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Prominent Russians: Valery Chkalov

February 2, 1904 – December 15, 1938

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Valery Chkalov was a legendary pilot and a Hero of the Soviet Union. Dubbed as one of Stalin’s “falcons” for his exceptional piloting skills, he developed his signature technique of aerial combat, worked out a number of aerobatic stunts and performed the first non-stop transpolar flight from Moscow to the United States.

Early years

Valery Chkalov was born on 2 February 1904 in the village of Vasilevo, now Chkalovsk, in the Nizhny Novgorod Region. His father, Pavel Chkalov, was a boiler smith at an industrial shipyard. His mother, Irina, a housewife, died when Valery was only six. His father later remarried. When Valery turned seven, he went to study first at the Vasilevo elementary school and then at the local community college. Upon graduation in 1916, he was sent by his father to the technical school in the neighboring city of Cherepovets. After leaving school, Valery returned to Vasilevo as an apprentice to his father. Once the navigation period started, he found a job as a greaser on a mud dredger, a device that deepened the fairway. It was when working on the “Bayan” steamer in 1919, that he first saw an airplane in the sky – and the dream of becoming a pilot made him quit his job and start a new life.

In the fall of 1919 Chkalov was conscribed to the Red Army. In 1921, for military excellence, he was sent to the Egoryevskaya Aviation School, where he acquired his first aviation experience. In 1923, upon graduation, he was transferred to an aviation school in the city of Borisoglebsk, where he earned his wings flying aircraft for the first time, very quickly gaining more confidence and skill as a pilot. As a reward for his outstanding achievements, he was first transferred to the Moscow School of Stunt Aviation, and later to the Serpukhov School of Aerial Combat located in the Moscow Region.

In January 1924 he was selected to be part of the escort of honor at Lenin’s funeral ceremony. In the summer of that same year he graduated from the Serpukhov school and was admitted to the First Fighter Air Squadron as a fighter pilot. In June Chkalov was sent to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) where he spent several rough and stormy years. Chkalov performed many dangerous flights, all of which were non-compliant with military regulations and often put his life at risk. He received several reprimands from the authorities and was suspended from regular flying. However, his behavior was only motivated by his desire to improve his skills and develop new techniques in aerobatics, trying to get all he could out of the plane. By this time, Chkalov had reached his peak as a stunt aviator. In 1927, he was delegated to Moscow as the best stunt aviator to take part in the tenth anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution.

Family life

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In 1927, Chkalov married a young Leningrad teacher, Olga Orekhova. They met in December 1924 at one of the recitals of the drama club Olga attended. Chkalov took a fancy to her and soon confessed his love. Though constantly warned by her parents that “pilots are top candidates for heaven,” Olga fell in love with the young handsome pilot and a year later he proposed to her. Throughout her family life with Chkalov, she followed the principle her mother taught her to keep their marriage solid as a rock: “Never keep a pilot from flying and never worry about him. The pilot is someone who’s doomed to everyday narrow escapes, and his wife’s job is to never see him off in tears.” Though the couple spent most of their time apart, Chkalov always remembered his wife, calling her the “bread and air” of his life. Valery and Olga Chkalov had three children. Their son, Igor, was born in January 1928, daughter Valeria came in May 1935, and the youngest daughter, Olga – seven months after her father’s death on 15 December 1938. Olga Chkalova outlived her husband by 60 years and never remarried.

Aviation daredevil

For his professional insolence, Chkalov saw the inside of a prison cell several times. He was transferred to an aviation unit in the city of Bryansk in March 1928, where his first clash with justice happened: he was detained for 15 days on hooliganism charges in February 1929 for having flown his plane under a bridge, accidentally tearing up the low-hanging electrical wires. For this prank, which almost cost him his life, he was expelled from the Red Army. After the case was closed, one of Chkalov’s colleagues noted: “Had you not been Chkalov, there would have been no case at all.”

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After the accident Chkalov moved back to Leningrad with his family, following an invitation to head the glider pilot school there. In November 1930 Chkalov was reinstated to the Air Forces. He was admitted to the Moscow Research Institute operating under the Air Forces. During his two years there Chkalov flew over 800 test flights, mastering the piloting techniques of over 30 models of aircraft. It was at the institute that Chkalov participated in the testing of the so-called air unit consisting of a heavy bomber carrying up to five fighter planes on its wings.

In January 1933 Chkalov was appointed test pilot of the Menzhinsky Aviation Plant in Moscow, becoming the favorite of Nikolay Polikarpov, the outstanding aircraft designer. He tested the best fighters of the 1930s, the I-15 biplane and the succeeding I-16 monoplane. He practically assisted Polikarpov in the designing process and he based his suggestions on practical application; Chkalov’s goal was to get the maximum speed out of the planes. He also tested a number of tank fighters, such as VIT-1, VIT-2 and the heavy bombers TB-1 and TB-3.

When Chkalov first met Stalin at an air show on 2 May 1935, the Soviet leader wondered why Chakov never used a parachute. Chkalov explained that he was testing new unique models, which cost a lot, and his goal was to fly and land while detecting all of their flaws, not leave them to crash and burn. To that, Stalin answered: “You have to remember that your life costs a lot more than any machine!” On 5 May 1935, both Polikarpov and Chkalov were decorated with the Order of Lenin – the highest state honor – for designing the best fighters of the time. Chkalov’s wife recalled that “he was punished for trying to bring in something new: he would fly upside down and perform never-before-seen aerobatics figures. All this simply didn’t fit into the old schemes of traditional aviation.”

