Northwest Staging Route
The Northwest Staging Route was a series of airstrips, airport and radio ranging stations built in Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska during World War II. It extended into the Soviet Union as the ALSIB (ALaska-SIBerian air road).
The route was developed in 1942 due to several reasons. Initially, the United States Army Air Corps 7th Ferrying Group, Ferrying Command (later Air Transport Command) at Great Falls Army Airfield was ordered to organize and develop an air route to send assistance to Russia though Northern Canada, across Alaska and the Bering Sea to Siberia, and eventually over to the Eastern Front. The Permanent Joint Board on Defense — Canada and the United States — decided in the autumn of 1940 that a string of airports should be constructed at Canadian expense between the city of Edmonton in central Alberta and the Alaska-Yukon border. Late in 1941 the Canadian government reported that rough landing fields had been completed.
With the outbreak of war, American lines of communication with Alaska by sea were seriously threatened and alternative routes had to be opened. The string of airports through the lonely tundra and forests of northwest Canada provided an air route to Alaska which was practically invulnerable to attack, and it seemed to be in the best interests of international defense to develop them and open a highway which would at once be a service road for the airports and a means for transporting essential supplies to the Alaskan outposts. In response to this need, United States Army engaged in the Alaskan Highway project.
Neither the Eleventh Air Force and United States Army military installations could wait for the Alaska Highway to be completed. Nor could Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union. The long route though the Caribbean to Brazil and across Africa to Iran was unworkable, nor could aircraft be flown via Greenland or Iceland. A huge program of airport construction and road making, therefore, was undertaken.
The Alaska Highway was but a part of the defenses provided for the Northwest North American frontier. Much less is known about the great air route leading from the United States to Alaska through Canada. Airfields were built or upgraded every 100 mi (160 km) or so from Edmonton, Alberta to Fairbanks, Alaska ("the longest hop being the 140 miles or so between Fort Nelson and the Liard River flight strip" The route of the Alaska Highway, which was built to provide a land route to Alaska, basically connected the airfields together. Edmonton became the headquarters of the Alaskan Wing, Air Transport Command.
Two routes were developed from the United States, which met at Edmonton, Alberta, from which the aircraft were ferried to Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, Alaska where the American-built aircraft were to be turned over to Russian flight crews. Marks Army Airfield, near Nome, Alaska was 500 miles closer to Russia, but was ruled out because the United States feared it was too vulnerable to Japanese attack. One route originated at Great Falls Army Air Base, Montana, where aircraft bound for Russia were ferried from their manufacturing plants in Southern California.
The other route originated at Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Wold-Chamberlain Airport was used as an aircraft staging point for aircraft manufactured in the Midwest and northeastern United States. The Minneapolis-Edmonton route, however was turned into a transport route only by the end of 1943, with aircraft ferrying operations being shifted to Great Falls. In addition to the Lend-Lease aircraft, Alaskan Eleventh Air Force aircraft were also ferried up the NSR, with the aircraft being flown to Elmendorf Field, near Anchorage from RCAF Station Whitehorse upon their arrival.
Three main types of combat aircraft were ferried to the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease. Fighter aircraft were Bell P-39 Airacobras, and later its successor, the Bell P-63 Kingcobra, which were favored by the Red Air Force who used the two types with great success. The majority of the P-39s shipped to the Soviet Union were the definitive Q-models. Bombers included the Douglas A-20 Havoc light attack bomber and North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers that were also sent to the Red Air Force. Transport aircraft were made up of predominantly, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, also supplied in great numbers.
The Bell fighters and the B-25 Mitchells were flown up to Ladd via Minneapolis; the C-47s and A-20s came up via Great Falls. A handful of other aircraft types, North American AT-6 Texan trainers, some North American Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters, three Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and one Curtiss C-46 Commando transport were also ferried to Russia. The aircraft were supplied with Russian language operations and maintenance manuals, as well as painted in Red Air Force camouflage colors and national markings.
The Russians set up a command at Ladd Field and Nome where their pilots were trained to take over the aircraft and fly them to Novosibirsk in Siberia and on to various fronts in western Russia. The first group of Russian pilots arrived at Nome on 14 August 1942 on their way to Ladd Field. Along with the pilots were civilians from the Soviet Purchasing Commission and a group of Red Air Force mechanics. Most were located at Ladd, with a secondary group at Marks Field. The first Lend-Lease aircraft, a group of 12 A-20 Havocs, arrived at Ladd on 3 September 1942. The first Russian pilots, after five days of training on the aircraft, took off for Nome and the long trip to the Eastern Front.
