ALSIB, the Alaska – Siberia Air Route… Today, this name is familiar even to those who are not studying military history. But quite recently, everything was different: in Soviet times, no special attention was paid to the once-classified air route, and post-Soviet studies were mainly of a desk research nature. As a result, almost 80 years after the opening date of the route, the historical airfields were unstudied, the exact coordinates of the crash sites were unknown, and the documents preserved in various archives are scattered and often contradictory.
The Russian Geographical Society, together with the Russian Ministry of Defense, undertook to restore order and to honor the memory of the pilots by organizing an expedition to survey the objects of the ALSIB Air Route in 2021. Thousands of thoroughly studied documents, work with the local population, careful analysis and cataloging of the data obtained – all this allows to make more and more new finds after 80 years. The team of explorers includes civil and military specialists – geographers, geophysicists, engineers, historians, architects, hydrometeorologists, search specialists, and even artists who create art about the past and the present of the ferry airfields.
“In such conditions, only crazy people, suicidal people or desperate Russians can fly...”
Jacek Palkiewicz, traveler, reporter-explorer, member of the Russian Geographical Society
The air route, along which the American planes supplied under Lend-Lease were ferried, was divided into five ferry sections. The first, the longest and probably the most difficult, began in the city of Fairbanks in Alaska. From there, the pilots headed east – over the Bering Strait, over the tundra and the hills of the northern coast of Anadyr Bay – and finished the route already in the Soviet Uelkal. From Uelkal, the second stage of the route passed through Central Chukotka and the Kolyma Mountains, through Markovo to Seimchan. The third stage ran at high altitudes through the Pole of Cold Oymyakon (Tomtor) and Teplyy Klyuch from Seimchan to Yakutsk. The fourth was 1,330 km along the Lena River from Yakutsk, through Olekminsk and Vitim to Kirensk. The final segment of the ALSIB went from Kirensk to Krasnoyarsk. In addition, there were parallel sections of routes, for example, from Markovo through Omolon and Zyryanka to Oymyakon.
To each of these sections were assigned their own pilots from the 1st Red Banner Air Transport Regiment of the Civil Air Fleet. After an aircraft had been transported, the pilots would return to the starting point of the route on the military transport C-47 "Douglas", also received from the United States.
The imperfection of the navigation system and the most difficult weather conditions caused the loss of equipment and flight personnel.
“In winter, there were almost constant severe frosts here often reaching –60°C. And in the Oymyakon area it would even be –70°C,” recalled the head of the Krasnoyarsk Air Route, Commander Ilya Mazuruk. “Planes, being at airfields, would get covered with an ice crust. Oil and grease would turn to stone, rubber would become brittle. Hoses would burst, disabling brakes and hydraulics. There were no hangars. All work was carried out in the open air. Our engineers, technicians, and other specialists, freezing themselves, managed to repair, warm up, and send planes flying with the help of the simplest devices. Heaters were often made on the spot, using large Primus stoves and gasoline barrels…”
But despite the most difficult flight conditions, the Soviet pilots did almost the unthinkable – in less than four years, more than 8,000 aircraft were ferried along the route. The losses of equipment amounted to only about 1% – 81 aircraft. But at the same time, 115 of our pilots died in 39 plane crashes.
On June 28, 2022, started the second stage of the second field season of the expedition of the RGS and the Ministry of Defense in the Chukotka Autonomous Area. The first one was held in May – June in the Krasnoyarsk Territory. Colossal preparatory archival work, interaction with local search specialists and museums allowed specialists to start "field" activities already having an idea of where and what kind of aircraft to look for in Chukotka.
In order to clarify the location of crash sites during 2021 – 2022, interaction was established with the local history museum in the village of Egvekinot. The museum staff provided a hand-drawn map of the crash sites compiled by pilot Glazkov. On this map were marked the four most promising areas for searching for crashed aircraft, which were named after the commanders of their dead crews: "Spiridonov's Plane", "Gerasimov's Plane", "Fedorenko's Plane", "Ponomarenko's Plane".
As a result, in just a few flights, in less than three weeks, the air search method was able to detect the crash sites of four out of five aircraft that crashed in the eastern section of the route with a length of about 1200 km (from the Bering Strait to Tanyurer Airfield).
To honor the achievements of the heroes of the legendary air route, a monument was opened on August 5 in the village of Uelkal – a two-meter sculpture of a pilot looking at flying planes with the inscription "Air Route of Courage and Friendship". The memorial, created at the expense of local enthusiasts, was installed in the center of the village, a few hundred meters from the first airfield of ALSIB on the territory of the USSR. The monument was opened by the governor of the Chukotka Autonomous Area Roman Kopin. The ceremony was attended by a member of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation Anna Otke, the head of the Expeditionary Department of the Russian Geographical Society Sergey Chechulin, a representative of the cultural and historical center "Heritage" Andrey Spiridonov, the head of the administration of the urban settlement Egvekinot Roman Korkishko, the head of the regional branch of the movement "Immortal Regiment" Olga Rastorgueva, as well as guests and residents of the village.
On July 22, a search team of the expedition discovered from the air the crash site of the C-47 “Douglas” aircraft No. 223986 that was piloted by Major Fyodor Ponomarenko. The disaster occurred on November 25, 1943, in the upper reaches of the Bystraya River, 50 km west of Uelkal. The main part of the wreckage is on the left bank, the remains of the cargo are on the right.
Among the discovered items is an engine, a reduction gearbox with a protruding blade and markings in English that had sunk into the swamp, large-format remnants of the tail section with a white star in a circle with a blue background and a number, parts of the body, and one wing. The remains of the cargo transported by the aircraft – heaters for warming up aircraft engines – were also found.
