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.
Valery Chkalov died in a crash while test-piloting a plane in 1938.
“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; firstname.lastname@example.org.