The third season of the joint search expedition of the RGS and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation to explore the ALSIB Air Route – along which the equipment supplied by the allied powers to the USSR during the Second World War was transported – has ended. From the factory to the Western Front, American fighters and bombers crossed up to 14,000 km. We will tell you at what price it was achieved and what the participants of the expedition found this year.
The ALSIB (Alaska – Siberia), or the Krasnoyarsk Air Route, Krasnoyarsk – Uelkal Air Route, is an air corridor used during World War II to transport aircraft supplied by the USA under the Lend-Lease to the USSR.
The RGS’s expedition to explore the route started in 2021. To learn and tell about the daily exploits of pilots and technicians in the extreme conditions of the Far North, as well as to perpetuate their memory, specialists conduct comprehensive surveys of airfields and crash sites of the historical air route.
“The memorial aspect is very important for the expedition – there are cases when the bodies of the pilots were not buried after the crashes," said Vyacheslav Filippov, a member of the expedition, an aviation engineer, lieutenant colonel, author of books on the history of the ALSIB. “Our task is to find them, to bury them with honor, to erect a monument. If it is impossible to find the remains or an old burial, then we install a memorial plaque at the place of death.”
During the war, the route from Alaska to Krasnoyarsk was divided into sections. The planes flew from one main airfield to another, and the distance between them did not exceed 1,500 km – so much a fighter could fly with additional tanks without refueling. Then, during a short stop, the planes were refueled, repaired if necessary, and they flew on. For emergency landings, intermediate airfields were built between the main airfields. The route was serviced by many specialists: pilots, technicians, signalmen, airport workers, builders –about 3,000 people total.
Airfields in Yakutia, Chukotka, and the Far East were built in the most difficult conditions. Work was equally difficult for the technicians servicing the aircraft. Frosts of –50–60 °C were common then.
“In the 1970s, I talked to one of the technicians, Vasily Slomnyuk,” Vyacheslav Filippov shares. “He had visible signs of frostbite on his hands. Vasily Ivanovich recalled that they often did not notice frostbite – realizing that the equipment was waiting at the front, they worked in any weather. And added: ‘We weren't at war, we weren't under bombs, we had nothing to complain about.’"
A plane was transported by several pilots. From Alaska, it was flown to Uelkal, from there the pilots of the Uelkal regiment delivered the combat aircraft to the next location, Seimchan, and handed it over to the pilots there, and they themselves returned to Uelkal by transport plane. So, section by section, American equipment was delivered to Krasnoyarsk. Then the planes entered the training regiment, where front-line pilots, after express training, flew them to their military units with intermediate landings at the airports of the Moscow – Uelkal Air Route in Novosibirsk, Omsk, Sverdlovsk, Kazan. If the weather allowed, the pilots-transporters, returning, could deliver another batch on the same day.
They flew only during daylight hours.
According to Vyacheslav Filippov, the work for them was not only hard, but also in many ways unusual. A front-line pilot was trained for air combat, which lasts 15-30 minutes. And they had to fly along the air route for four to five hours in poor visibility and weather, which was familiar to transport aircraft pilots, civil aviation pilots, but not graduates of military aviation schools. In Chukotka and Yakutia, they worked in the most difficult weather conditions. Fog, snowfall in winter, torrential rains and forest fires in summer were commonplace.
As a rule, they transported 9-12 aircraft. They flew in a wedge: the leading bomber was ahead, then the fighters, and the bomber also closed the formation. Everyone tried to fly within sight of each other. The fighters had a connection with the leading bomber. The pilots had no communication with each other. The training was very short, so perhaps not all pilots were able to confidently use the radio station, did not have time to fully understand American technology. If the connection was lost, it was extremely difficult to understand where you were. In Central Russia, you can navigate by settlements or railways, and in Chukotka and Yakutia, where even rivers can change their channels depending on the season, there are practically no landmarks. There were hills, and high passes, and mountain ranges, to fly over which oxygen devices were needed. Vyacheslav Filippov notes:
“I was told by former transporters, in particular Viktor Perov, that at the front he was used to the triad ‘take-off – air combat – landing’. And they had to fly for hours on the air route. They flew in the dark, half-frozen, with the understanding that in the event of an accident, it was pointless to jump with a parachute – either you would die of hunger and cold, or wild animals would tear you apart. Viktor Mikhailovich compared himself to a kamikaze. But the transporters also had minor joys. For example, the pilots in Uelkal lived in tents for a while in winter, but upon arrival to Seimchan they could use a sauna. It was a real happiness for them.”
