John M. White

The World's First Transpolar Flight

Jun 24, 2023

It is 1937, and aviation records are being set almost daily around the world.

Amelia Earhart is attempting her around-the-world flight in a Lockheed Electra 10E Special, NR16020.

Pilots all around the world want to be the "first" to set an aviation record, and it did not matter what country you lived in; there was always a record to be set.

Valery Chkalov

On February 2, 1904, in a little Russian village on the Volga River, Valery Chkalov was born.

His father was a shipbuilder, and his mother died when he was just six (6) years old. He attended school, eventually the Cherepovets Technical School, but returned home to work as an apprentice beside his father at the Vasselyevo Ship Yard on the Volga River.

In 1919, at the age of 15, Valery saw his first airplane and, at the age of 16, decided to join the Red Army's air force. 

He began his career as an aircraft mechanic and eventually trained as a pilot at the Yegoryevsk Training School and graduated in 1924, joining a fighter squadron.

In the early 1930s, he became a test pilot. His feats included doing 250 loop-the-loops in 45 minutes.

From 1935 on, he led the stunt section of the Russian air force, which was used in public displays. This included the famous May Day celebrations on the Red Square, at which point he met Stalin for the first time.

Lieutenant Colonel Valery Pavlovich Chkalov, Test Pilot and Hero of the Soviet Union.
Lieutenant Colonel Valery Pavlovich Chkalov, Test Pilot and Hero of the Soviet Union.

Three Brave Flyers

It was June of 1937, and three flyers, Valery Chkalov, Pilot, along with Georgi Baidukov, Co-Pilot, and Navigator Alexander Belyakov, began plotting the first transpolar flight. 

Valery Chkalov was a test pilot and flight instructor in the Red Army air force, known for continually challenging his fears in order to overcome them.

He did this by performing rolls, Immelmann turns, and vertical climbs with extraordinary talent. Fearless, headstrong, and gregarious by nature, Chkalov was best known for perfecting takeoffs and landings that prepared him to master the icy regions of the Far North Soviet Union.

Georgi Baidukov graduated from the Air Force Technical School and Kacha School for military pilots in 1928. An avid writer and studious, organized pilot, Baidukov became a test pilot with a keen interest in long distance flying.

Alexander Belyakov studied forestry until he joined the Imperial Russian Army in 1916 and fought in the Russian Civil War. He graduated from the Moscow Aerophotogrammertry School of the Red Air Fleet in 1921, where he taught there until 1935, when he graduated from the Kachinskoye Military Aviation School for pilots. He was considered one of Russia's most outstanding navigators and was selected for this flight due to his skill and calm demeanor. 

The ANT-25

The aircraft chosen for this historic flight was an experimental, very long-range aircraft, the Tupolev ANT-25RD. It was intended to set distance records and also to serve as a prototype for a long-range bomber designated the DB-1. 

It was a single-engine low-wing monoplane, primarily of metal construction with retractable landing gear, and was flown with a crew of three.

The Tupelov ANT-25, dubbed the Arctic Flyer.
The Tupelov ANT-25, dubbed the Arctic Flyer.

Specifications:

  • Length: 42 feet, 8 inches
  • Wingspan: 111 feet, 7 inches
  • Height: 18 feet, 1/2 inch
  • Empty Weight: 8,342 pounds
  • Maximum Gross Weight: 22,046 pounds
  • Engine: Mikulin M-34RD, a 2,863.722 cubic inch single overhead cam 60° V-12 liquid-cooled, supercharged engine
  • Cruise Speed: 103 mph
  • Range: 6,711 miles
  • Ceiling: 25,755 feet.

The Route

The plan was to depart Shchelkovo airfield near Moscow, fly north along the E. 38° meridian toward the North Pole, then south along the W. 123° meridian toward San Francisco, CA, U.S.A.

Route of Tupolev ANT-25RD N0251

Route of Tupolev ANT-25RD N0251

The Flight

On June 18, 1937, the trio boarded the aircraft, took off from the Shchelkovo airfield at 01:04 GMT, and proceed north towards the North Pole.