“Ponomarenko was an experienced pilot,” says the lead scientist of the expedition, Candidate of Historical Sciences Pavel Filin. “In just a month, his crew made 30 flights, flew 35,920 km, transported 240 people and 28 tons of cargo. There are two versions of the accident. The official one says that there was a fire and smoke filled the cabin, because of which the plane crashed, having grazed a hill. The unofficial version was put forward by pilot Glazkov, whose memories are kept in the museum in the village of Egvekinot. He writes that there were rumors among the pilots about a planted mine with a time mechanism. It is still impossible to say unequivocally what happened. Professionals are examining the crash site for the first time since the war. We are yet to consult with specialists in aviation technology.”
The members of the expedition erected a memorial in honor of the deceased crew of the aircraft.
On August 28, 1943, the crew of another C-47 "Douglas" under the command of Senior Lieutenant Evgeny Gerasimov crashed 15 km from the crash site of Ponomarenko's plane. Fragments of the plane were discovered by the expedition specialists on July 19 on the slopes of the mountain near Lake Gornoye.
It was not so easy to get to the wreckage: most of it lies on a mountain more than 600 m high. The way up is not easy – there are large and very sharp stones everywhere. And a memorial stele needs to be brought up. The military personnel have to carry it themselves.
The larger fragments of the aircraft are found the higher you go up the hill: the skin with markings, the upper part of the tail with the number 25644, the wings of the aircraft. At the very top, the engine and cabin elements. Aviation aluminum has fused with the stones of the mountain. Despite the fact that the crash site was visited by geologists of the East Chukotka Geological Exploration Expedition back in 1974, many finds are still hidden under the stones.
The skeletal remains of the crew members and a Komsomol ticket issued in the Kazakh SSR for No. 9248726 were found. The recipient's surname is not legible yet, but the expedition participants are almost sure that it belonged to the radio operator Pyotr Kapitonovich Okonechnikov, a native of the village of Kutikhi in Zyryanovsk District of East Kazakhstan Region. RGS specialists hope that they will be able to find the sergeant's relatives.
The crash of the “Douglas” was the result of a series of tragic mistakes. The plane was released from Markovo Airfield on the route to Uelkal at the wrong time. In any case, the pilot did not have time to land the plane in the daytime, and Gerasimov did not have permission for the night flights. The height of the mountains indicated on the maps of those years often did not correspond to reality. In conditions of continuous clouds, the crew of the plane often determined their location based on the time and the speed of flight. As a result, the plane jumped out of the low clouds earlier than expected and scraped the top of the mountain. It was only 15 meters short of flying over the mountain…
On May 29, 1943, 150 km east of Uelkal Airfield, while descending in dense clouds, a C-47 “Douglas” under the command of Senior Lieutenant Evgeny Spiridonov crashed into a hill. The aircraft was delivering two coils of electric cable 1000 kg each. It is known that in the 1970s geologists visited the crash site, and later, in 2015, a group of enthusiasts examined the wreckage, some of which was transferred to the Heritage of Chukotka Museum in Anadyr.
“Neither the museum nor the geological department could name the exact coordinates of the find,” Pavel Filin, the lead scientist of the expedition, tells about the difficulties the expedition had to face. “It should be noted that the search specialists from Egvekinot also did not know the coordinates exactly, but they had a fairly clear idea of the search area – this is the area of Katastrofnaya Creek and Katastrofnaya Mountain. However, there are at least three areas with "katastrofnaya" toponyms in Chukotka. Such a coincidence of names introduces some confusion into the search work, and it was quite difficult to figure out exactly which places we were talking about.”
Finally, on July 12, the plane was still detected from the air. Landing gear, engines, wings with American symbols, a reduction gearbox with two blades, and the tail section of the aircraft were found scattered on the slopes of the mountain.
On July 21, the participants of the expedition of the RGS and the Ministry of Defense discovered the crash site of the P-40 “Kittyhawk” fighter from the air. For the first time, the crash site was examined by the commission in 1943, and later it was often visited by people, as evidenced by numerous inscriptions on the wreckage of the aircraft.
Fragments of the aircraft lie along the stream at a distance of about 700 m. The large elements include parts of the engine, pistons, landing gear, tail (with a license plate). Many parts of the aircraft are lost – apparently, carried away by visitors to the accident site.
According to the preliminary hypothesis of the explorers, the plane crashed already on landing. Having used all the fuel, the plane tried to land in the mountains, but because of the uneven surface it overturned.
The expedition to explore the facilities of the ALSIB Air Route will last until September 15. Ahead is the search for crash sites in the Markovo and Omolon areas, and then the exploration of the vast Yakut section of the air route. The plans also include holding memorial events at the places where the crews died.
“The new information collected by the expedition about the historical air route clearly shows both the scale of the labor feat performed by the builders and employees at the airfields, and the heroism of the pilots of the transport regiments, who risked their lives daily, and often gave them here in the east of our country, so that there, in the west, the front received new aircraft,” says the head of the Expeditionary Department of the Russian Geographical Society Sergey Chechulin. “I am sure that the selfless work of the people who worked on the air route saved the lives of many thousands of front-line soldiers and is a huge contribution to the Victory of our people over Nazism.”
After the field stage, the desk stage will begin. All the data obtained will be organized and described. Scientists will select objects of military equipment history for subsequent exhibitions. The most valuable exhibits will be transferred to museums. During the expedition, a documentary is being filmed that will convey the history of the creation and operation of the legendary air route to the Russians.