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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Soviet aviators

By Martin Middlewood for The Columbian
Published: March 5, 2023, 6:00am

Word came from Seattle that Soviet aviators were landing at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 18, 1929. The long-distance flight was headed to New York City. Its quick Portland stop was to refuel and liftoff again.

Thrilled Portlanders swooped to Swan Island Airport to see the Tupolev ANT-4 land. Since Aug. 23, 1929, the media tracked the flight across the Soviet Union, over the Aleutian Islands and to Seattle. As the oversized aircraft passed 2,000 feet above Swan Island, making a wide turn eastward, frustration dulled the crowd’s excitement.

Meanwhile, at Pearson Field, military pilots were on alert. Field commander Lt. Carlton Bond and five pilots took off to intercept the huge aircraft and escort it to the military airfield. Bond and his fliers engaged the ANT-4 somewhere over Oregon City and brought it in.

A Portland laundryman, Alex Brillant, also Russian, hoped he might glimpse the plane. When the southbound plane turned toward Vancouver, he drove there. Hurrying to the field, he greeted the Russians in their own language, only to find out one of the crew, the co-pilot Phillip Bolotov, was a former playmate. The Army kept Brillant busy the remainder of the day translating for the crew.

The plane, “Land of the Soviets,” was on a goodwill tour, although the Soviets had yet to establish diplomatic ties with the United States. The general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Joseph Stalin, wanted to show off his country’s long-range aviation capability. One-fifth of the Soviet Union was arctic, so making trans-arctic flights was a way to find new and shorter trade routes.

The ANT-4 carried four men — Cmdr. Semen Shestakov, pilot: Bolotov, co-pilot; Boris Sterligov, navigator; Dmitry Fufaev, mechanic; and Andrew Petroff, vice president of the Amtorg Trading Corp., the flight sponsor. Petroff contended that the long-distance trip sought trade routes rather than glory or “air-mindedness.” The Oregonian reported the rest of the crew were publicity shy and didn’t seek hero worship.

In limited English, the navigator Sterligov explained he wanted the left engine’s radiator and faulty oil intake repaired quickly.

Other crew members asked for flight and weather charts to shorten their downtime. Engine problems appeared near the Portland airport on Swan Island, and seeking repairs, the crew felt the Vancouver Barracks, a U.S. military base, offered more protection and crowd control.

A local crowd had already gathered at Pearson Field when the Soviet crew landed. Schools closed so students and teachers could see the big plane. Hundreds from Vancouver clogged the airfield. Those seeing the huge all-metal plane couldn’t believe it could fly.

The engine repair took longer than expected, making the crew stay overnight. They planned a 6 a.m. takeoff the following day for the next leg of their flight. As early as 5:30 a.m., a large local crowd assembled at Pearson Field determined to see the hulking plane fly. It lifted smoothly from the ground toward Oakland, Calif., landing there that afternoon.

After nearly 13,000 miles and 137 flight hours, the Soviets landed at Curtiss Airfield, N.Y., on Nov. 2, greeted by 6,000 New Yorkers.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.