In 1942, they were in a hurry to start transporting, and at first they built a take-off field on the air route so that planes could land. The entire social infrastructure was secondary, so at first people lived in Spartan conditions. Canteens, quarters, and other personnel facilities became more and more civilized closer to Krasnoyarsk, where it was even possible to go to the cinema or theater.
A fighter was piloted by one pilot, the crews of bombers and transport aircraft consisted of three or four people. A pilot, if he worked on the air route from the beginning to the end of its operation, could transport about 400 aircraft in his section. And there were such record holders at each of the sections.
According to the log book of the 1st Air Transport Regiment, in the three years since the beginning of the operation of the ALSIB Air Route from October 6, 1942 until the division was disbanded in October 1945, 8,094 aircraft were transported. 81 aircraft crashed on the Soviet section of the air corridor from Alaska to Krasnoyarsk, 115 people died in plane crashes.
“The RGS’s expedition in the first season examined airfields built in Siberia, the Far East, and Chukotka during the Great Patriotic War, which formed the infrastructure basis of the ferrying route,” explains the scientific director of the expedition, an employee at the Center for Arctic Research of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, deputy director of the Arctic Museum and Exhibition Center Pavel Filin. “During the second and third seasons, we searched and examined the planes that crashed during transportation.”
During the war, almost all the crashed planes were found and the bodies of the pilots were buried. After the victory, due to the secrecy of the route, information about the crash sites was not disclosed and got gradually forgotten. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the remains of American aircraft began to be found in Chukotka and Yakutia, there appeared interest in the history of the air route.
“This year we were looking for plane crash sites in Yakutia, between the Verkhoyansk and Chersky ridges," Pavel Filin says. “There, the height of the peaks averaged 1,500-2,000 meters. If the clouds covered the peaks, then our pilots (we traveled by Mi-26 helicopter) categorically refused to fly and had to wait for a long time for the weather. In fact, it was a historical experiment – we could get closer to understanding the conditions and problems faced by pilots during the war years from our own experience. There is no database with the coordinates of the crash sites – we asked local residents and found guides among them.”
According to Pavel Filin, the most interesting finds were made in the area of the village of Sasyr Ulakhan-Chistaysky Nasleg, where two planes crashed.
One of them, an A-20 "Boston" under the command of Senior Lieutenant Yakov Cherednichenko, flying from Seimchan to Yakutsk, crashed 20 km from the village on April 18, 1943. The remains of the pilots and fragments of the aircraft were found during the war. In the 1970s and 1980s, Alexander Degtyarev, a history and geography teacher, director of the museum of the Sasyr school, investigated the circumstances of the crash, searched for relatives of the pilots, organized expeditions to the place of their death, where local residents installed commemorative plaques.
The expedition members found the tail, wings, engines, landing gear, parts of radio equipment, and many other fragments of the aircraft. The metal was melted, which means the plane was on fire. It is unclear whether the fire started in the air or when it hit the ground. The landing gear was fixed in the extending position: it either extended at the moment of impact, or the pilots were landing with the landing gear extended (the latter is strange, since they tried to land "on their bellies" in the sparsely wooded area). There is an opinion that the plane broke away from the group and crashed into the ground, but what exactly led to the crash, the specialists of the RGS have yet to find out.
“Plane crashes often occurred along the Verkhoyansk Ridge," Pavel Filin notes. “Pilots in critical meteorological conditions, in order not to fly blindly, tried to ‘break through’ the clouds. To do this, it was necessary either to descend, which is dangerous in mountainous terrain, or, on the contrary, to climb up, for which it was necessary to climb to a height where there was already a lack of oxygen. Having no oxygen equipment at first, the pilots lost consciousness, the plane lost control and went into a dive. I assume this was the reason for the crash of the ‘Boston’ under the command of Cherednichenko. It is known that the navigator Konstantin Drobotenko managed to jump out with a parachute – perhaps he woke up when the plane was diving.”
