but for me it is definitely too much.

But we are rushing to the top, hoping to find the crash site of the plane. I mentally scratch my head: the wreckage is on this slope, but the plane was coming from the other side! Why is it? Something doesn't add up. We find one of the engines 30m from the top of the peak. We are crawling at this point. Nearby we find a fragment of the tiller, but we do not see the crash site yet.


Фрагмент штурвала С-47. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Фрагмент штурвала С-47. Фото: Алексей Никулин

Before the final push, we decide to take a break – the left knee begins to ache, reminding of an old injury. The view from the top is indescribably beautiful: the mountains go over the horizon, and a lake glitters below between two peaks. Heh, I think grayling is probably throwing itself on an empty hook there. Mentally, I'm already peering into a huge frying pan, where several fish with a crispy crust spread unearthly aromas. Something inside me is rumbling treacherously – that's right, we didn't even have time for a short snack. I reset the "harmful" settings – I'm interested in a completely different "fishing" here.


Забраться на вершину горы по "живым" камням было непросто. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Забраться на вершину горы по "живым" камням было непросто. Фото: Алексей Никулин

I take the last steps and realize that, quite unexpectedly, we find ourselves at the goal – on the other side of the peak, right in front of us, just two or three dozen meters down the slope is the epicenter of the plane crash. That’s weird, I think: Gerasimov flew into the peak from this side, and all the main large and heavy fragments of the plane flew to the other side. Now it is clear why we did not find the crash site the first time – everything that is scattered here is not visible at all from above, especially when moving at high speed. Of the relatively large fragments, there is only a gearbox with blades. And we were looking for large fragments that, in theory, should have remained on this slope.

But they did not stay – probably, the speed of the last flight of Gerasimov’s C-47 was very high. For reference: the cruising speed of the Douglas C-47 is 257 km/h, the maximum is 269 km/h.


Двигатель самолёта. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Двигатель самолёта. Фото: Алексей Никулин

There are a lot of medium and small fragments and structural elements at the crash site, and they are well preserved and not particularly damaged.

Among the stones we find instruments, equipment, six radios, a radio compass. Our entire search party, including contractors and guards, are digging through stones like moles – everyone understands that with such a number and concentration of finds, you can find anything here. I've already forgotten about my aching knee and am engrossed in the search. I understand that we got here for a reason, and I keep my camera at the ready. "Savransky, it’s what you’ve been waiting for!" the guys have stumbled upon something and are calling out.


Клапан системы пожаротушения. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Клапан системы пожаротушения. Фото: Алексей Никулин

We dig together, rake stones, pull out pieces of uniforms first, then fragments of bones, fragments of a flight map with the names of Japanese islands, sheets of instructions with diagrams of the avionics. Finally, we pull out a document – a Komsomol membership card. The typeface in two languages is clearly readable on it. Wow, what luck! We decide not to open it on the spot. The RGS’s expedition even has its own artist. Ilya Kovalev picks up the Komsomol membership card and puts it in a plastic bag at the base – a wet cotton wool will moisten the dried document. We'll open it up in a couple of days.

We work hard for two hours; we take what makes sense to take. We install a stele in memory of the deceased crew and begin the descent.

The knee is no longer aching – it is swollen and hurts immensely. I tough it out, limp, and grumble: at my very mature age, I "lead an illusory life" – I wander around the Chukotka Mountains in search of airplanes. And the most disgusting thing is that I like it all.

Everything that was printed in a typographic way, including the membership card number (No. 9248726) and the marks on the payment of membership fees, has been perfectly preserved. But everything that was entered by hand, including the first and last name, is completely lost. However, there is a clue – the inscription in Kazakh in Latin script is a distinctive feature of documents of the 1930s.

Most likely, the Komsomol membership card belonged to the radio operator Pyotr Kapitonovich Okonechnikov. He was drafted from Kazakhstan: born in 1924, Kutikhi Village, Zyryanovsk District, East Kazakhstan Region.


Комсомольский билет бортрадиста Петра Оконечникова. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Комсомольский билет бортрадиста Петра Оконечникова. Фото: Алексей Никулин

From archival documents:

"August 28, 1943: The crash of a C-47 aircraft 50km from the village. Egvekinot (foothills of the Zolotoy Ridge): when descending through the clouds, crashed into a peak. Were buried in Egvekinot Village, Chukotka:

1. Senior Lieutenant Gerasimov Evgeny Fedorovich – commander of the aircraft of the 8th Air Transport Regiment (ATR).

2. Junior Lieutenant Nikolai Fedorovich Petukhov – co-pilot of the 8th ATR.

3. Junior military technician Kutilin Nikodim Alekseevich – flight mechanic of the 8th ATR.

4. Sergeant Pyotr Kapitonovich Okonechnikov – radio operator of the 8th ATR.

The crew of the C-47 aircraft No. 25644 had an operational task to deliver builders from Olekminsk to Markovo and then proceed to Uelkal. Half an hour after the passengers disembarked in Markovo, the plane took off for Uelkal at 9:30 a.m. (Moscow time). There was cloud cover along the route. Without specifying their location, the crew, breaking through the clouds, began to descend and crashed into the peak of the northern part of the Ushkan Ridge. The plane burned down. Due to the impassability of the terrain, the deceased crew could not be retrieved.

