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Wonders of World Aviation

The Aeroplane as a Key to Commerce in the Frozen North of Europe and Asia

TWELVE MILES FROM THE NORTH POLE. At this spot the N-170 (shown above), the first of the aeroplanes of the Soviet North Polar Expedition, landed in 1937. Standing in the foreground is Dr Otto J Schmidt, leader of the expedition. Dr Schmidt was appointed head of the Central Administration of the Northern Sea Route, founded in 1932. He became known in Russia as Commissar of the Ice.

AIRCRAFT are the keys with which the Soviet Government is unlocking the Arctic coast of Europe and Asia. Nearly half the territory of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics lies north of the 62nd parallel, and this vast area is being developed with the aid of the aeroplane.

This development is controlled by the Central Administration of the Northern Sea Route, which was founded in 1932. Dr. Otto J. Schmidt, known in Russia as Commissar of the Ice, was made head of the administration.

Dr. Schmidt made his first Arctic voyage in 1929 to Franz Josef Land. Other voyages followed, including that of 1932, when Dr. Schmidt succeeded in making the voyage from Europe to the Bering Strait - the North-East Passage - in one navigation season. Although this hazardous voyage had been made previously by explorers, Dr. Schmidt was the first to achieve it in one season. The knowledge obtained was so valuable that the Soviet authorities founded the Central Administration. Its task was to explore the northern sea route along its entire length from Murmansk to the Bering Strait, and the continuation to Petropavlovsk (Kamchatka) and Vladivostok, with the object of finding if the route was suitable for commercial shipping.

Dr. Schmidt embarked in the Chelyuskin at Leningrad in the summer of 1933 for another voyage along the route, but in November, when the vessel was in sight of the Bering Strait, the wind turned and she was trapped by pack ice. In February 1934 the vessel was sunk, but her people camped on the ice. Radio enabled them to keep in touch with civilization, and in March the first of the rescue aeroplanes landed on the ice. The aeroplanes took the castaways to safety in batches, the rescue being completed on April 13. The achievement drew attention to the skill of the pilots operating in the northern regions of Russia. In 1934 aeroplanes scouting for ships flew 2,773 hours and covered about 250,000 miles. Two years later Polar aircraft flew 11,000 hours, and made flights totalling over 1,000,000 miles. The entire north coast from Murmansk to the Bering Sea is now patrolled in the navigation season by aeroplanes which cooperate with the weather stations and act as the eyes of ships navigating this route.

Many people in these remote regions have never seen a railway train or a motor car, but they are familiar with aircraft. In addition to meteorological work and reconnoitring the ice for ships, the aeroplanes carry passengers, mail and goods, make survey flights, patrol forests, and aid agriculture and fishing. Seaplanes are used for ice patrol work, and act as aerial tenders for icebound vessels, carrying letters and dropping them by parachute.

All the Polar settlements are linked by air lines, which are operated by more than a hundred machines. Since the development of the air services, education and amusement have penetrated regions previously almost inaccessible. Opera companies and actors have been flown to remote settlements.

Some of Asia’s longest rivers, the Obi, the Yenisei and the Lena, flow north into the Arctic Ocean. These rivers provide the cheapest method of transport for timber and minerals. Heavy goods, supplies and minerals are sent down these northward-flowing rivers in the summer to the new ports which have been built on the Arctic coast. Rafts of timber are floated down and are sawn into planks for shipment.

Aircraft of the ice patrol fly over the frozen sea at the beginning of the navigation season and send radio reports to the icebreakers telling them of the cracks in the ice. The icebreakers ram the cracks and open the way for the cargo ships which they convoy. More than 270,000 tons of cargo were carried in the 160 ships which voyaged in the Soviet Arctic in 1936, and fourteen of the vessels made the through passage across the top of Europe and Asia.

