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.

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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.”

Luckily, good weather allowed for a safe passage to Washington. On the return trip, however, the Gromyko transport limped into Edmonton, Alberta, broke down, and was declared unfit to fly. The United States provided a replacement airplane.

When Stalin traveled to Potsdam for the July 1945 conference, he chose a special train made up of 11 armored coaches with more than 17,000 NKVD troops to provide security. Stalin himself traveled in any of four green carriages, former tsarist cars removed from a museum. As the train approached Germany, the number of guards deployed to protect the tracks increased from six men per kilometer in Russia to 10 per kilometer in Poland to 15 per kilometer outside Potsdam in occupied Germany.

While 11 aircraft were ready to handle any urgent requirement to evacuate Stalin and his delegation from Potsdam, it was apparent that Stalin would never fly. Nonetheless, he continued to promote aviation, building the intercontinental Tu-4 bomber and fostering jet technology for his air force and for the fledgling Aeroflot airline. To the very end, Soviet propaganda organs portrayed him as the great prophet of aviation progress.

Stalin died in March 1953, and six years later, his political heir, Nikita Khrushchev, flew in a huge Tu-114 turboprop airliner to Washington, D.C. for a Cold war conclave with President Dwight Eisenhower. He appeared to enjoy the flight.

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