Konstantin Drobotenko was discovered by a local resident Daria Dmitrievna Koryakina. When she reached the camp, she called the Even shepherds.
The members of the expedition made photomaps of the crash site. The tail, wings, two engines, blades, and other fragments of the “Boston” were taken to Ust-Nera, then they will be delivered to Yakutsk.
In 1943, another A-20 "Boston" under the command of Senior Lieutenant Judah Grozdnensky crashed 30 km from Sasyr. The plane took off to investigate the weather and got into difficult weather conditions. The pilot climbed to a height of more than 5,000 meters, without oxygen, lost consciousness, the aircraft nosedived into a mountain. The crew consisting of Judah Grozdnensky, navigator Lieutenant Alexei Mikhailyuk, air gunner-radio operator Ivan Suranov was considered missing. In the 1970s, a crashed plane was accidentally discovered when flying from a helicopter. Weapons were removed from the crash site; the bodies of the pilots were buried in the village of Zyryanka. Local schoolchildren and journalists found out the names of the pilots and found their relatives.
The remains of the plane are located on a remote mountainside. The search specialists on board the Mi-26 saw two wings and, presumably, the chassis of the crashed aircraft.
Pavel Filin recalls:
“There are gorges and mountains all around. It was very difficult for us to find some even ground, but when the helicopter began to land, its landing gear began to sink into the swamp and the commander immediately decided to take off. We failed to land at the crash site, but we recorded its coordinates. This is a promising location for further work.”
The coordinates of the crash site of another A-20 "Boston" aircraft were suggested by geologists. The place is located on the way from Ust-Nera to Khandyga, about 20 km from the Kolyma highway. The plane literally crumbled into small pieces of 5-10 cm, which are scattered in a narrow 500 meter-long strip from the top to the foot of the mountain. Presumably, the pilots also lost consciousness due to oxygen starvation, the plane crashed into a mountainside and exploded.
A small pyramid memorial with commemorative plaques from search clubs is installed at the site of the tragedy, parts of the aircraft are stacked next to it.
The commander of the aircraft, Captain Fyodor Salov, navigator, Senior Lieutenant Ivan Rad, air gunner, radio operator, Senior Sergeant Mikhail Sukhletsov were reburied in 2007 at Victory Square in the village of Khandyga. Specialists examined the crash site, recorded its exact coordinates and made a photomap. Two blades and other parts of the combat aircraft were taken to Moscow.
The search specialists also investigated the crash site of an “Airacobra” aircraft 180 km from Yakutsk, near the village of Tit-Ary. It is not known how and under what circumstances it crashed – no documentary data about this crash has yet been found. Perhaps the pilots remained alive – their death is not recorded.
“This expedition season was very unlucky with the weather, we were haunted by rains and fogs, it was cold,” Pavel Filin shares. “We warmed up like this: we had a heat gun that warmed a common large tent – a place for drying things and a dining room were organized in it. We slept in ordinary tents; in order not to freeze, we heated the stones near the heat gun and rolled them into a sleeping bag. It helped a lot. Even better, if the heated stones are wrapped in some kind of rag. Then it's like in a thermos, warm almost until morning.”
On the 10th of September, the temperature dropped sharply, it snowed, and it became pointless to continue the search. Unfortunately, the members of the expedition did not have time to examine all the crash sites and find all of the combat aircraft. For example, it is known that one of the planes carrying diplomatic mail fell into the water, a little short of reaching Uelkal Airfield. The search specialists believe that if they find it and lift it, they will most likely be able to make interesting discoveries.
“In Yakutsk, next to the new airport building, a very interesting quarters building of the old airport has been preserved, built in some Old Russian style during the war, when the infrastructure of the ALSIB was being developed. Moreover, many buildings of the aerodrome infrastructure are built in the same style. It is surprising that structures with such obvious architectural excesses were built in such a difficult period for the country. The fate of this historic building is being decided now. It is important to preserve it and organize a museum of the history of Yakutia aviation and the ALSIB Air Corridor in it, because the headquarters of the ferrying route was in Yakutsk. It would be possible to exhibit finds from Sasyr in this museum," Pavel Filin believes.