For the greater part of the year when the sea and the rivers are frozen the only means of long-distance travel is by air. Roads or railways would be too costly to build and to maintain. Aviation in these regions demands exceptional skill from the pilots at all periods. Even in summer there are frequent fogs and the area is not yet well equipped with radio stations, nor are the machines furnished with blind-flying instruments. The pioneers of the service flew aircraft which were maintained in operation for years.

Furs Carried in Seaplanes

New machines were supplied as soon as these were available. Seaplanes have proved invaluable. In northern Siberia, when trappers bad prepared furs for removal by sledge and dog teams, a premature thaw sometimes stopped this form of transport and the trappers were unable to get the furs to market that year. Seaplanes now alight in spring and the furs are flown to European Russia in a few days. Previously the furs took two years to get to market. Throughout the greater part of the year seaplanes operate along the Siberian rivers.

Omsk, situated on the Moscow-Vladivostok air mail route and also on the Trans-Siberian Railway, is the southern base of the air services of the Irtysh and Obi Rivers. Krasnoyarsk, eastward along the same lines of communication, is the base for the Yenisei services in the central region of Arctic Asia. Irkutsk, also on the railway, is the air base for part of the Lena River, and Yakutsk, far to the northeast, is the air base serving the lower waters of the Lena.

Igarka, the new Polar town on the Yenisei, has a permanent population of 12,000, which is increased to 20,000 in the summer. It is the port of transhipment where goods brought by river craft are transferred to ocean-going ships. Wooden seaplanes operate from Krasnoyarsk to Igarka, but from there to the Arctic Ocean metal-built craft are preferred. Among these are German Dornier Wal flying boats, powered by two engines giving a total horse-power of 1,200, and carrying fifteen passengers or two tons of cargo.


THE AVIATOR WHO FOUND THE FOUR SCIENTISTS when the ice floe on which they were camped was in danger of breaking up. His name was G. Vlasov, and this picture was taken on board the Taimyr, one of the two rescue ships which sent up aeroplanes. Another machine that was searching for the scientists became lost and had to land on the ice. The pilot and observer were later picked up by Vlasov in his aeroplane.

The route is of rapidly growing importance and new river ports are being established. Dickson Island, an Arctic settlement in Yenisei Bay, is the chief weather station in the Polar basin. Here forecasts are made and sent by radio to aircraft and ships. Ports are being reconstructed at Tixy Bay (near the mouth of the Lena), at the mouth of the Indigirka, in the estuary of the Kolyma, and at Providence Bay, on the Bering Sea. Scientists and organizers fly to the sites of the new ports and prepare for the arrival of ships which bring materials and stores for these ports during the short summer season.

In the past data about the weather were almost negligible, and it was imperative to establish efficient weather stations with trained staffs, and to maintain the stations throughout the whole year, so that accurate observations could be made.

These Polar radio weather stations are successfully providing the knowledge which makes possible sea and air navigation in the Arctic. There were fifty-six such stations in 1937, when it was decided to establish a fifty-seventh station in the region of the North Pole. This station was established by scientists flown in specially built aircraft during the spring of 1937.

The achievement in establishing this station marked an advance in science. Although men had crossed the Pole by air on previous occasions, no one had landed there from the air. In 1925 Roald Amundsen’s expedition, with two flying boats, landed on the ice in the latitude 87 degrees 43 minutes. One machine was damaged, but after weeks of work space was cleared on the ice and the machine took off and brought the explorers to safety. Amundsen flew over the Pole in 1926 in the dirigible Norge, designed by General Umberto Nobile.

In 1928 Nobile repeated the flight in the dirigible Italia, but met with an accident. He was rescued by the Russian ice-breaker Krassin. Byrd, the American, and Sir Hubert Wilkins made Polar flights in aeroplanes.

Polar Weather Station

The object of the Russians was to fly to the Pole and to establish a scientific observatory there; not to repeat the achievements of other Polar aviators by flying over the Pole. They needed the knowledge, to be gained only at the Pole, of the pressure of the Polar air and its variability, in addition to knowledge of the temperature.