Causes of the incident: The plane was cleared for flight by the deputy head of Markovo Airport, Captain Movchan, before he could receive confirmation from Uelkal about landing permission. On that day, the sun set in Uelkal at 9:35 a.m. (Moscow time), and it became dark at 11:18 a.m. Consequently, the time left from the moment of departure until nightfall in Uelkal was 1 hour 43 minutes, and it took 1 hour 50 minutes to fly from Markovo to Uelkal. Even with a favorable flight, landing would have to be done in complete darkness, and Gerasimov was not allowed to fly at night. Knowing that you can descend through clouds only over the airfield, Gerasimov began to do this according to the time calculations, and not according to the available electronic aids to navigation. The calculation for the moment to descend through the clouds turned out to be incorrect. As a result there was a collision with the mountains on the route, which the pilot knew about in advance. The culprits of the incident were recognized as the deputy head of Markovo Airport Captain Movchan and pilot Lieutenant Gerasimov."


Фрагменты полётной карты. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Фрагменты полётной карты. Фото: Алексей Никулин

The pilots who flew over this place during the war believed that no one buried the dead crews then.

Sladkov M. N.: "Flying along the Uelkal–Markovo route, I constantly saw a crashed C-47 plane in the Ushkan Mountains. It is 120-130km from Uelkal to the west. Then there was no way to get there, and no one was there, no one buried the dead pilots."

K. Ya. Maslovets: "Gerasimov's plane was found on the second day. It was clearly visible on the mountainside. But there was no way to get to them at that time."

The crew was buried only in 1974 by geologists of the East Chukotka Geological Exploration Expedition. More precisely, they reburied the remains that they could find at that time.


Залп у памятной пирамидки в честь погибших летчиков. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Залп у памятной пирамидки в честь погибших летчиков. Фото: Алексей Никулин

As in previous cases, the crash scenario of the aircraft and the way the crew died are almost the same: cloud cover, probably an incorrect calculation, an early descent. However, the crews of both our helicopters expressed a version that the decisive cause of the accidents, including this one, was serious discrepancies in the heights of the mountains indicated on the maps. Relative to the real ones, they were significantly underestimated. In this case, it turns out that all the pilots descended through the clouds to a safe height, as it seemed to them, and hit the tops of the peaks. According to the pilots of our helicopters, this difference could be about 80m. And this was enough to become a decisive factor leading to crashes. Our colleagues from the Egvekinot research team adhere to the same version.

From the notes of Glazkov E. D.: "Fairbanks. The weather officer pressed a button, and white canvas curtains began to move apart on the wall. A ten-kilometer flight map appeared. It shows the route from Fairbanks to Yakutsk. We looked at each other – wow! The weather officer reported the weather along the Fairbanks–Nome route. He reported on the weather in Chukotka and Yakutia and expressed regret that we have few weather stations there and he cannot give a more accurate weather forecast for those areas. Then the navigator on duty gave everyone flight pilot charts. The map is typographically marked with magnetic courses, distances between control landmarks, airfield sketches, runway surfaces, landing courses, radio beacon zones, their call signs and operating frequencies, the elevation above sea level, and the height of natural and artificial obstacles in the area of the airfield. Our request to issue us charts to Yakutsk was refused. However, after a while we received our charts made in the USSR."

Chukotka weather. Never lets you relax. It is both merciful and punishing here. With icy indifference. Here, in Chukotka, you can only travel by airplane, and, of course, a helicopter. There are no roads, just, no matter how banal it sounds, directions. And a meteorologist is like a link between God and ordinary people. As a shepherd, or rather, a shaman. The commander of our combat Mi-8, Roman P., works as a psychotherapist in the morning: "Lyosha, relax, we will find out the exact weather forecast in Chukotka for tomorrow the day after tomorrow!"


Полноценное транспортное сообщение на Чукотке - только по воздуху. Фото: Алексей Никулин
Полноценное транспортное сообщение на Чукотке — только по воздуху. Фото: Алексей Никулин

In Chukotka, our civilized selves quickly learn why shamanism is so developed in these parts. When a "shaman" can't conjure something worthwhile, it's really better to relax and have... no, not fun, but some fast Internet. Of which there is none here in Chukotka. They say that sometimes locals can't fly out for weeks because of bad weather. And when they do get out, they post their status updates... no, not on VK, but on the sooty cowling of the An-24 engine: "Hooray, let's fly!" By the way, the photo was taken by me at the airfield in Egvekinot, where we ourselves somehow got stuck because of the weather.

The ALSIB worked in any weather. The man did not yield – he has adapted.

Alexey Nikulin