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The Search for Russia's Lindbergh,
Sigismund Levanevsky

by Ned Rozell

Originally published by the Alaska Science Forum on September 10, 1999

    In a 1938 National Geographic article, explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins detailed his search for Sigismund Levanevsky, a pilot and adventurer known as "Russia's Lindbergh." "Somewhere in the Arctic wastes, probably in the Arctic Ocean, lies the wreckage of an airplane in which, on August 12, 1937, six Russians led by Sigismund Levanevsky set out to fly across the North Pole from Moscow to Fairbanks, Alaska."

    As they searched an area larger than Montana, Wilkins and his crew squinted out the windows and repeatedly called to Levanevsky on the radio. Levanevsky never answered, and Wilkins never found Levanevsky's plane. For more than six decades, neither did anyone else.

    In March 1999, Dennis Thurston of the Minerals Management Service in Anchorage noticed an unusual shape on a sonar image of the sea floor during an ARCO pre-drilling survey. In the shallows of Camden Bay, between Prudhoe Bay and Kaktovik, was something shaped like a 60-foot cigar. Thurston thought the cigar looked like the fuselage of an airplane. Thurston traveled to Fairbanks for a conference in early May and showed the oddity to David Stone, a professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute who had searched for the Levanevsky plane years before. Bolkhovitinov DBA bomber

    "When David saw the image, he immediately said 'Levanevsky!'" Thurston said. "I knew I was in trouble."

    That trouble included organizing a recent trip to Camden Bay with pilot Ron Sheardown, an aircraft historian from Anchorage. Sheardown flew Stone and several others to the North Slope to search for the Soviet-made Bolkhovitinov A, a four-engine bomber seen in the graphic to the right (click on it to enlarge it).

    Levanevsky's 1937 journey was to have taken him and five crewmen from Moscow to New York City, with stops in Fairbanks and Chicago. Radio operators on the ground received Levanevsky's last radio message when the plane was 300 miles past the North Pole, headed for Alaska.

    In the year following Levanevsky's disappearance, pilots from the U.S., Russia, and Canada gridded the area between the North Pole and the Brooks Range. They never found a trace of the aircraft, which led many to believe Levanevsky crashed into the ocean. Following a tip that an area resident saw a plane disappear into a lagoon near Oliktok Point, Stone traveled there in 1990. He set up an aluminum sled with several magnetometers, which are devices that can detect iron and other metals beneath the ground or under water. The driver of a tracked vehicle towed the magnetometers over the frozen surface of the lagoon, but Stone didn't detect the plane.

    To penetrate the 30 feet of water in Camden Bay recently, Stone used a side-scanning sonar, which bounces sound waves off objects to determine their shape. The water was too choppy and cloudy to determine if Levanevsky's plane was on the bottom, but Stone returned encouraged after he and Sheardown interviewed people who were alive at the time of the crash.

    Isaac Akootchook of Kaktovik, who was 15 when the plane disappeared, said he heard the plane over Barter Island when his father and other men were butchering caribou. Nora Agiak, who was 29 at the time, said she hid under a dog sled when she heard the u nusual noise of aircraft engines cutting through the hush of the North Slope.

    "Suddenly, it's a lot more real," Stone said. "I started off interested in new uses for geophysical techniques; now I'm interested in finding the plane."

    Stone and Thurston are hoping to search the area again next April or May, when the sea ice will provide a solid platform for the side-scan sonar and a tracked vehicle that will pull an array of magnetometers. Stone and Thurston may also use the Geophysical Institute's remotely operated television camera, and several divers have expressed interest in joining them.

    Thurston said the object on the sea bottom at Camden Bay might not be Levanevsky's plane; it might be something that fell off a barge or scrap from a DEW line radar station. But the search next spring might answer a 60-year old question: What happened to Sigismund Levanevsky?

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