Restoring Memory: RGS Specialists Examine Routes of Alaska – Siberia Air Route

Места крушения самолетов часто находятся в труднодоступных местах, куда добраться можно только вертолетом. Фото предоставлено Алексеем Никулиным
Места крушения самолетов часто находятся в труднодоступных местах, куда добраться можно только вертолетом. Фото предоставлено Алексеем Никулиным

The third season of the joint search expedition of the RGS and the Expeditionary Center of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation to explore the transportation routes of equipment supplied by the Allied powers to the USSR during World War II has begun.

The ALSIB (Alaska – Siberia), or the Krasnoyarsk Air Route, was an air corridor between the USA and the USSR. Planes supplied by the USA under Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union were transported along this route during the Second World War in the most difficult conditions of the Far North. From the factory to the Eastern Front, American fighters and bombers covered up to 14,000 km . In total, more than 8,000 combat aircraft were delivered along the AlSIB. About 80 aircraft could not reach their goal, killing about 115 people in the crashes.

The air route began operating in 1942. In America, it passed through Fairbanks and Nome, in the USSR – through Uelkal, Seimchan, Yakutsk, Kirensk, and Krasnoyarsk. By 1945, five main routes had been developed: Baikal – Krasnoyarsk, Yakutsk – Khabarovsk, Anadyr – Magadan – Khabarovsk, Magadan – Kirensk – Krasnoyarsk and Yakutsk – Tiksi. Airfields were built along the route, where planes refueled, if necessary, they were repaired, and then flew on. Transit airfields built in the shortest possible time in hard-to-reach places, on permafrost, still form the basis of the airfield network of the Far East and Siberia.

The expedition to explore the AlSIB Air Route started in 2021. To learn and tell about the daily exploits of pilots and technicians in the extreme conditions of the Far North, to perpetuate their memory, search specialists conduct comprehensive surveys of airfields and crash sites of the historical air route.

For two years, the Russian Geographical Society, together with the Expeditionary Center of the Ministry of Defense, explores most of the Russian air corridor passing through the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, Yakutia, and the Krasnoyarsk Territory.

The most valuable objects of military equipment history found during the 2022 expedition were collected and delivered to Moscow. Their total weight was 21 tons. For the extended meeting of the Board of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the Expeditionary Activity and Tourism Development Department, together with the Organization, Protocol, and Exhibition Activities Department of the RGS, organized an exhibition of archival documents and artifacts from the AlSIB Air Route from the period of the Great Patriotic War , which was visited by top officials of the state.

This year, the participants of the expedition will continue to explore the sections of the legendary air route in Yakutia (Republic of Sakha).

“In the archives, in some cases, the coordinates of the aircraft crashes are indicated, in others it is written that a plane crashed in such and such area during the Great Patriotic War, the dead or wounded pilot was evacuated or the remains of the deceased crew were found, taken out and buried, but there are no coordinates," explains the head of the expedition Oleg Podkletnov. “And in those parts it can be 100 km, give or take. You can’t simply find it. We find people who help to determine these places, tell us who of the locals saw something. Comparing their information with what is indicated in the documents, we are trying to understand what exactly happened in this area and to what kind of plane, and if possible, we are going or flying there.”

If the memory of the fallen pilots has not been perpetuated, the search specialists install monuments in the places where the crews died. They also tidy the existing graves of military personnel, hold memorial events.

The members of the expedition – and its members are historians, search specialists, pilots, military, engineers, communications operators – gather in Yakutsk, from where they fly by helicopter to the east of Yakutia. They will look for crash sites and remnants of aircraft along the Vilyuysky tract, on the road to the city of Olekminsk, the village of Tit-Ary, as well as in other places of Yakutia.

“We have already examined the first point of our route, it is 180 km from Yakutsk, near the village of Tit-Ary," says Vyacheslav Filippov, a member of the expedition, author of books on the history of the AlSIB Air Route. “Local residents said that a plane had crashed nearby, the pilot remained alive, jumped out with a parachute. Our guides Grigory Lukin and Pyotr Solovyov showed the place where the wreckage of the plane lies. We have collected all the numbered parts that we could find and pick out. Now my task is to find information about this accident in the archives, find out why it happened, and trace the further fate of the pilot. We will also examine the crash site near the village of Allah-Yun, where Captain Vasily Kovalev crashed on an Airacobra. The pilot was not found then, they thought he was dead, but, according to the stories of local residents, it turned out that the pilot was alive after the crash. However, given the deserted area, he died of injuries. We know for sure that after some crashes, the remains of the pilots are not buried. Our task is to find them in order to honorably bury them and erect a monument.”

The expedition participants will also erect a monument to the pilots of the A-20 aircraft that crashed near the village of Sasyr – I. L. Grozensky and Ya. Ya. Cherednichenko – as well as the pilot of the A-20 aircraft Lesnykh that crashed near the Lugovaya, Sartang, and Tukulan Rivers.

“I am pleased and proud that I am involved in restoring the memory of people and historical events that were not properly immortalized," Oleg Podkletnov shares. “Every military man, when he goes to the front, must be sure of two things: if he dies, his family will not starve, the state will not forget it, and that his body will be found, buried, the family will know what happened to him, and his memory will not be erased. In addition, there are some things that still need to be clarified. For example, during the expedition last year, we realized that many planes in Chukotka crashed not through the fault of the crew, as previously thought, but because of incorrectly indicated heights in the maps. We found an error of 120 m. This removes the blame from the crews. They also have families for whom it will be important to know that their father and grandfather died not because he made a mistake in piloting, but flawlessly fulfilled his military duty in conditions of lack of information.”

During the expedition, the media group will shoot a 50-minute documentary. The found objects of military equipment history will be taken out for display at exhibitions and in specialized museums. The expedition will last until the beginning of September.

In October 2022, the legendary Alaska – Siberia Air Route turned 80 years old. In Soviet times, the history of the AlSIB Air Route was closed for study. The Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Defense Ministry conducted a large-scale expedition to explore the objects of the AlSIB Air Route. The first stage of the expedition took place in 2021. The work began with communication with historians, study of preserved documents, painstaking work in archives. During the field stage, the expeditionary group examined 17 airfields of the historical air route. Experts have studied their condition, analyzed the prospects for further use for their intended purpose and as open-air museums. Unique artifacts were discovered near the historical runways: fragments of airplanes, cars, tractors, searchlights, and other objects.

In the second field season of the expedition, emphasis was placed on the search for new and removal of previously found objects of military equipment history, their study, and preparation for the transfer of the artifacts to specialized museums. The expedition took place in four regions: the Krasnoyarsk Territory, the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), and the Irkutsk Region. As a result, the expedition participants managed to examine 13 crash sites of aircraft of such models as Bell P-39 Airacobra, Douglas A-20 Boston, Douglas C-47, Bell P-63 Kingcobra, P-40 Kittyhawk. Commemorative plaques were installed at the places of the pilots' deaths, military honors were given, and wreaths were laid.

The “Skyfirst” film company made a documentary about the AlSIB expedition. The premiere took place on December 9 on the TV channel “Moya Planeta” (eng. “My Planet”).