By the use of pilot balloons they intended to obtain data of the air above the Pole. They were anxious also to investigate magnetic problems in the region so that pilots in future flights would be furnished with correct compass indications. The Russian scientists knew that, although they would begin at the Pole, the currents would carry the station away from it, and that the observatory would drift. In addition to the marine investigations and problems of magnetism, the object was to test the possibility of establishing radio-equipped supply aerodromes in the Polar basin along the projected transpolar air route between Europe and America.

Aeroplanes were the only means of transporting stores and scientific instruments to the region of the Pole, and the Russians had many pilots of long experience of landing on ice, as well as scientists familiar with the work required from them. It was decided to organize an expedition by air, to establish the station, and to leave four scientists at the post.


FLAGSHIP OF THE EXPEDITION to the North Pole. This aircraft was one of four four-engined machines specially built for the task. A fifth machine, a scout aeroplane, was used for reconnaissance and to provide reports on weather conditions for the other aeroplanes. The flagship was flown by the Arctic flier M. V. Vodopyanov, one of the “Heroes of the Soviet Union”, a much-coveted honour in Russia today.

Thirty-five men, including Dr. Schmidt, the leader, prepared for the task, four of them being chosen to man the station. At the head of the four was I. D. Papanin, who was selected, not only because of his experience gained in Franz Josef Land and at Cape Chelyuskin, but also because of his cheerfulness and resource. The radio operator, Ernst Krenkel, had put up many schemes for advancing Polar stations farther into the north. P. P. Shirshov, the hydro-biologist and hydrologist, had proved his perseverance, and the astronomer and magnetologist, E. K. Fedorov, had considerable Polar experience.

Four four-engined machines were built for the expedition and were numbered U.S.S.R. N-169, N-170, N-171 and N-172. A scout aeroplane, N-166, was used for reconnaissance flights.

The pilot of the flagship, N-170, was the Arctic flier M. V. Vodopyanov, one of the “Heroes of the Soviet Union”, a coveted honour in Russia. V. S. Molokov, also a “Hero”, piloted N-171. I. P. Mazuruk piloted N-169, and A. D. Alexeyev N-172. P. G. Golovin was pilot of the scout aeroplane N-166.

The four men to remain at the station had to be provided with adequate equipment, including everything that might be required in an emergency, and the problem was to get them and their gear to the station. According to the plans, the total weight of the scientific equipment that could be carried by air could not exceed 450 kilograms (1,000 lb), but the ordinary sounding line, only one of a list of items, weighed 300 kilograms (660 lb).

It was obvious that every item of equipment, food and stores would first have to be considered from the viewpoint of air transport. Weight was the first great consideration. To save weight, special instruments and gear were designed. The 300-kilogram sounding line was replaced by one made in Leningrad with an automatic brake, weighing only one-fifth of the other. The usual bathymeter (instrument for sampling the water and measuring the temperature) was too heavy at 6 kilograms (13 lb); one weighing a quarter of this was designed.

Tent Convertible to Raft

Designing the tent to ensure warmth but to keep it light presented many difficulties, and these were overcome with the use of silk and aluminium. The internal envelope was of canvas stretched on an aluminium frame; above the canvas were two layers of down sewn to silk. The fourth layer was the outer skin and this was made of chemically treated waterproof canvas, painted black to attract the warmth from the rays of the Polar sun. The tent flaps were of wolf skin.

The tent was made to be folded ready for removal in about fifteen minutes, so that if damage was threatened by the compression of the ice the tent could be moved to another site. To guard against the possibility of ice melting and surrounding the tent with water, it was placed on inflated rubber cushions, which would transform it into a raft if the emergency arose. Although light, the tent was warm. During the first days at the Pole, when the outside temperature was below freezing point, the temperature inside the tent was relatively high.

The winter clothing packed in the aeroplanes included silk and wool underwear, shirts and trousers of reindeer fur, fur helmets and face masks, sealskin trousers and boots, sleeves of wolf fur, fox coats, silk suits lined with down and sleeping bags made from wolf skin.

