Despots Aloft

To the three most infamous dictators of the 20th century, the airplane was much more than a way to get from Stalag A to Gulag B.

The Maxim Gorky, an enormous eight-engine Tupolev ANT-20, struck awe in those who watched its propaganda flights over Red Square (below). (Von Hardesty/NASM)
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The moment of truth came as Stalin approached Golovanov’s C-47, the airplane designated for him. He paused, and glanced over his shoulder at the second C-47. Then he announced: “So, who will we fly with? Perhaps it is better to go with Grachev. Marshals do more sitting behind a desk than behind the controls of a plane. It will be safer that way!”

Grachev flew Stalin without mishap, for which he received a warm handshake from Stalin, a quick promotion in rank, and later, the highest military honor: Hero of the Soviet Union. However, rumors circulated that Stalin’s C-47 had encountered severe turbulence en route. Passengers on board reported that Stalin had been terrified by the bumpy ride and was visibly tense. After this journey, he never flew again.

Despite Stalin’s phobia, the Soviet air force command established a special air regiment for use by the Soviet brass. A parallel unit for Soviet dignitaries was organized under the control of the NKVD, or secret police. These units, made operational in 1944, represented a radical departure from the past, offering luxury air travel for the political elite.

Unit planners chose as their aircraft the Pe-8 (TB-7) bomber, a Soviet four-engine type built in small numbers during the war. The Pe-8 fitted for VIP passenger service—the “Ye” model—could carry 14 people in some comfort, despite wartime shortages in lightweight metals and the absence of materials for upholstery. The interior fuselage was laid out like that of a pre-war DC-3 airliner: It had two rows of cushioned seats with overhead luggage racks and sleeping berths. Soundproof bulkheads, a toilet, hot water, oxygen masks, and lights for each seat gave this Pe-8 an unaccustomed level of luxury.

Stalin’s unspoken “no fly” policy shaped the character of wartime diplomacy in subtle ways, often frustrating and inconveniencing Churchill and Roosevelt. Churchill flew to Moscow in October 1944 for a critical meeting with Stalin. The ailing Roosevelt, just two months prior to his death, made an arduous journey by sea and air to Yalta in the Crimea in 1945 for the last Big Three meeting of the Allied leaders. The alternative of asking Stalin to fly to a neutral site was never seriously considered.

Though he shunned flying, Stalin was most willing to send his minions on dangerous wartime air missions. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav M. Molotov flew on a Pe-8 from Moscow to Washington D.C.’s Bolling Airfield in May 1942. Dressed in a fur-lined flying suit and boots, Molotov endured the journey in an unheated cabin. He and his delegation were keenly aware of the dangers of crossing the north Atlantic twice with no effective survival equipment on board.

In late summer 1944, Andrei Gromyko, a senior Soviet diplomat, substituted for Stalin on one of the most bizarre Soviet diplomatic forays of the war. He led a 19-member delegation to Washington, D.C., for the Dumbarton Oaks conference to establish the United Nations.

Assigned a marginally flyable C-47, Gromyko flew from Moscow across the vast expanse of Siberia to Fairbanks, Alaska. Upon reaching Fairbanks, three U.S. airmen boarded Gromyko’s airplane to organize a mixed American-Russian cockpit crew for the final leg to Washington. Gromyko insisted that the command seat on the left be reserved for the Soviet pilot, who did not speak English.

The American pilot assigned to the flight was shocked that one of the Soviet Union’s top diplomats was flying on such a derelict aircraft. Moreover, he angrily protested having to take the copilot’s seat.

David Chavchavadze, an Army Air Forces lieutenant, served as the interpreter during the tension-filled flight across Canada and the United States, standing between the Soviet and American pilots in the cockpit. Chavchavadze later reported that the disgruntled and nervous American pilot began each communication to his Soviet counterpart in the left seat with “Tell that son of a bitch….” Even when he was confronted with unfamiliar flight protocols and landing procedures, the Soviet pilot refused to surrender the controls, telling his copilot: “In the Soviet Union we learn quickly.”

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