Valerii Chkalov

Boris Galin, Valerii Chkalov. 1937


Translated by James von Geldern

Chkalov (1904-1938), the most famous of Soviet aviators, came from a working-class background, became a mechanic and then a flyer. He was grounded for disobedience and stunt-flying under a Neva Bridge in Leningrad. Restored to the pilot seat, he made pioneering flights to Kamchatka in 1936 and to Vancouver in 1937. He was killed in a test flight in 1938. His life was the theme of a popular film: Valery Chkalov (1940).

Original Source: Pravda, 21 June 1937, p. 3.

Part I
They arrived at the Kremlin at four. On the desk in Stalin’s office they spotted a model of their red-winged plane. Chkalov nudged Baidukov in the ribs. They exchanged merry winks, and Chkalov whispered:

“Egor, our plane!…”

They were met warmly, like old friends.

“What, the world isn’t big enough for you again?” asked Stalin with a smile. “Planning another flight?”

Chkalov answered simply and seriously: “The time has come, Comrade Stalin. It’s time.”

He reported on everything: how they had stripped the plane and re-covered it with canvas, how they painted it and flew it. Stalin laughed. Such hot-headed and impatient lads!

“We’ve abandoned our wives since February,” continued Chkalov heatedly, “we abandoned our children. We live by ourselves, Comrade Stalin, and think of only one thing.”

The government gave its permission to fly across the North Pole to America.

Chkalov was excited and anxious. He bid everyone farewell, got ready to leave, then unexpectedly turned and went over to Comrade Stalin to give him a firm handshake.

“Thank you, Comrade Stalin, thank you very much.”

Stalin held onto his hand.

“It’s we who should thank you when you get there.”

The walked out of the Kremlin at dusk. Excited and hushed. Chkalov glanced over at Baidukov.

“Egor!” Chkalov winked at him mischievously, like a little boy. “It’s over the North Pole for us, eagle!”

Chkalov went over all the details of the Kremlin meeting in his mind. The airplane model on the desk. Stalin’s lively and inquisitive eyes. His first question, asked as a joke: “What, the world isn’t big enough for you? Planning another flight?” And Stalin’s proposal obliging the crew to land immediately if the situation was inauspicious.

That particular decision somehow touched Chkalov. “People,” he thought about Stalin, “in Stalin’s eyes people are always the most important thing.” It seemed to Chkalov that he still had not done enough for the country, for the Party, and for Stalin, who had raised him and whom he, like Baidukov, Beliakov and thousands of others, owed everything.

He raced, better yet, flew up the steps to the third floor and drummed furiously on the door of his apartment. His wife opened the door. By Valery’s happy shining eyes and by his sharp movements she understood that the results of the Kremlin visit were good.

“Everything’s set,” thundered his scratchy bass voice.

Laughing, she pointed to the door of the children’s room: they were asleep.

“A okay,” he said, lowering his voice, “let them sleep. It’s alright!”

He walked over to his room, threw open the window, and approached the map of the world that whitened almost the entire wall. The names of islands, rivers and cities along the Canadian shore were mysterious, unfamiliar.

A deeply rooted pilot’s custom made Chkalov call everything–large and great–he had done in his life a test. And now before him stood the task of passing a new test, of justifying the hopes of the Party, Stalin’s faith, of preparing for the flight and doing it in such a way the the motherland would say: there they are, raised by the Bolshevik Party, people of the Age of Stalin, who fear no hardship but confront it and overcome it in the name and glory of communism …

Despite the late hour, he had Baidukov and Beliakov come over–they all lived in the same building–and drank up a bottle of cognac with them.

“Our last bottle,” he told his wife, “from tomorrow we drink only Narzan.1”

With quiet solemnity the friends clinked glasses. Valery said calmly in his Volga accent: “Well, guys, it’s all up to us now. It’s to work in the morning. You, Sasha, rustle up maps tomorrow. Egor and I will go to the aerodrome.

Part II

From the moment that the ANT-25 airplane returned to Moscow from Schast’ye Gulf, Chkalov had lived with one thought: to continue the Stalin Route, to make a non-stop flight over the North Pole to America.

A pilot of concentrated will and great character, Chkalov, like his two friends, combined daring, courage and a willingness to take risks with the knowledge and ability to exploit technology’s most recent achievements. He had no thought of resting on his laurels. On the contrary, last year’s flight gave him an irrepressible desire to perfect his knowledge of flying, to solve new aviation problems that posed intriguing complications.

All autumn and winter Chkalov worked at his usual job: testing new airplanes. He was as before the factory’s chief pilot, attentively following the birth of new fighter-planes, testing them in the air and putting them through difficult, head-spinning flights. Advanced-speed planes attracted his particular interest. He studied how to fly each new fighter, analysing the complex tasks of airplane construction thoughtfully and thoroughly.

It was difficult work, full of risk and value for the country. And all these test flights did not distract him from the main thing: that for which he lived during those days and months.

It was precisely now, after the great flight along the Stalin route, that new ideas were borne in his consciousness, that new plans emerged. Sometimes he would sit around until dawn with Baidukov. They would go over details of last year’s flight, and for the hundredth or thousandth time discuss a new variant, the thought of which gave them no peace.

