Whatcom pilots to fly secret route used to send warplanes to Soviets during World War II

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 9, 2013 

On June 24, Whatcom County pilots Jeff Geer and Alan Anders plan to fly from Bellingham in Anders' World War II-vintage T6-F Texan warplane bound for Fairbanks, deep in the heart of Alaska.

The 2,100-mile flight is a training leg in their ambitious effort to create a multi-part documentary, "Warplanes to Siberia," about the secret U.S. program that delivered nearly 8,000 American-made warplanes to the Soviet Union during World War II.

"Very few people knew about this program then, let alone now," said Geer, the chairman and president of Bravo 369 Flight Foundation, the nonprofit organizing the venture.

Next year, provided they receive the OK from Russian officials, the pilots plan to fly and document the rest of the warplane supply route, from Fairbanks to Krasnoyarsk, deep in the heart of Russia.

"We're going to be experiencing the same thing those pilots experienced in World War II," Geer said.

Working with a large flight-support crew, plus historians, filmmakers, aviation photographers and other experts, the Ferndale foundation's goal is to produce more than a dozen 44-minute documentaries suitable for broadcast, plus museum exhibits, school materials and interactive features.

"This is the story of the cooperation between the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union during a time of global catastrophe," Geer said. "It's been undertold."

PERILOUS PROGRAM

Geer became intrigued with the subject while studying the possibility of flying a new route from Nome, Alaska, to Provideniya, in eastern Russia. While researching air routes to Alaska, he came upon references to the warplane flights for Russia.

"All of these little bits of history started coming together about this World War II route," he said.

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Lend Lease Act, providing war materials to the United Kingdom, China, France, the Soviet Union and other allies. The United States, itself, didn't enter the war until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Ferrying nearly 8,000 aircraft - including bombers, attack planes. trainers and transports - was kept secret, in part, because the Soviets, whose air force had been decimated by the Germans, didn't want Germany or Japan to learn where the replacement planes were coming from, Geer said.

The U.S-made planes were delivered via a 6,000-mile route, from Great Falls, Mont., through Canada and Alaska, across the Bering Sea, into Siberia, then to Krasnoyarsk, in central Russia.

Before any planes could be delivered, airfields had to be built along the way. Part of the Alcan Highway, which opened in late 1942, was routed to access those boondock airfields.

Many of the freshly made warplanes were flown from factories to Great Falls by ferrying pilots from the Women's Air Force Service.

"These gals flew everything," Geer said. "They were almost test pilots. They were bringing untested aircraft and flying them up to Great Falls."

Thirty-eight women pilots died during the program, which ran from 1942 to 1945.

Another 139 pilots, both U.S. and Russian, died ferrying the planes the rest of the journey over rugged terrain without modern electronics or cold-weather gear. Most of the accidents occurred between Siberia and Moscow.

So far, Geer and his colleagues haven't confirmed whether any of the pilots hailed from Whatcom County.

RUSSIA NEXT YEAR

Geer and Anders' flight to Fairbanks will be used, in part, to test the crew and their plane, and help them plan for next year's flight to central Russia.

Whatcom County pilot Mark Kandianis will accompany them to Fairbanks in a Cessna 206 to carry extra gear and to help if they have mechanical or other problems.

If all goes well, Geer and Anders will fly two T6 Texans about 3,500 miles from Fairbanks to central Russia in June 2014.

They're still seeking Russian approval for the flight, and are developing special plans for adequate fuel, spare parts and other necessities, because general aviation airports are in their infancy in Russia, Geer said.

Support planes might accompany them, and they likely will need Russian pilots to interact with air traffic controllers along the way, he said.

To pay for the venture, the nonprofit foundation accepts donations, received a grant from Google, and might seek corporate sponsors.

"Our mission is to accurately re-create the flights, as well as document and tell the story for future generations," Geer said. "It was one of the greatest logistical efforts of the 20th century, and a major turning point of World War II."


COMING UP

What: Representatives of BRAVO 369 Flight Foundation, and other aviation historians, will discuss "Warplanes to Siberia." People can meet the pilots and crew who will fly the secret World War II Lend Lease route to central Russia in 2014, and see the North American Aviation T6-F Texan aircraft they will fly.

When: 2 to 4:30 p.m. June 22.

Where: The Museum of Flight in Seattle, 9404 E. Marginal Way S.

Details: For more about "Warplanes to Siberia," and to track upcoming flights, go to bravo369.org or follow Bravo 369 Flight Foundation on Facebook.

Extra: On May 23, the foundation presented Joe Moser Scholarship awards of $1,000 each to Ferndale High School seniors Kameron Mensing and Hayden Brown. Mensing plans to study aerospace engineering at the University of Arizona; Brown plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Washington.

Moser, of Ferndale, was a fighter pilot during World War II. His plane was shot down over France and he was imprisoned by the Nazis. He recounts his story in the book "A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald."

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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