Great Falls was the eastern and southern terminus of the aerial highway known as the ALSIB, for Alaska-Siberia. A string of rudimentary airfields on the way from Great Falls to Fairbanks provided maintenance, fuel, and safe havens in emergencies. On the other side of the Bering Strait, a similar chain of airfields stretched across Siberia to central Russia. More than 2,000 P-39s were shipped to the Soviet Union through Iran, but most were flown there on the ALSIB, along with the other Lend-Lease aircraft: P-40 Warhawks, P-63 Kingcobras, A-20 and B-25 bombers, C-47 transports, and AT-6 trainers. All of them paused in Great Falls before starting into the northern wilderness.
“The weather was our biggest hazard,” says Steve Allison, a member of the Great Falls-based 7th Ferry Command, who now lives in Enterprise, Oregon. Allison made 30 trips between Great Falls and Fairbanks. “Once in a while you could make a delivery in two days,” he says, but “in wintertime, [it could be] 10 days before you got back.” Because of the horrific weather, ferry pilots routinely took more than a week covering the 1,200 miles of the U.S. side of the ALSIB. Allison recalls that during a routine stop in the Yukon Territory town of Whitehorse, the temperature hit –54 degrees Fahrenheit. When temperatures got that low, “the oil was so thick it was on the order of molasses,” unless dedicated heaters were used to keep the engines warm. At the time, weather forecasts in that area of the world were unreliable, and flying the route, says Allison, was a matter “of making your way through mountains and dodging snowstorms.”
Few of the pilots were trained for instrument flying, and for many, the most important navigation aid was the new AlCan highway, a road cut into the wilderness to link the airfields leading to Alaska. Still, it was easy to get lost flying in the vast Yukon; 80 U.S. airmen died ferrying aircraft along the ALSIB. (On the other side of the Bering Strait, the death toll among Soviet airmen reached at least 109.) In his 1998 book Warplanes to Alaska, historian Blake Smith recounts the searches for ferry pilots who became disoriented as they attempted to cross the snowy wastes. Sometimes the rescuers found the pilots in time; as often, the remains were discovered long after the disappearance, if at all. Lieutenant Walter T. Kent’s last flight was typical of many. On October 27, 1943, Kent flew his Cobra into a snow storm in the mountains of the Yukon, became disoriented in the clouds, and flew into the ground. The wreckage was discovered by a Royal Canadian Air Force helicopter searching for a civilian aircraft—in 1965. Kent’s P-39 was identified by its data plate, and searchers recovered a high school ring inscribed with his name.
The maps pilots used for the ferry flights, says Smith, “were mostly stuff that had been copied from the bush pilots, and notable landmarks could have been way off [from the actual location]. It was like being a bush pilot in a fighter plane except the speeds are much quicker, and they had to make decisions a little quicker.” So empty was the landscape that the airfields constructed along the way “were really like an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean,” says Smith.
“What they faced in the first year and a half was a lot different than how things were at the end of the war,” Smith continues. “It was the coldest winter in over half a century. They were ill prepared for everything.”
In this early period, ground crews were working outdoors and sleeping in tents even in subzero weather. “Those poor boys,” says Allison, “they worked out there, under all kinds of conditions, and they did a tremendous job.”
ALL WARBIRD ENTHUSIASTS have a favorite fighter from World War II. British fans swoon over Spitfires; for Americans, it’s often the P-51 Mustang or the P-38 Lightning. But for Ilya Grinberg, it’s the P-39. An electrical engineering professor at Buffalo State College, who was born in Ukraine and earned his doctorate in Moscow, Grinberg is also an expert on Soviet aviation history and the creator of lend-lease.airforce.ru, a Web site in Russian and English stocked with historical documents, interviews, and commentary on the aircraft that the United States sent to the Soviet Union during the war.
“I do love the P-39,” says Grinberg. When I visited his campus office, where technical volumes on power distribution fill his bookshelves, I noticed the screen saver on his computer scrolls through a parade of aircraft from the earliest Soviet fighters to modern Sukhoi jets. “I consider it one of the prettiest airplanes of the period with a number of innovations that are the signature of modern airplanes: tricycle gear, teardrop canopy, radio button on the throttle—the pilot doesn’t have to take his hand off the throttle to key the mic.”
Few U.S. Army Air Forces pilots—and fewer Royal Air Force ones—would have had such nice things to say about the P-39. In 1940, the British purchasing commission ordered 675; the RAF, after four missions, gave most of them back—except for 200 they charitably shipped off to the Soviet Union. Had the aircraft been equipped with a turbo-supercharger, which had been the plan, the British pilots might have been happier. But superchargers were an emerging, unreliable technology that caused constant problems, and Larry Bell, president of Bell Aircraft, had succeeded in convincing the U.S. Army that the supercharger should be removed from the airplane’s engine. Without a supercharger, though, the fighter was useless at the high altitudes where British fighter pilots had to fly to protect their strategic bombers from Luftwaffe fighters.
It may come as a surprise to the admirers of Mustangs and Lightnings that the highest-scoring U.S.-made fighters in World War II were P-39 Airacobras, flown by Soviet pilots. Throughout the war, combat on the Eastern Front rarely occurred above 20,000 feet. Against the Red Army, German aircraft flew ground attack and close-support missions, down at low altitudes where the Cobras could strike. Eight Soviet P-39 pilots shot down at least 30 German aircraft each, and the highest-scoring Soviet ace, G.A. Rechkalov, scored 48 of his 54 confirmed kills in a P-39. The Soviets called it Kobrushka—Little Cobra.