If your children grow up studying the dramatic U.S.-led mission to deliver planes to Russia through Alaska, you’ll have Whatcom residents Craig Lang and Jeff Geer to thank. In her remarks giving the Bravo 369 Flight Foundation Congressional recognition, U.S. Representative Suzan DelBene read into the record, “I want to recognize the efforts of the project’s co-founders, Craig Lang and Jeff Geer. Mr. Geer, who serves as the President and Chairman of the Bravo 369 Flight Foundation, will pilot his own plane as part of the project. I applaud their work to educate and inspire the next generation of aviation enthusiasts.”
The project really begins in the battlefields of Russia in 1941. The United States had yet to enter World War II when Hitler engaged Operation Barbarossa, his failed, yet brutal, campaign to conquer Russia and creep ever-closer to our northernmost border in Alaska. President Roosevelt watched in horror as the war slogged on and Germans decimated the Russians. Almost 30 million Russians lost their lives in World War II. The Russian air defense was crippled within the first two weeks of the invasion. Not one to sit back and watch, FDR came up with a plan to aid the Russians he would secretly send warplanes to Russia through Alaska to help them fend off the Germans. He created the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, which gave the U.S. permission to aid in the defense of our allies despite our role as isolationists. Given the rigors of flying over Alaska and Siberiain secret, the plan was audacious, and it would take special pilots to get the planes from the home base of Great Falls, Montana to Fairbanks. According to Bravo369.org, it was one of the most brutal transportation projects of all time. It was known as ALSIB, or Alaskan-Siberian Air Route.
Geer found the route after planning a trip to Alaska. “I read the Cannibal Queen about a retired aviator who bought a Boeing Stearman to do a flight around the lower 48 states with his son.” Geer initially thought he’d fly the lower 48 in a Cessna, but then he checked out on a Stearman. “And then I got interested in flying to Alaska.” As he researched different routes to Alaska, one route kept popping up a route that followed the Alaska Highway. “We learned that 8000 planes flew that route to Alaska during World War II. Then we learned the Alaska Highway was built to support that route.” The two friends began researching the route and found the secret mission. They decided it needed to be a commemorative trip and an education project, not just a hobby trip. This all started eight years ago. “It’s all been a roller-coaster ride,” said Lang. Geer decided to fly in a lovingly restored and sturdier T-6 Texan.
Since making that huge decision, many pieces fell into place for Geer and Lang. The flight has also increased U.S.-Russian diplomacy. Geer and Lang have attended events at the invitation of the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., and they are going to Moscow at the end of the flight to meet with Russian officials who will commemorate the event. World War II had such a profound effect on Russia, our diplomacy then, as now, is of great importance to Russian leaders.
The historic route began with WASPS, or Women Airforce Service Pilots, who brought the planes from factories and bases to Great Falls, Montana. These brave women were trained like fighter pilots and lived on bases as regular fighter pilots. They were flying enthusiasts, barnstormers, and dare devil queens, women who wanted to join the military, but were relegated to staying home because of gender restrictions of combat. Twenty-five thousand women applied to be in the WASP, and of those, only 1830 were accepted. 1074 passed the training. Washington State had several women participate in the WASP program, and Dorothy Kocher Olsen participated in the secret mission to Siberia. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.” Between 1942 and 1944, the women of WASP delivered 12,650 aircraft, and they flew every make and type of WWII aircraft made. Thirty-eight WASP pilots lost their lives flying in missions. They were sent home without any military honors for civilian burial. In 2009, they were finally awarded the Congressional Medal of Gold. The WASP pilots handed off to the 7th Ferrying Squadron, men who flew the rest of the U.S.-portion of the ALSIB. They handed off to the Russians, in what Craig Lang calls, “The greatest relay race of all-time.”
As Geer and Lang stand next to the Texan, polished and shining in the sun, it’s difficult to imagine the harsh conditions that the pilots of WWII had to endure. “Mechanics worked on the planes in -40 degree weather. The oil would be frozen, their fingers would be frozen — it was brutal.” Worse still, they had to keep it all a secret. The Japanese were in the Aleutians, and knowledge of the transports would have brought the war inland. The journey was fraught and dangerous, and these ferrying squadrons were not viewed as brave heroes at the time, because they weren’t combat pilots. But they proved their mettle, if only in secret. After the war, the contributions of those who ferried the planes were forgotten. The entire operation remained an obscure footnote in history. Geer and Lang will change all of that.
The project is sponsored by wargaming.net, which runs one of the largest MMO war video games in the world. Their sponsorship has been key to the success of the mission. As with the WWII-era friendship of Russia and the U.S., none of this history would come to life now without the friendship of Lang and Geer.