Russian Aviators' Accidental 1937 Landing in Washington State
Russia has our attention now, with the Sochi Winter Olympics about to open on February 7th. This got our aviation commentator Dan Patterson thinking about the vast country and how it is connected by flight. And Dan brings us back to the early days of aviation when the Russians were building and flying unique aircraft to shorten those distances.
In June of 1937, a one-of-a-kind airplane landed at the Pearson Army Airfield in Vancouver, Washington. It flew from Moscow non-stop; that’s 5200 miles. And this fact is amazing: the Antonov- 25 had a wingspan of 112 feet, nearly the entire length of the Wright Brother’s first flight.
The side of the aircraft was painted with the words “Trail of Stalin.” Stalin’s name was no accident as apparently, he had ordered the great aircraft designer Andrei Tupelov to build a Russian aircraft for the record books. This was the era of flight when covering great distances was equal to the quest for speed. Pilots and their planes were heroes, like Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis.
The Ant-25 flew over the North Pole and made the first ever non-stop flight from Russia to the USA. The lead pilot was Valery Chkalov, two others rode co-pilot. They were trying for San Francisco and things looked good. They had passed Portland, but then the oil pressure started to fall and they had to turn back. That’s how the Ant-25 ended up at Pearson Army Air Field.
Pilot Valery Chkalov stood on the air field and spoke of peace mentioning how the “mighty Columbia and Volga Rivers both flow peacefully into the same world ocean." The Russian aviators were greeted as heroes and spent a month touring the US and meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington. Then the huge Ant- 25 was taken apart and shipped back to the USSR. Three weeks later a similar aircraft flew even further, as far as San Diego.
Chkalov became the Russian Lindbergh, but less than a year later he died in a crash of a new Soviet fighter plane.
I wanted to see where this all happened and traveled to Pearson Army Airfield a few months ago. The runways go back to the days when many small airports used to dot this country. It still has the distinctive large yellow and black checked roofs on the hangars, painted that way to be easily spotted from the air. The field is along the banks of the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark paddled their canoes past this spot as they headed towards the Pacific Ocean on their own Journey of Discovery in the early 1800s.
I walked the Pearson Army Air field and found the stone marker with a bronze plaque that marks the momentous 1937 landing.
It was 1937 when the Russian plane landed. War was on the horizon, and the implications were not lost on the American airmen and military leaders; the Russians had proven that the reach of aviation was intercontinental. The Ant-25 became the basis of Russian long range bombers which were flown in World War II. The Russian pilots had fulfilled Stalin’s orders, proved that a well designed aircraft could cross huge distances. And for a brief moment the image of peaceful rivers flowing into the Pacific Ocean diverted attention from the growing clouds of war.
Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com
Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.