Sufficient food to last eighteen months was packed into small cases and loaded in the machines. Although it was imperative to rely mainly on concentrated foods, care was taken to select a variety and avoid a monotonous diet. To avoid the risk of damage by the compression of the ice, the provisions were not stored together. Seventy cases, each containing one week’s rations, were placed at different sites.


AT THE COMPLETION OF A FLIGHT OF NEARLY 15,000 MILES round the U.S.S.R. in 1937. The twin-engined aircraft began and finished its journey at Moscow. The machine first flew eastwards via Sverdlovsk, Omsk, Irkutsk and Yakutsk to the most north-easterly point of Siberia by the Bering Strait. Then a westward course was followed along the northern sea route, by way of Wrangel Island, Tixy Bay, Cape Chelyuskin and Archangel back to Moscow.

The fuel for cooking was petrol. As tins were too heavy, the petrol was carried in rubber containers which had aluminium stoppers. Plastic material was used for dishes and plates, and aluminium for other utensils and for the folding beds. Pneumatic rubber boats and light sledges were carried. The ladders of the four aeroplanes were designed so that they could be converted to sleds. Before the beginning of the flight to the Pole the equipment was tested by the scientists, who set up an experimental station, and the aeroplanes were prepared for the hazardous flight towards the Pole.

The advance air base was prepared on Rudolf Island, from which the aeroplanes were to take off for the flight to the Pole; but, before the machines succeeded in reaching this remote airfield within 600 miles of the Pole, there were many difficulties to be conquered.

The take-off from the mainland was scheduled for April 4, 1937. The aeroplanes were loaded and the engines were warmed up. But bad weather was forecast and the start was postponed to April 7. Again the motors were tested and again the weather forbade a start. Another disappointment followed, but at last, in the early hours of April 12, Papanin aroused everybody by shouting, “We must take off quick - a hot cyclone is approaching and everything on the field will melt!”

Even then few believed that the hour had struck at last, for their disappointments had been so many and so prolonged. This time, however, the scout aeroplane had taken off, and the prospects of the four heavily loaded transport aircraft seemed fair. An hour or so later radio reports from the scout aeroplane stated that the weather ahead was fine. There was no wind on the airfield and the snow was soft. The N-170 tried to take off and ran from one end of the field to the other six times, but her skis stuck to the snow and she did not rise. The same thing happened to the N-172, and petrol was unloaded to lighten the machine.

At last all was ready and the sixteen engines of the four big aeroplanes roared into action. The flagship made one run and failed to rise. She made a second attempt and slowly rose above the snow. The N-172 failed at the first run, but the third machine rose while the second tried again, and then the fourth.

Halt at Rudolf Island

The four aircraft climbed into the clouds and lost sight of one another until they rose above the clouds and sorted themselves out. Presently patches opened in the clouds below them and the aviators looked down upon the Barents. Sea. A white patch appeared ahead; it was their first glimpse of Novaya Zemlya. Keeping on their course, they flew over the Kara Sea until they sighted the Matochkin Shar, the strait which separates the two islands of Novaya Zemlya. Here an airfield had been established in a bay.

All four machines landed, the scout having landed previously. Soon afterwards a blizzard began and the wind arose and increased to a gale. It eased in the morning and the party were able to refuel the tanks of their aeroplanes, but bad weather followed and not until the morning of April 18 were they able to take off.

In the early hours of the following day, after having passed over part of Novaya Zemlya and having sighted Franz Josef Land, the aircraft descended at Rudolf Island. Here the settlement comprised a dozen houses, a radio station, a bath-house, a weather bureau, a mess-hall, a dormitory and a few other buildings. There was, moreover, room for inspired good humour. In the snow had been erected a triumphal arch with a Polar bear, round the neck of the creature being a key with the inscription, “Key to the North Pole”.