Once in a workers’ club, an ecstatic young man asked Chkalov about his dream.

“My dream?” Chkalov repeated and half-jokingly, half-seriously said, “To have a pile of kids. Best have six. Not less.”

He loves children with all his heart. He can play for hours with his little puffy-cheeked daughter, make up complicated and mischievous games with his son, turn the whole apartment topsy-turvy. But about the planned flight–Chkalov did not let a word slip. He could only talk about that with Egor and Beliakov.

There was only one other person they let in on their secret: Stoman, chief engineer of TsAGI.1 Evgeny Karlovich got caught up by the idea.

Chkalov came to the aerodrome several times over the winter. The ANT-25 was parked there. Evgeny Karlovich had put it on skis. Just in case. Maybe they’d want to take a flight.

And Chkalov couldn’t restrain himself, he took the airplane up. Baidukov flew with him. Chkalov told Evgeny Karlovich: “I’m flying for old time’s sake. I can also give the new heating system a check.”

Stoman understood what the real point was. He didn’t ask many questions. Somehow it came out that they agreed to prepare the plane for a flight.

Part III

Chkalov possessed a highly developed sense of collectivism at work. He never said: “I’m going to fly,” but always “We’re going to,” or “Our crew is planning such and such.” There was no false modesty in that. Relations between the three friends were built on a principle of mutual respect, faith and cohesion.

“Of course,” Chkalov would say, “each of us has some value by himself … But together we don’t do three times, but ten times more than alone.”

Each of them knew the others’ value perfectly. They got to know each other truly, deeply and forever during the 56 hours 20 minutes of last year’s flight.

Chkalov remembered the most difficult moments of the flight from Moscow to Schast’ye Gulf. The experience of 1936 had to be of use in 1937. Everything had to be considered: the take-off, running into a cyclone, the danger of icing up, landing in perilous conditions.

They had flown into a cyclone over Severnaya Zelmya. They were above Victoria Island 16 hours and 15 minutes after leaving Moscow. From there the route went directly to the North Pole. Chkalov, without taking his hands from the controls, turned to Egor and, smiling, pointed toward the Pole: straight across the Pole to America. Egor laughed. Chkalov turned the plane to the East and set course for Franz-Josef Land.

What they been wary of suddenly crashed down on the plane. With incredible speed, the patches of fog floating before them grew into a threatening wall that blocked the sun.

The airplane slowly crept upward. At an altitude of three thousand meters, everything was still dark. A grayish murk enveloped the plane. The thermometer showed minus eleven degrees centigrade. The wings were covered with thin ice. The airplane plunged down. Below there was also darkness. The plane turned south. Fog was there too.

In the grey semi-darkness, Beliakov entered into the log: “Flying blind, socked in from above, shaking, decide to fly around from the north.”

Chkalov had a cramp in his legs. He called Egor and turned the controls over to him. It was a complicated, brief and ludicrous operation. Chkalov moved to one side in the pilot’s seat and freed one pedal, keeping his hands on the rudder. Egor deftly stuck in his feet and took a corner of the seat. Then he grabbed the rudder with one hand. Chkalov removed his hand and crawled off to the side.

Flying blind, the pilot began to gain altitude, trying to break through the clouds. It seemed to him that the plane was not flying properly. This was the dangerous sensation of contrarotation. He had to fight off the false sensation, which demanded steering the plane exactly by the instruments.

The plane reached an altitude of 3850 meters. Beliakov made a brief notation in the log: “Going through clouds. Flying blind. Icing up.” The plane changed course nineteen times. First it would go up, then dive down in search of a ray of light. And when, finally, they broke loose from the ice, Baidukov radioed Moscow: “Everything a okay.”

The iced up twice over the Tatar Strait. The plane was tossed about sharply. Chkalov flew at a height of twenty to forty meters. The low cloud cover pressed the plane toward the raging waves. Chkalov banked steeply over the water, trying to tear free from the clouds.

A mountain suddenly appeared in front of the plane.With truly superhuman self-control, Chkalov managed to turn the plane aside in an instant. (That was when the arts of aerobatics and test-piloting came in handy!) Valery sighed with relief. His lips were parched, and he was tormented by thirst. He looked ahead without moving his eyes–at any moment the plane could tear into a fog-shrouded hill.

He was the commander of an air ship. He had to make quick and precise decisions. The thought that he should turn back toward the strait and break through the cloud cover came through his hands from the rudder. Slowly he circled up higher and higher. He could see no end to the clouds. The rain whipped down as before. A light ice began to form on the strong wings. That was the most terrifying thing. Vibrations and jolts confirmed that the plane was icing up.

Chkalov turned and met Egor’s eyes. He understood everything. At 9 hours 25 minutes Baidukov radioed Khabarovsk: “Fog all the way to the ground … Icing up in the fog.” Chkalov took the plane to a lower altitude. The wind and rain stripped the ice from the wings. The vibrations stopped.

Their altitude was twenty to thirty meters. Raging waves beat beneath the wings. Moscow ordered them to land. Valery resisted. He made several more attempts to break through, but they came to nothing. Every time he went up, the plane started to shake again.