Chkalov departs Shchelkovo Airport on June 18, 1937
Chkalov departs Shchelkovo Airport on June 18, 1937

Here are the three of them standing in front of a Tupelov AN-25 aircraft.

A photo (Left to R) of Belyakov, Baydukov and Chakalov with a Tupelov AN-25 behind them.
A photo (L -R) of Belyakov, Baydukov, and Chkalov with a Tupelov AN-25 behind them.

The flight from Moscow to Pearson Airfield, Vancouver, WA, covered a distance of 5,673 miles, and the flight lasted an incredible 63 hours, 16 minutes in the air.

As they climbed out to 9,845 feet, they encountered a storm that caused propeller icing.

At 04:15, June 19, 1937, researchers at the North Pole heard the airplane pass overhead.

As they reached the Canadian Arctic, they climbed to an altitude of 19,000 feet to clear the clouds with an outside air temperature of 0° C. They then donned their oxygen masks which would only provide a limited supply of oxygen for the crew.

At 13:50, June 19, 1937, they reached the Canadian coast and turned west toward the Rocky Mountains at an altitude of 20,000 feet and an outside air temperature of -20° C.

At 00:40 on June 20th, 1937, the crew ran out of oxygen.

As they flew over Eugene, Oregon, it became apparent that their fuel was running dangerously low and that they would not make it to Oakland, CA, where the Russian ambassador was waiting for their arrival.

Chkalov told Baidukov to turn back towards Portland.

Because the headwinds had caused them to use more fuel than they had, making San Francisco, CA, an unreachable destination.

On June 20th, 1937, the crew finally landed at Pearson Field in Vancouver, WA.

The world's first transpolar flight lands at Pearson Field on June 20, 1937. This image shows the ANT-25 at Pearson Field with crowd of people around it.
The world's first transpolar flight lands at Pearson Field on June 20, 1937.

Upon landing, the crew spoke with FDR for an hour and forty minutes, and the airplane was disassembled and shipped back to the Soviet Union. 

Chkalov presents American officials, including Major Paul E. Burrows of the 31st Observation Squadron, with the sealed barograph that was forwarded to France to verify that the plane flew 5,288 miles non-stop.
Chkalov presents American officials, including Major Paul E. Burrows of the 31st Observation Squadron, with the sealed barograph that was forwarded to France to verify that the plane flew 5,288 miles non-stop.

Post Flight Honors

Chkalov was named a Hero of the Soviet Union by Stalin upon his return to Russia.

In 1974, two Russian sailors docked at the Port of Vancouver and asked for directions to the monument honoring Chkalov and his crew. 

Though there was no monument at the time, it invigorated local interest in the famous flight, and a year later, a monument honoring the fliers to a crowd that included Baidukov and Belyakov. Chkalov had died earlier during a test flight of a new fighter aircraft just a year after their transpolar flight.

A photo of the Chkalov Monument. Today, the Chkalov Monument, located near Pearson Air Museum at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, is dedicated to the transpolar flight. Each year, a special ceremony at the national park honors this historic event.
A photo of the Chkalov Monument.

Today, the Chkalov Monument, located near Pearson Air Museum at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, is dedicated to the transpolar flight.

Each year, a special ceremony at the national park honors this historic event.

Post Script

Chkalov died on December 15, 1938, while piloting a prototype of the Polikarpv I-180 fighter.

Sadly, while coming into land after two circuits of the airfield, he came in short on final, but when he attempted a go-around, the engine quit.

Chkalov did avoid several buildings but finally struck an overhead power line.

He was thrown from the cockpit, sustaining severe injuries, and died two hours later.

His ashes are interred in the Kremlin Wall.

Side Note

When I joined the US Air Force after high school, I was tested for my abilities to learn languages.

It turned out that I was quite adept at Russian, and the Air Force saw fit to send me to Syracuse University for a year to learn Russian.

From there, I was sent to San Angelo, Texas, for further training. While at San Angelo, I took flying lessons at a local FBO in a Cessna 172, and by the time I completed my training left with my Private Pilot's license.

I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here: Subscribe here!

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!

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