Initially the USAAF provided the initial training on how to operate and maintain the Lend-Lease aircraft. Later, after an experienced cadre was developed, the Russians assumed the responsibility. The Russians also meticulously inspected each aircraft, and would reject any aircraft that presented the slightest problem. The USAAF was then left with the chore of correcting them. It was sometimes quite exasperating, as the USAAF would work long hours of overtime to get the aircraft into first-class condition so that all the Russians had to do was fly them from Fairbanks to the Eastern Front.
The ALSIB and Northwest Staging Route also provided a diplomatic route between Washington, D.C. and Moscow. Diplomats, high political figures and countless other government officials shuttled back and forth along it in transports during the war. Wendell Willkie, Vice-President Henry A. Wallace, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, and Andrei Gromyko were but a few who used the route. President Roosevelt considered holding a summit in Fairbanks in 1944 to meet with Stalin, however the location was subsequently changed to Yalta in the Soviet Union. Also the route provided a means over which the Russians moved intelligence agents and classified information obtained illegally in the United States. The Soviets, claiming diplomatic immunity routinely moved large numbers of suitcases in batches of 50 or more, their contents diplomatically sealed.
The Russians who arrived in Alaska also frequently visited shopping areas in Fairbanks and Nome, and contingents visited the aircraft manufacturing plants in the United States. They maintained a strict decorum and politely paid for their purchases, sometimes in old US gold certificates. Many luxury items were bought and shipped back to the Soviet Union on the Lend-Lease aircraft with the hope that they would reach their final destinations in Russia. Most of the Russian pilots were experienced combat veterans who saw the ferrying mission as a respite from their combat missions. They were generally reserved and political officers were sent to Alaska to ensure their loyalty.
As the Pacific War wound down, the wartime marriage between the capitalistic and communist countries was coming to an end. In 1945, the United States and Soviet Union were about to embark on a Cold War and the Russians departed Fairbanks shortly after the Japanese Capitulation in September 1945.
Possibly because of their strict inspection standards, and also in spite of the Russian methods of flying them, there were remarkably few aircraft accidents. During the 21 months of the program, 7,983 aircraft were delivered to the Russians with only 133 lost to weather or pilot error. Thirteen Red Air Force pilots were buried in the Fort Richardson cemetery.
|Gambell Army Airfield||AK||Final refueling stop prior to aircraft being flown into Soviet airspace|
|Marks Army Airfield||AK||Final servicing point for aircraft; 1469th AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division.|
|Galena Airport||AK||Refueling/servicing airfield; 1468th AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division.|
|Ladd Army Airfield||AK||Was main transfer point for Lend-Lease aircraft from United States ATC pilots to Soviet Red Air Force pilots; aircraft then flown to Siberia after transfer.|
|Mile 26 Field||AK||Axillary for Ladd AAB|
|Big Delta Army Airfield||AK||Refueling/servicing airfield; 1464th AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division.|
|Tanacross Air Base||AK||Refueling/servicing airfield; 1464th AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division.|
|Northway Army Airfield||AK||Refueling/servicing airfield; 1463d AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division.|
|Snag||YT||Abandoned. Emergency landing strip, constructed 1941 by Canadian government|
|Burwash Landing||YT||Emergency landing strip, constructed 1941 by Canadian government|
|Silver City||YT||Emergency landing strip, constructed 1941 by Canadian government|
|Aishihik||YT||Abandoned, Emergency airstrip, constructed 1941 by Canadian government|
|Pine Lake||YT||Auxiliary refueling/servicing airfield, constructed 1941 by Canadian government|
|Champagne||YT||Emergency landing strip, constructed 1941 by Canadian government|
|Cousins||YT||Emergency landing strip|
|RCAF Station Whitehorse||YT||Refueling/servicing airfield; 1462d AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division; also known as Whitehorse Army Air Base. Remained as joint RCAF/USAF base until about 1949; hosted Det.3, 1701st Air Transport Wing (MATS)|
|Squanga Lake||YT||Emergency landing strip|
|Teslin Lake||YT||Emergency landing strip|
|Pine Lake||YT||Emergency landing strip|
