The ferrying of nearly 8,000 planes was a massive effort, involving many groups spanning three countries.
WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots)*
Known as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), pioneering civilian female pilots were employed to fly military aircraft under the direction of the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. They flew over 60 million miles in every type of military aircraft. Twenty-five thousand women applied to join the WASP, but only 1,830 were accepted and took the oath. Out of these, only 1,074 of them passed the training.
By the summer of 1941, Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran and test-pilot Nancy Harkness Love, two famous women pilots, independently submitted proposals to the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) – the forerunner to the United States Air Force – to use women pilots in non-combat missions after the outbreak of World War II in Europe. The motivation was to free male pilots for combat roles, by employing qualified female pilots to ferry aircraft from factories to military bases, to tow drones and aerial targets, haul cargo, and to perform maintenance and test aircraft.
The women received essentially the same training as that for male aviation cadets, except for gunnery training, and very little formation flying or aerobatic maneuvers, but enough to be able to recover from a stall or spin. The percentage of trainees eliminated compared favorably with the elimination rates for male cadets in the Central Flying Training Command.
After training, the WASPs were stationed at 120 air bases across the U.S., assuming numerous flight-related missions. The women flew almost every type of aircraft flown by the USAAF during World War II. Between September 1942 and December 1944, the WASP delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types.
As part of Lend-Lease and the secret delivery of nearly 8,000 warplanes to the Soviet Union over the Alaska-Siberian air route, the WASP, along with men from the Air Transport Command (ATC), flew new planes from manufacturers throughout the United States to the staging area in Great Falls, Montana where they were handed over to the men of the 7th Ferrying Squadron who flew them through Canada and to Fairbanks, Alaska. In Fairbanks, the planes were transferred to the Soviet pilots who then flew them across Siberia and on to the fighting fronts.
Thirty-eight WASP fliers lost their lives while serving during the war – all in accidents – eleven in training and twenty-seven on active duty. Because they were not considered military under the existing guidelines, a fallen WASP was sent home at family expense without traditional military honors or note of heroism. The army would not even allow the U.S. flag to be placed on the coffin of the fallen WASP.
All records of the WASP were classified and sealed for 35 years, so their contributions to the war effort were little known and inaccessible to historians. Finally in 1977, the records were released and the WASP received the honor they so justly deserved. They were granted veteran status in 1977, along with all veteran rights, and given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.
The Men of the 7th Ferrying Squadron
Put in its most basic terms – ALSIB was a great relay race to help the Soviet Union defeat Nazi Germany. In the first leg, American Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), along with men from the Air Transport Command, flew brand new airplanes from manufacturers throughout the United States to the staging area in Great Falls. From there, the men of the US 7th Ferrying Squadron flew them up through Canada and on to Fairbanks, Alaska. They were then handed off to the Soviet pilots, already waiting in Fairbanks, who flew another 3,000 miles across Siberia to the fighting fronts.
Originally headquartered at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, the 7th Ferrying Squadron moved to Great Falls, Montana in 1942. Great Falls became the staging area due to “it’s record of over 300 good flying days per year, it’s position away from the dangerous coastal defense area and it’s convenience to the series of air fields to become links in the northwest route.”*
“On June 7, 1942, Major Lloyd W. Earle was designated Flight Commander of the first survey flight over the northern route to Fairbanks, Alaska. The itinerary included stops at Spokane, Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Fort St. John, Forth Nelson, Watson Lake, Northway, Fairbanks and Anchorage. The survey flight was the forerunner of the ALSIB route to the Soviet Union.”*
Even with “over 300 good flying days per year,” The men of the 7th Ferrying Squadron flew the dangerous route from Great Falls to Fairbanks, AK over Canada in especially harsh conditions. “The winter of 1942-43 was especially severe, not only in Montana, but all the way from Montana through western Canada and Alaska. Temperatures as low as -25 °F were not out of the ordinary. The wind reached its highest velocity (64 mph) in January, 1943. The wind whipped the snow into drifts five to six feet deep.”*
*Source: “The 557th AAF Base Unit, 7th Ferrying Group, Ferrying Division, ATC, Gore Field, Great Falls, Montana”, Byrnes L. Ellender, Historian- 7th Ferrying Group
The Soviet Ferrying Squadron
On September 29, 1942 P. Nedosekin, Lieutenant Colonel, led the first 12 A-20 “Boston” bombers from Ladd Field in Fairbanks, over the Bering Strait, which landed at Markovoi Uelkal airfield. On October 7, 1942 the first group of fighters, including 20 P-40 “Warhawks”, flew to Uelkal. The lead aircraft was a B-25 bomber piloted by Ilya Pavlovich Mazuruk, chief of the air ferry route and Hero of the Soviet Union. It took 33 days to get to Krasnoyarsk.
Thousands of pilots, navigators, radio operators, and engineers worked in the unbearable conditions of the far north, flying over the most dangerous areas of the globe, including the permafrost zone. Using primitive and inaccurate maps, they often flew in poor visibility, not knowing what waited ahead. It was difficult to receive meteorological reports due to magnetic storms. Radio operators shifted from “voice” to more reliable spark “Morse code.” The winter of 1942/1943 was unusually harsh in Alaska – temperatures exceed -60° C (-76° F). Cloud layers were several kilometers thick. The mercury hardened in thermometers and the oil and fuel in the aircraft thickened, forcing emergency landings in the North Pole regions. There were many amputations of frostbitten fingers along the route, fillings fell out of teeth, and frostbitten lungs were common. During a single day, eleven people died along the ALSIB route due to the extreme cold. In an excerpt from the diary of American B-24 bomber pilot Thomas Watson, who flew the ALSIB route, “In case of any emergency landing, the person has no chance to survive if he suffers an accident over this zone. He is too far from anywhere, and it’s too cold to survive.”
It was the way of life, where death was always waiting on the sidelines. American pilots gave a very accurate estimate of the complexity of the air route, “Just crazy and suicidal Russians can fly on this route.”
Even in these harsh conditions, Soviet pilots still considered this ferrying mission a “rest from combat.”
* Sources: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia and BRAVO 369 Historians