Starting on Saturday, July 18, a group of enthusiasts and their airplanes will re-create one of the lesser-known feats of aviation daring in World War II: supplying combat airplanes to the Soviet Air Force by flying more than 4,000 miles from Great Falls, Montana to Fairbanks, Alaska, across the Bering Strait and Siberia to the city of Krasnoyarsk. The path, once traversed by nearly 8,000 airplanes, was known as the Alaska-Siberia Route (ALSIB for short).
Two Douglas DC-3s (in guise as their C-47 military counterparts) and one North American T-6 Texan will fly the route, stopping at 11 places—almost all the original stops—with a formal end in Moscow during the MAKS airshow.
Three organizations came together to make the flight possible: Wargaming.net, builders of a very popular WWII flight simulator; the Bravo 369 Foundation, a group dedicated to aviation history; and Rusavia, a Russian publisher and parts manufacturer.
“Here in the U.S., not many people know about the 27 million [Russians] killed [during the war], or the friendship between the U.S. and Russia,” says Craig Lang, cofounder and chairman of B369. In recreating the ALSIB route with a bi-national team, the participants hope to remind people of the bonds the U.S. and Russia once shared. “We knew politically there would be some impact,” says Jeff Gear, fellow B369 cofounder and president. “The cultural aspect is far more important. The ability to do [this flight] takes more than just politics.”
The Russian ambassador to the U.S. and Montana’s governor will see the airplanes off from Great Falls, and a documentary crew will accompany them on the flight.
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the USSR, taking the country by surprise. The Soviet Air Force, though large, was functionally and technically obsolete, unready for warfare. Nearly half the air force was destroyed in the first few days, and the Germans drove forward without significant aerial resistance, surging toward Moscow. It looked as though little could stop them, so the Soviets called for help.
The U.S. and Soviets were no fans of one another’s politics, but both needed the other: the Soviets desperately wanted aircraft, and the U.S. saw an advantage in keeping Germany busy in the east as it prepared its own attacks from the west. The U.S. quickly agreed to send fighter, bomber, and attack aircraft.
A naval convoy of supplies (including airplanes onboard ships) was dispatched from the East Coast to cross the Arctic and slip into port in northern Russia, north of Nazi-occupied Norway. The convoy was savaged and all but destroyed by U-boats and the Luftwaffe en route. A new option was needed.
After a few disagreements on finer points, the American and Soviet governments finally settled on a plan: Bell P-39s, Douglas C-47s and A-20s, North American B-25s and other airplanes would gather in Great Falls, Montana, then fly (with a few stops in Canada) to Fairbanks, Alaska. In Fairbanks the aircraft would be repainted with the Russian star and formally handed over to the Soviets. From there the Soviets would ferry them across the Bering Strait and Siberia to Krasnoyarsk, and eventually to the front lines.
But there was a problem: there was no way to get there. Cold-weather aviation was a relatively new capability, and the first polar explorers to use aircraft were still alive (many were enlisted to help). Lots of new infrastructure was required: runways and hangars capable of handling large aircraft, radio navigation beacons installed in extremely remote areas, roads for regular resupply runs, emergency airfields in which to crash-land (not so rare in those days), and a huge search-and-rescue capability.
The network was created in a mere 10 months, airstrips cut from the forest and fuel delivered to the middle of nowhere (at the same time the Alaska-Canada Highway, ALCAN, was under construction). In Siberia entire towns were enlisted to grade and pave runways during the harsh winter. It was a massive effort, though overshadowed by even larger, more impressive feats. And it worked—thousands of American airplanes were sent to Russia, one flight at a time, generally a larger aircraft with a navigator on board leading small, one-person fighters.
In all, nearly 8,000 U.S.-built airplanes were delivered via the ALSIB, and they proved vital to the Soviet war effort. Perhaps the most notable were the 2,618 Bell P-39s, an aircraft all but rejected by high-flying Western powers that found its niche in low-level combat over the Russian front lines. Another 2,397 P-63s, the successor to the P-39, made the same trip.
For this commemorative flight, the aircraft will be turned over to the Russians to complete the journey, just as they were on the original route. The team will land at Nome, Alaska, and the American side will fly home; the rest of the flight will consist of all-Russian crews, and the Americans will meet them upon their arrival at the MAKS airshow in Moscow.
A few of the original sites will be skipped: some small emergency airfields will get only a flyby for efficiency’s sake. The airfield at Calgary has since become a busy international airport, so the group will instead stop at nearby Springbank. The Edmonton airport has closed, so the airplanes will land at its newer replacement. Along the route the pilots will meet with a few of the surviving participants and explore the local museums that many of the airports keep.
Though communications and navigation have improved substantially since WWII, the fliers will face some of the same problems as their predecessors. The aircraft involved are WWII-vintage, and come with all the same requirements: fuel restrictions, maintenance worries, and pure stamina from pilots stuck to wartime seats. The infrastructure at the more remote Siberian airfields has not necessarily improved much since the war, and of course the Chukotsky Mountain range hasn’t gone anywhere. But at least it’s not winter, when temperatures reach as low as -50 Fahrenheit.
Fifty-four T-6s and 710 C-47s were delivered via the ALSIB route. The organizers hope that adding one more T-6 and two more DC-3s will have the same effect the others once did, reminding Russia and the U.S. just how close they really are.
You can follow the flight day-by-day at the group’s website.