Chkalov's 1937 flight celebrated at Pearson Air Museum

Several locals who'd seen the ANT-25 take part in ceremony

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

Updated: June 20, 2012, 6:43 PM

 
photoFormer State Rep. Val Ogden, center, with Robert Buker, left, and Gayle Rothrock, place flowers at the Transpolar Flight Monument on Wednesday. Buker’s father took him to see the airplane on June 21, 1937, the day after it landed.

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photoEvan Petcoff, who was at Pearson Field on the day of the Chkalov landing in 1937, examines the ANT-25 model on display just prior to Wednesday’s 75th anniversary observance.

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Did you know?

Valery Chkalov died in a crash while test-piloting a plane in 1938.

Evan Petcoff and his family drove from their home in Walnut Grove to see a record-setting Russian airplane 75 years ago, and the 14-year-old boy was more than impressed.

He was inspired.

Petcoff wasn’t able to catch a glimpse of the aviators following their unexpected arrival at Vancouver’s Pearson Field on June 20, 1937. Still, their achievement had something to do with how Petcoff wound up as a member of an American bomber crew during World War II.

“I was a B-29 flight engineer,” Petcoff said Wednesday morning after placing a flower at the Transpolar Flight Monument. “I think (the Chkalov flight) stimulated that a bit.”

Petcoff, 89, was one of a handful of Vancouver-area residents who’d seen the ANT-25 aircraft in 1937 and were able to return for Wednesday’s 75th anniversary ceremony.

The event at Pearson Air Museum celebrated the moment when pilot Valery Chkalov, co-pilot Georgy Baidukov and navigator Alexander Belyakov returned to the ground at 8:22 a.m., ending a record-setting flight of 63 hours and 16 minutes.

Their journey across the roof of the world also marked the first flight over the North Pole.

Yuri Gerasin, the Russian consul general based in Seattle, said he was 10 years old when he learned about Vancouver’s place in his nation’s history.

“This event was very well- known,” Gerasin said.

It was a heroic deed, the consul general said, but it also served “as a symbol of the desire to have good relations” between the two countries.

Mayor Tim Leavitt noted that Vancouver’s name familiarity in Russia has “had lasting significance to the city.” It was a factor, Leavitt said, in many immigrants from Russia and Ukraine choosing Vancouver as their new home.

Had things turned out slightly differently, the U.S. destination for those folks might have been San Francisco, Portland or Medford, Ore.

The flight was supposed to be from Moscow to the San Francisco area; that’s where the Soviet ambassador was waiting to welcome his troika of heroes.

But engine problems and a looming fuel shortage prompted the southbound aviators to reverse course and head back for Portland. When word spread of the change in plans, people started gathering at airports in the region — just in case.

When Chkalov saw the crowd waiting for them at Portland’s Swan Island airfield, he was afraid his airplane might get torn into scrap metal by souvenir hunters. So he headed across the Columbia, where the military airfield at Vancouver Barracks figured to have better crowd control.

Bill Alley, who writes about Northwest aviation history, said the ANT-25 wouldn’t have done an Amelia Earhart-style disappearing act if Chkalov had continued south.

“Medford had a big field,” Alley said.

But there was a reason Chkalov might have favored Pearson over other airfields in the region, Alley said.

“If they had an opportunity to fly over or land at a military field, they could collect a little intelligence,” Alley said.

As Petcoff recalls the event, the U.S. Army’s response to the unexpected landing was a mixture of military authority and a little bit of hastiness.

“I can recall seeing Gen. George Marshall,” who rushed down to greet the Russians, Petcoff said. “I remember seeing he had his topcoat on over his pajamas.”

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