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WHEN STALIN said “Jump,” Soviets were wise to respond “How high?” Famed aircraft designer Andrei Nikolaevich Tupolev was no exception. In fact, I’ve already recounted two of his technical leaps, the giant Maksim Gorki (www.wp.me/p2ETap-U8) and his B-29 clone (www.wp.me/p2ETap-DW). The Tupolev ANT-25 was another response to a Stalin “request,” this one, to put Soviet aircraft into the distance record books.
Two ANT-25s were built, the first one disappointing in its flight testing in mid-1933. One problem was its corrugated wing and tailplane surfaces generating excess drag (see the Stout Bushmaster 2000’s similar tendency, www.wp.me/p2ETap-15l). The fix was to swap corrugated duraluminum with linen, varnished and polished.
The ANT-25 carried a crew of three, a pilot up front, a navigator/radio man amidships and, aft of him, a backup pilot with no forward vision and capable only of intermittent instrumented flight.
Adventures galore occurred in development of the aircraft during 1934-1936, the goal being transpolar flights from Moscow to the U.S. At one point, pilot Sigizmund Levanevsky accused Tupolev of attempting to sabotage the testing. Levanevsky suggested it was madness to use a single-engine aircraft for such an endeavor and vowed never again to fly a Tupolev airplane of any kind. He and his crew were lost in a transpolar attempt in 1937—in a four-engine Shishmarev DB-A.
On June 18, 1937, an ANT-25 left Moscow at 4:04 a.m. and headed north. According to Soviet accounts, it was heard passing Севернй Подус I, Severny Polus I, their North Pole meteorological station at 4:15 a.m. on June 19. As they neared Portland, Oregon, the crew realized fuel was inadequate for their goal, San Francisco, so they set down at Pearson Field in Vancouver, Washington. Eventual celebrations included a meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and riding in a New York City tickertape parade. The ANT-25 had traveled 5673 miles in 63 hours 25 minutes.
Or did it?
Three weeks later, the second ANT-25 left Moscow and headed north. This time, the crew said it had sufficient fuel to reach Panama. However, lacking permission to overfly Mexico, they landed in a cow pasture in San Jacinto, California, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. The pasture owner charged spectators 25¢ admission; later, the crew was feted in Hollywood by no less than a six-year-old Shirley Temple. This ANT-25 had traveled 6306 miles in 62 hours 17 minutes.
Or did it?
In his book Russia’s Shortcut to Fame, Robert J. Morrison begs to differ. He posits that the Soviets surreptitiously shipped a pair of crated ANT-25s to an island near Sitka, Alaska. The Moscow planes had merely to fly north out of sight, and faux news reports would carry on from there. At the appropriate time, each Alaska ANT-25 sibling with the announced crew would take to the air and continue the flight south.
Photographic evidence certainly raises interesting questions. How did the “Route of Stalin” graphics appear in the Vancouver photo, yet not be apparent at Moscow takeoff? What about the ring antenna?
Apparently the Soviets made good use of their photo library.
What’s more, years later Native American Frank Eyle recounted to relatives, “The best job I ever had was working for some Russians up near Sitka, Alaska, in 1937. Some other guys and I got hired to carry crated airplane parts from a boat onto land.”
The Tupolev take on all this? “It must be remembered that Soviet photographs were frequently ‘improved’ by artists before release.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013