June 2017 marks the 80th anniversary of the Chkalov flight — first nonstop transpolar flight over the North Pole in a single-engine airplane. This achievement proved to the whole world that the Soviet Union was a leading aviation nation. On Dec. 9, 2017, we celebrate another anniversary: 120 years of the birth of Alexander Belyakov, deputy head of MIPT’s Military Training Department. He was one of the first transpolar airplane flight’s crew members.
A flight over the North Pole is difficult for a variety of reasons, among which are aircraft icing, complicated location finding, and the need to proof the airplane against extremely low temperatures. Bravery, professionalism, and perseverance of the crew made it possible to prepare for the flight and complete it despite the severity of the conditions.
The idea of a nonstop Moscow-San Francisco flight was brought up for the first time in 1935. The length of the primary route — over the Atlantic Ocean — is 14,000 kilometers, whereas the shortest one goes through the North Pole and is 9,605 kilometers long. The results of the latest test flights showed that a modern ANT-25 airplane could cover 12,000 kilometers in 75 hours without landing, so it was chosen for the transpolar flight. So far, no one had ever used such an aircraft to cross the North Pole.
In the summer of 1935, the first attempt at a transpolar flight was made. However, it was over before it even started: The crew detected a malfunction, reported it to the command post, and was ordered to return.
Georgy Baydukov and Alexander Belyakov did not give up the idea, though. And Valery Chkalov was the prime candidate to fly the plane. In a few months after the first try, Baydukov offered the pilot to test the ANT-25. They made a test flight from Moscow to Udd Island — now Chkalov Island — in 1936, during which the crew faced a serious problem: After the plane took off, one of the gear legs did not retract. Nevertheless, the pilots managed to retract it manually and land the plane with one gear missing. The test flight took 56 hours 26 minutes, covering the distance of 9,374 kilometers.
As a result, the crew was granted the permission to fly from Moscow to San Francisco. The flight required thorough technical preparation. Belyakov had installed additional navigation equipment on the ANT-25 as early as 1935: It included a solar heading indicator and the first-ever gyromagnetic compass. He also drew up tables showing the time-dependent positions of the Sumner lines for the sun and the moon and created telegraph and meteorological codes. Since no one had ever attempted to cross the North Pole by air, it was difficult to predict which navigation method would be most effective, so Belyakov instructed the crew in each and every method known at that time: He taught them how to use magnetic and solar compasses and explained celestial and radar navigation.
On June 18, 1937, the airplane with three crew members on board took off at the Shchelkovo airport. During the flight, the aviators would alternate the aircraft control according to a preplanned schedule. Since most of the flight was above 3,000 meters, the temperature in the cockpit remained below zero, and the crew suffered from oxygen deficiency. On their way to the pole, the plane flew into a cyclone. When this happens, it usually takes a lot of cruising around to avoid heavy clouds and prevent aircraft icing. The situation did not become any better after they had crossed the North Pole. The station in Alaska that the crew was supposed to connect with did not respond, the sky was covered in thick clouds. To avoid them, the pilots had to climb up to 5,000 meters. Flying at such an altitude made the aircraft unstable. In six hours, the crew saw Cape Pearce Point, Canada. By that time, they had already completed the key task, so they could land the plane at any airport. However, since their ultimate destination was San Francisco, Baydukov discussed the plan with the other pilots and decided to continue the flight.
The final part of the flight posed many other difficulties: The crew was exhausted, the sky was clouded, and the oxygen supply was almost depleted. Combined, all the factors took their toll, and in order to make it to the United States, the ANT-25 had to lose speed. As a result, the temperature in the cockpit dropped. Eating and sleeping became impossible. When the fuel gauge indicated that 60 kilograms of fuel was left, the crew made the decision to land at a military airport in Vancouver. On June 20, 1937, at 4:20 p.m. GMT, the aircraft landed, having traveled 11,430 kilometers in 63 hours 16 minutes. The heroes were greeted personally by Gen. George Marshall, the commander of Vancouver Barracks, Washington state. The crew then had a rest and prepared for the trip to San Francisco, Chicago, and later to Washington, where they would meet President Roosevelt. Apart from Yuri Gagarin, no Russian has since received such an honorable welcome in the U.S.
There were other flights planned, too, but the death of Chkalov in 1938 and the beginning of World War II made them impossible.
Belyakov was the deputy head of the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy in 1940-1945 and became its head in the following years. He was also the dean of one of the Academy’s departments in 1945-1960. In 1960, Belyakov was asked to take the position of vice rector for academic affairs and research at MIPT. However, as a retired military man, he was more comfortable working with military staff, so on Sept. 1, 1961, he was appointed head of the Military Training Department. The legendary pilot would hold that position until March 1969, and give lectures almost until the end of his life in 1982.
The Chkalov flight provided a huge boost for the advancement of aircraft engineering and air navigation. It helped to study how ice protection, fuel and oxygen supply systems work in extreme conditions. It also gave impetus to the aircraft industry and became the basis for the development of top-class aircraft later on. Besides being a source of data for aeronautical engineering, the Chkalov flight provided information about the meteorological situation at the North Pole and geomagnetic field behavior in the Arctic and helped to improve radar stations and direction finders.