|Watson Lake/Liard River||YT||Refueling/servicing airfield; 1461st AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division.|
|Smith River||BC||Emergency landing strip|
|Fort Nelson||BC||Was main refueling/servicing point on route; 1460th AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division. Remained as joint RCAF/USAF base until about 1949; hosted Det.2, 1701st Air Transport Wing (MATS)|
|Prophet River||BC||Emergency landing strip|
|Beatton River||BC||Emergency landing strip|
|Sikanni Chief||BC||Emergency landing strip|
|Fort St. John||BC||Refueling/servicing airfield; 1459th AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division.|
|RCAF Station Dawson Creek||BC||Auxiliary refueling/servicing airfield|
|Beaverlodge||AB||Emergency landing strip|
|Grande Prairie||AB||Refueling/servicing airfield; 1457th AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division.|
|DeBolt||AB||Emergency landing strip|
|Valleyview||AB||Emergency landing strip|
|Fox Creek||AB||Emergency landing strip|
|Whitecourt||AB||Emergency landing strip|
|Mayerthorpe||AB||Emergency landing strip|
|Birch Lake||AB||Auxiliary airfield; now abandoned and obliterated|
|RCAF Station Namao||AB||Opened 1 November 1944. Additional Hub/refueling/servicing airfield in Edmonton. Remained as joint RCAF/USAF base until about 1949; hosted Det.1, 1701st Air Transport Wing (MATS)|
|RCAF Station Edmonton||AB||Activated 17 October 1942. Was HQ, Alaskan Wing, ATC; Hub/refueling/servicing airfield; 1450th/1451st/1452d AAFBU.|
|Ponoka||AB||Emergency landing strip|
|Lacombe||AB||Emergency landing strip|
|RCAF Station Penhold||AB||Auxiliary refueling/servicing airfield (now Red Deer Regional Airport)|
|Innisfail||AB||Emergency landing strip|
|Olds||AB||Auxiliary refueling/servicing airfield|
|Carstairs||AB||Emergency landing strip|
|Airdrie||AB||Auxiliary refueling/servicing airfield|
|Calgary||AB||Refueling/servicing airfield; 1457th AAFBU ATC Alaskan Division.|
|High River||AB||Auxiliary refueling/servicing airfield|
|Nanton||AB||2 x 2,000 ft (610 m) runway auxiliary refueling/servicing airfield, now abandoned and obliterated as farmland|
|RCAF Station Claresholm||AB||Axillary refueling/servicing airfield (now Claresholm Industrial Airport)|
|RCAF Station Lethbridge||AB||Axillary refueling/servicing airfield (now Lethbridge County Airport)|
|Shelby||MT||Auxiliary refueling/servicing airfield|
|Conrad||MT||Auxiliary refueling/servicing airfield|
|Gore Army Airfield||MT||557th AAFBU, Ferrying Division, ATC; Group assembly and dispatch airfield for Lend-lease aircraft (now Great Falls International Airport)|
|Great Falls Army Air Base||MT||HQ, Northwest Sector, Domestic Wing, ATC; Group assembly and servicing airfield for Lend-lease aircraft; passenger point of Embarkation (now Malmstrom Air Force Base)|
|Vegreville||AB||Emergency landing airfield|
|Vermillion||AB||Emergency landing airfield|
|Lloydminster||SK||Emergency landing airfield (closed about 1981 now abandoned, replaced by new airport on Alberta side of border)|
|RCAF Station North Battleford||SK||Refueling/servicing airfield (now North Battleford Airport)|
|RCAF Station Saskatoon||SK||Refueling/servicing airfield (now Saskatoon John G. Diefenbaker International Airport)|
|Humboldt||SK||Emergency landing airfield|
|Russell||MB||Emergency landing airfield|
|Shoal Lake||MB||Emergency landing airfield|
|Minnedosa||MB||Emergency landing airfield|
|RCAF Station Portage La Prairie||MB||Refueling/servicing airfield (now Portage la Prairie/Southport Airport)|
|RCAF Station Winnipeg||MB||Refueling/servicing airfield (now CFB Winnipeg)|
|Grand Forks||ND||Refueling/servicing airfield (note: NOT the current Grand Forks International Airport or Grand Forks AFB. This facility was closed after the war, and the land redeveloped)|
|Fargo||ND||Refueling/servicing airfield; 575th AAFBU|
|St. Cloud||MN||Refueling/servicing airfield|
|Wold/Chamberlain Field||MN||1454th AAFBU, Alaskan Division, ATC (Station 11). Initially group assembly and dispatch airfield for Lend-lease aircraft; after 1943 controlled by Northwest Airlines under contract, coordinated passenger and cargo travelling on Northwest Staging Route. (now Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport)|
- North Atlantic air ferry route in World War II
- South Atlantic air ferry route in World War II
- South Pacific air ferry route in World War II
- West Coast Wing (Air Transport Command route to Alaska)
- Crimson Route
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- Conn and Fairchild 1989, p. 390.
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- Smith, Blake. Wings Over the Wilderness: They Flew the Trail of '42. Surrey, British Columbia: Hancock House Pub Ltd., 2008. ISBN 978-0-88839-595-5.
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