Becoming a star

In the fall of 1935, Chkalov’s friend and colleague, Georgy Baydukov, suggested the idea of a non-stop transpolar flight to the United States. Chkalov conceded after a minor hesitation, and in the spring of 1936 the crew, consisting of Chkalov, Baydukov and Aleksandr Belyakov, the navigator, requested permission from the Soviet authorities to fulfill their project. The authorities, however, only approved a non-stop flight from Moscow to the Far East. On 20 July 1936, Chkalov’s team set out on their legendary flight to the Far East, and by 22 July after flying 5,825 miles in 56 hours in the heaviest weather conditions, Chkalov landed his ANT-25 monoplane on Udd Island on the eastern coast of the Soviet Union, later renamed Chkalov.

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For this flight the three members of the crew were decorated with the order of Lenin – Chkalov for the second time – becoming Heroes of the Soviet Union and instant nationwide celebrities. All Soviet authorities, including Stalin, gathered on the airfield to greet the heroes of the successful flight.

On 18-20 June 1937,Chkalov’s dream finally came true as he and his legendary crew, co-pilot Georgy Baidukov and navigator Aleksandr Belyakov, finally performed the first ever non-stop transpolar flight to the United States, successfully ending it at Pearson Airfield in Vancouver, Washington State.

The ANT-25 flight, relatively uneventful for the first 24 hours, later proved to

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be a feat of strength and endurance for the three experienced cold-weather pilots. As they approached the Polar Region, the aircraft’s magnetic compass became inoperable. Navigation from then on relied solely on dead reckoning and a solar heading indicator. To make matters worse, headwinds and storms slowed the ANT-25’s progress and caused fuel to be consumed at an alarming rate. These impediments threatened the crew’s already scarce oxygen supplies. The plane was in constant danger of icing, since only the plane’s propeller was capable of de-icing. At one point during the flight even the engine coolant was about to freeze up. The crew quickly thought to put their drinking water supply to use, only to discover that it, too, was frozen.

After a 63-hour flight, covering a total distance of 5,288 miles, the plane landed at Vancouver’s Pearson Airfield, with a mere eleven gallons of fuel left in its tanks. Chkalov was the first to exit the plane, yelling, “Guys! Look, General Marshall is waiting for us!” Baidukov, still inside the cockpit, was wondering who exactly was waiting for them – a general or a marshal, misled by the last name of General George C. Marshall, America’s future Army Chief of Staff. Besides, the Soviet aviator was unaware that the rank of marshal simply didn’t exist in the United States.

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The hero pilots were surprised at the crowds of cheering spectators anxious to see them. The warm reception at the airfield was just a prelude to a meticulously planned, month-long tour of the United States that lay ahead of the Soviet aviators. Instant stars, they were praised by the American press. Wherever they went they were greeted with an artillery salute, local beauty queens placed laurels on their heads and celebrities lined up for an autograph. The festivities reached their height with a specially organized parade in New York City and a visit with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While at the White House, Chkalov was attracted by many of the paintings on the walls. Roosevelt explained it was during his maritime past that he’d developed a love for the naval theme. To that, Chkalov remarked simply: “Your collection would look a lot better with our Aivazovsky in it.” A brightened up Roosevelt then admitted: “I really do love Aivazovsky a lot…”

The daring record of the Soviet aviators was commemorated in 1975 with the erection of a large monument at Pearson Airfield in Vancouver, Washington.
Back in the Soviet Union, Chkalov was just as famous and loved by both the authorities and common people: as Stalin’s favorite, he’d also become the role model for all Soviet boys who dreamt of becoming pilots, and all Soviet girls who dreamt of marrying them and waiting for them to return from their transpolar flights. Chkalov and his fellow pilots were decorated with the Order of the Red Banner for the flight.

On 12 December 1937 Chkalov was elected Deputy to the Counsel of Nationalities in the Supreme Soviet elections. In 1938 he was offered a number of administrative posts including People’s Commissar of the Interior, but refused, determined to devote the rest of his life to flying.

Death mystery

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In the fall of 1938, while on a short vacation in his home village, Chkalov was urgently called in to test Polikarpov’s I-180 fighter. On 15 December, in the middle of the test flight, the fighter’s engine stopped working. Chkalov didn’t leave the aircraft, but did his best to preserve it, steering the burning plane away from some apartment buildings. The plane crashed burying Chkalov under the rubble.

Chkalov’s death, like that of many prominent figures of the Stalin era, remains a mystery. The dominating version suggests that it was Stalin’s execution of Chkalov for his misbehavior, that is, for his refusal to accept the post of People’s Commissar of the Interior. In this scenario it becomes clear why, to test the plane, Chkalov was rushed from his vacation, although the plane had about 100 faults the designers were aware of, and therefore, kept postponing the testing. Chkalov’s plane took off with the undercarriage safety-wired.

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Aircraft designer Polikarpov himself knew the plane wasn’t ready for testing and refused to authorize the flight permit, while the director of the aviation plant – a secret NKVD (KGB) member – was in a rush to fly Chkalov up in the air as soon as possible.

According to another version, Chkalov didn’t even board the aircraft and was simply done away with in one of the air sheds; the plane crash was a mere cover-up for his murder. The third version speculates the accident had no agenda - Polikarpov, rushing to finish the new model by the end of the year, made some serious errors in the design, which led to the crash. Designer Dmitry Tomashevich, per whose consent Chkalov’s plane did take off, was later arrested along with about 60 other people linked to the case.

Valery Chkalov was buried in Moscow, with the urn with his ashes placed in the Kremlin wall. A planet, an island, a cape, two mountains in the Antarctic, a city, streets, movie theaters and aviation schools all over the country are named in his honor.

Chkalov’s statue in Vancouver, Washington State, is a popular choice for wedding photo shoots. His name will live forever in the history of world aviation.

Written by Ekaterina Shubnaya, RT

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