Many days passed at this advanced post while the expedition waited for suitable weather for the last stage of the flight into the unknown. April passed and the radio station became the hub of the little party who awaited weather news that promised the chance of success. May came and began to pass. The men removed everything possible from the machines to lighten the load and to enable them to take off, but the severity of the weather increased.

TERRITORY OF THE U.S.S.R. is bordered by the Arctic Ocean

THE TERRITORY OF THE U.S.S.R. is bordered by the Arctic Ocean from Murmansk to the Bering Strait. Places referred to in this chapter are shown on the map, which also covers the route taken by the aeroplane illustrated above.

On May 21, however, prospects were fair. A gap opened in the curtain of clouds and began to widen. Vodopyanov’s aeroplane took off. Radio messages came back regularly until it was reported that the machine had reached latitude 89° N. A later message began but broke off. Nothing more was heard. Radio stations at Dickson Island and Cape Desire tried to get news from the aeroplane. The time passed, and it was evident that the aeroplane was down somewhere as its fuel was exhausted. Then came the message saying that the aeroplane had landed on a floe about twelve miles from the Pole. All were safe, and the N-170 had made a good landing.

Vodopyanov reported that for two-thirds of the flight his aeroplane had flown above and through the clouds. Through gaps in the clouds they had looked down upon vast icefields, some flat and others jagged masses. They had selected the most suitable floe, and had inspected its surface from a height of 30 feet before they landed.

Now came the task for the other three aeroplanes to land alongside the N-170. For several days reports of bad weather from the floe, which was drifting away from the Pole, delayed the start of the three machines. On May 26 the aeroplanes took off. Only one, the N-172, reached the camp. One of the other two flew over the Pole and landed, but took off again the next day, steered by radio compass and landed on the floe. Nothing was heard from the N-169 for days, but she was safe, and on June 5 reached the camp.

Later the four aeroplanes flew back to Russia. The floe drifted for nine months until in February 1938 it was carried about a thousand miles to near the coast of Greenland. Two Russian relief ships - the Taimyr and the Murman, sent up aeroplanes. G. Vlasov, the pilot of one machine, saw a grey spot on the icefield. It was the camp.

DISMANTLING THE AEROPLANE from which were seen the four Russian scientistsVlasov’s aeroplane descended to 160 feet and made two circles in salute. It was seen that the small floe was surrounded by ice, preventing a landing on this floe, but the scientists pointed to a clear space about a mile away and the machine landed. Vlasov and his navigator, Dorofeyev, hurried to meet the four men. They delivered letters and supplies. Snow began to fall and the machine took off and returned to the Murman. Another aeroplane was lost in a snowstorm, but the pilot landed safely on the ice and he and his observer were later picked up by the aeroplane piloted by Vlasov. Parties from the ships reached the scientists, and the camp on the floe was dismantled. The gear was carried to the ships and the explorers returned to Russia. They were welcomed on their arrival at Moscow by an immense crowd.

The fact that the scientists were flown to the station near the North Pole by aircraft and, months later, had been located by the same means is evidence of the technical efficiency of Russian aircraft and of the ability of the pilots. The scientific results of the expedition are expected to fill in many gaps in the information about meteorological conditions in Polar regions. If adequate stations can be maintained to give radio weather reports and to provide direction-finding facilities round the entire Polar basin, air routes connecting Europe, Asia and North America will short-circuit the longer routes far to the south. In Canada, as in Russia, many pilots are experienced in Arctic aviation, and the aviators in the Old World and the New are mastering the Frozen North.

DISMANTLING THE AEROPLANE from which were seen the four Russian scientists who had been left near the North Pole. With their dog, they spent nine months on a drifting ice floe, which covered about 1,000 miles in the direction of the coast of Greenland. This aeroplane, carrying supplies and letters, landed on the ice floe about a mile from the camp of the scientists.

[From Part 9 & Part 10, published 3 May & 10 May 1938]

You can read more on “The Flight of the Eagle”, “Into the Stratosphere”, and “Triumph and Tragedy in the Arctic” on this website.

Soviet Arctic Aviation