Grandson looks to mark 75th anniversary of Chkalov flight

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photoValery Chkalov

Valery Chkalov just spent a few days in Vancouver to do some setup work for the 75th anniversary of his grandfather’s milestone flight.

It was a chance to discuss prospects for a 2012 international observance of the transpolar flight that ended here in 1937, and to indulge in something his namesake grandfather was sometimes reluctant to do: talk about Soviet aviation hero Valery Chkalov.

Even the flier’s reluctance to share stories at home made for a pretty good story.

The 46-year-old Moscow resident said he never knew his famous grandfather, who died in a 1938 crash.

“My father was 11 when my grandfather crashed,” Chkalov said. “What I know about his life is based on what my father and my aunts told me, and through books.”

And what about stories from his grandmother — the aviator’s wife — who died in 1998?

“There was an agreement between my grandmother and grandfather,” Chkalov said. “He was a test pilot. Grandfather told grandmother: ‘Don’t put your nose into what I’m doing. I’m flying. If I want you to know more, I’ll tell you.’”

In June 1937, Olga didn’t have to wait for her husband to share how things were going at work. Chkalov and his two crew mates, co-pilot Georgy Baidukov and navigator Alexander Belyakov, set an aviation record by flying nonstop for 63 hours and 16 minutes from an airfield near Moscow, over the North Pole, to Pearson Field.

“For grandfather, that was an unusual flight,” Chkalov said. “It was not a fighter.”

The Russian aviator had been a military airman and a civilian flier, but found his calling as a test pilot. While military flying has conditions and operating rules, test flights are all about pushing the limits, Chkalov said.

The single-engine ANT-25 averaged about 90 mph from Moscow to Vancouver, and “That’s pretty slow for a test pilot,” Chkalov said.

Actually, one of the challenges was getting the ANT-25 to come to a complete stop.

“They took the brakes off,” Chkalov said.

“He jumped off while it was running and asked for chocks” to block the wheels, Chkalov said.

A Los Angeles Times account of another record-breaking ANT-25 flight noted the same modification. Russian engineers removed the brakes, figuring that subtracting that weight would extend the plane’s range by 146 miles.

But it was the route and not the airspeed that drew international attention. That 5,670-mile flight will be saluted with a summer celebration, which still is a work in progress.

There could be some kickoff events as early as April, said Doug Lasher, Clark County auditor and a history enthusiast who is part of the Chkalov Cultural Exchange Committee.

Chkalov said momentum has been building in Russia since his 2009 meeting with President Dmitri Medvedev.

“We are looking to bring a delegation of government officials,” Chkalov said.

Another group will represent family members of the Chkalov crew — as well as relatives of another record-breaking Soviet air crew. In July 1937, a similar ANT-25 airplane piloted by Mikhail Gromov bested Chkalov’s feat by flying nonstop from Moscow to a farmer’s field near San Jacinto, Calif. (Where it also landed without brakes). Relatives of Gromov and his crew members will be part of the family delegation, Chkalov said.

And there might be another contingent representing a much more modern era of that country’s aviation history: the Russian Falcons aerobatic display team.

The Falcons have never flown in the United States, Chkalov said. He is hoping the MiG jet fighters can perform at the Oregon Air Show in Hillsboro, tying the August appearance into the Chkalov anniversary.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.