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Chkalov, Valery Pavlovich


(19041938), test pilot and polar aviator.

Born in the Volga town of Vasilevo (now Chkalovsk), Valery Pavlovich Chkalov went on to become the USSR's most famous aviator of the 1930s. Hailed as the "Greatest Pilot of Our Times" and named a Hero of the Soviet Union, Chkalov, often referred to as the "Russian Lindbergh," remains one of the Stalinist era's greatest and best-loved celebrities.

A teenaged Chkalov became an aviation mechanic during the Russian Civil War. He qualified as a pilot by the age of seventeen and joined the air force, where he gained a reputation as a skilled but overly daring flier. Chkalov's rashness caught up with him in 1929, when he caused an accident that killed another pilot. He was reprimanded and briefly discharged. Chkalov returned to the air force in 1930 but resigned in 1933 to work as a test pilot for designer Nikolai Polikarpov.

During the mid-1930s, Chkalov turned to long-distance flying and polar aviation, where he achieved his greatest renown. With Georgy Baidukov as copilot and Alexander Belyakov as navigator, Chkalov set an unofficial world record for distance flying in July 1936, by flying from Moscow to Udd Island, off the coast of Kamchatka. On June 18, 1937, the same team gained international fame by flying from Moscow to Vancouver, Washington, crossing over the North Pole along the way. This was an official world record, and even though it was broken the following month by Mikhail Gromov (who also flew to America over the North Pole), Chkalov's bluff, hearty charm made him the most admired of "Stalin's falcons," the hero-pilots featured so prominently in the propaganda of the 1930s.

Chkalov died on December 15, 1938, testing a prototype of the Polikarpov I-180. He was given a hero's funeral and buried in the Kremlin Wall. Rumors have persisted since Chkalov's death that he was somehow killed on Stalin's orders. Chkalov's family and several prominent journalists have come out in support of this theory, but no concrete proof has emerged to link Stalin with Chkalov's death.

See also: aviation


Baidukov, Georgii F. (1991). Russian Lindbergh: The Life of Valery Baidukov, tr. Peter Belov. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Hardesty, Von. (19871988). "Soviets Blaze Sky Trail over Top of World." Air and Space/Smithsonian 2(5):4854.

McCannon, John. (1998). Red Arctic: Polar Exploration and the Myth of the North in the Soviet Union, 19321939. New York: Oxford University Press.

John McCannon

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