The crew commander looked back at his comrades and, without taking his hands from the controls, pointed down with a nod of the head. Baidukov and Beliakov silently nodded in agreement. Chkalov pointed the nose down to land. Egor began lowering the undercarriage. The ground below was uneven, pitted with gullies.

Pilots say that Chkalov has a “light touch,” that he is brilliant at “three-point” landings. At Schast’ye Gulf, at the very last moment, a water-filled gully suddenly glistened before them in the dark. Chkalov’s “light touch” momentarily gave some gas, pushed the iced-up plane over the gully and landed on a sand bar. Beliakov opened the plane’s rear hatch.

One after the other, the pilots jumped to the ground. Baidukov, tired, with his eyes shut, leaned against the wing. Chkalov crawled under the plane to inspect the undercarriage. The wheels were mired in sand. The plane was whole, without a single scratch. Chkalov yelled loudly, merrily: “A okay, friends.”

Part IV

This is why Chkalov values his crew and the ANT-25 so highly. And despite the fact that he and his friends know the plane very well, when they were preparing for the flight they trusted neither the plane nor themselves and subjected it to a series of brutal tests. Everything started over from the beginning, as if they were learning the remarkable plane for the first time.

Chkalov arrived at the Moscow Aerodrome on June 1. It was drizzling, and tiny clouds floated in the sky. Stoman met Chkalov at the entrance to headquarters. They exchanged greetings. Looking at Stoman, Chkalov broke into a smile. Evgeny Karlovich’s face confirmed that preparations were going full speed ahead–he had grown thin, was tanned, and his eyes were sunken from sleepless nights …

Beliakov was asleep on the office couch. Flight maps were spread on the floor. Chkalov went over to the window and looked out at the field. The plane was parked on a side road. Its wingspan was thirty four meters. A remarkable plane with wonderful wing extension! Chkalov gazed at it for a long time.

“Hey, my beauty,” he said quietly, not to wake Beliakov, “fly away, fly away …”

He went downstairs. A heavy tractor brought the plane out onto the concrete main runway. Last year’s inscription stood out on the fuselage: “The Stalin Route.” Chkalov thought: “It will be continued. The Stalin Route will be continued.”

The plane was towed up onto a concrete mound. The motor was started. Chkalov and Stoman silently listened to it working. It was a good, clean sound. Chkalov turned the brim of his cap around. He climbed into the plane by a narrow stepladder. The ailerons moved for the first time. Chkalov checked the steering. The plane slipped down the runway, built up speed and lightly broke away from the ground. Chkalov made a masterfully steep low altitude turn.

“That devil,” Stoman said in admiration.

The airplane went off to Shchelkovo.1 There, Chkalov and Baidukov subjected it to lengthy tests as a thorough preparation for the flight.

“My job,” said Chkalov, “is to take off smoothly and to land the plane successfully.”

He gave the take-off particular importance, because the flying weight of the plane exceeded eleven tons. Mastering the take-off was not the least important part of the control testing program.

Chkalov was taciturn and irritable in those days. Evgeny Karlovich Stoman, even thinner than before, listened to him attentively and accepted his comments. Baidukov and Beliakov also knew that side of Chkalov’s character. Chkalov became closed off and even irascible right when dozens of details had to be resolved and fixed, when the flying of the plane had to be studied as thoroughly as possible.

The doctor demanded that Chkalov and his friends maintain a strict health regime, sleep more, muster their strength. But Chkalov relaxed best when he was strolling through the woods. He would wander through the pines for hours, and return home happy, energetic. Sometimes he left for a night of fishing. The only fish that came were tiny, hum-drum, but Chkalov would sit on the river for hours in his boat. Toward dawn the sky would grow light, fog would creep over the water, and sometimes the silence would be broken by the roar of airplanes …

One night in the middle of June, Chkalov came to Moscow. His son was leaving for Pioneer camp. Chkalov brought Igor to the train station, put him on the train and, hugging him, gave him some words of fatherly advice.

“Alright,” Igor said impatiently, “I’ll learn to swim, I’ll be part of the collective, I’ll obey the group leaders. I’ll do everything. But you tell me, tell me this–how’s it toing with your flight?”

The son was like his father in many ways: grey eyes, white-blonde hair, strong hands, his noisy way of moving.

“Everything is a okay,” Chkalov said amicably, “preparations are going full speed ahead. Only the weather is fouling us up.”

He looked at the sky and sighed. Igor kissed him and said quietly: “Good luck!”

Around six in the morning, Chkalov made a test flight. His course lay to the north. The ANT-25 was like a flying laboratory. Everything was put to a final, decisive test.

It was a dress rehearsal. The motor worked faultlessly, the plane flew beyond reproach. Chkalov tested his materials again and again, checking his previous observations, his flying reflexes.

The day before take-off was particularly trying. The crew went to bed early. At two in the morning Chkalov woke up and lifted his head. Dawn shown blue outside the window.

“Egor! Sasha!” he called in a whisper. “It’s time!”

Source: James von Geldern and Richard Stites, eds., Mass Culture in Soviet Russia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), pp. 260-266.

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