Pilots and Explorers

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Polar exploration was revolutionized by the advent of long-distance high-altitude aviation. The first polar flights were led by Richard Byrd and Roald Amundsen in 1926, followed up by the first flight across the Arctic Ocean in 1928 by George Hubert Wilkins and Carl Ben Eielson. At this point the Soviet Union, with its growing tradition of aviation innovation, a generation of world-class pilots, and the ability to marshal tremendous resources in pursuit of a single goal, entered the field and gained glory throughout the world for its polar exploits. Soviet pilots were involved in 1928 in the heroic rescue of a dirigible expedition led by the Italian Umberto Nobile, which crashed on the ice north-northeast of Spitsbergen (Norway), killing seventeen crew members and leaving seven stranded on the ice.

Polar exploration was the darling of the western press, which chronicle the races of adventurers who sought to become the first to reach the North or South Poles, Soviet expeditions typically sought to establish viable communities in the polar regions, and to create conditions for long-term scientific investigation. Still, Soviet readers who thirsted for adventure had the exploits of the pilots to follow. Scientists, mariners and aviators collaborated on the great expedition of the icebreaker Cheliuskin in 1934, led by Otto Schmidt, professor of mathematics at Moscow State University who would lead several highly-publicized expeditions to the Pole in the next few years. The expedition made great strides in the study of life under polar conditions, and charted new territory; it came during an end in the harsh winter months, when ice crushed the hull of the ship and stranded the crew on the ice. When weather permitted, aviators were able fly in and rescue the party intact, women and children (including one born during the expedition) first. They were feted throughout the Soviet Union during the long route home. A second expedition no less chronicled in the press took place in 1937, when pilot Mikhail Vodopianov deposited a party led by Ivan Papanin near the pole, founding the first Soviet drifting station, North Pole I. In toto, these expeditions proved, according to none other than Joseph Stalin, that scientific progress would inexorably improve human life.

Yet the pilots, not the scientists, won the hearts of Soviet compatriots, and none more than Valerii Chkalov. Intrepid, handsome, remarkably skilled, Chkalov embodied the Soviet ideal. He accepted the tutelage of series of elder men, final among them being Stalin himself, yet never quieted the wild heart that had inspired him in his youth to buzz his aircraft UNDER one of Leningrad’s low bridges. Born into a working family in 1904, Chkalov began his working life as stoker before the military taught him flying, and made him a test pilot. He first came to international attention when from July 20-22, 1936, along with pilots G. Baidukov and A. V. Beliakov, he made a non-stop flight from Moscow via Petropavlovsk-on-Kamchatka to Udd Island, a distance of 9,374 kilometers in 56 hours and 20 minutes. For this he was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, an honor instituted in the wake of the Cheliuskin affair and given to most of the explorers and pilots. In June 1937 with the same pilots he made a non-stop flight from Moscow to Vancouver via the North Pole, logging 8,504 kilometers in 63 hours and 16 minutes. A party member from 1936, he was killed in 1938 during a test flight. However complex the man, the official image of Chkalov included a willing subordination to the state, ideal family life, and tremendous drive. It was summarized most faithfully by Karl Radek (soon to perish in the purges) who said “If you (children) want to be Chkalovs, then answer the call of our great leader and teacher Stalin: study, study and study more, to catch up with and overtake the capitalist world.”

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