The Lend-Lease Airport

PHOTO by Anton Afanasiev / FEST
What does Russia’s oldest airport look like?

Russia’s Seymchan Airport in the Magadan region was built during the Second World War and has remained virtually unchanged to this day. The airport was used by the military during the war and it later serviced civilian flights. Anton Afanasyev from the Far East Spotting Team spoke with about this unique airport.

On Oct. 9, 1941, the State Defense Committee, or GKO, decided to organise the delivery of aircraft from the US to the USSR through the Lend-Lease Act. A few routes were considered and the approved one passed over the Bering Strait, Chukotka, Kolyma, Yakutia and on to Krasnoyarsk. The Soviet part of the route passed over the towns of Uelkal, Anadyr, Markovo, Omolon, Seymchan, Oymyakon, Khandyga, Yakutsk, Olekminsk, Kirensk, Nizhneilimsk and Krasnoyarsk.

Seymchan Airport was in the middle of the route, which started in Fairbanks, Alaska, and ended in Krasnoyarsk. The Third Ferry Aviation Regiment of the Alsib airway, as the route was known, was based at Seymchan Airport and they flew aircraft from Seymchan to Yakutsk. Construction began on the airfield in the spring of 1942 and continued around the clock. A dirt-and-gravel runway was constructed along the banks of the Seymchan River not far from its mouth and its confluence with the Kolyma River.

Difficult geological conditions and permafrost required huge labour costs during the construction of the runway. For example, 37,500 cubic metres of peat were removed during construction and another 44,200 cubic metres of earthworks were built.

Surprisingly, despite the tight deadlines and difficult weather conditions, the construction workers didn't build a typical barracks but instead created a strong and beautiful building that resembled a tower from Russian fairy tales.

Officially, the airway opened a year after the GKO’s decision on Oct. 7, 1942. From 1942 to 1945, almost 8,000 single-engine and twin-engine aircraft carrying tonnes of cargo and thousands of passengers traversed the AlSib airway. Not every passenger made the trip safely though. There were 39 fatal accidents, 49 crashes, 131 breakdowns and 60 emergency landings on the Soviet part of the air route.

Russian oldest airoport6

After the war, the airport was used extensively for domestic air routes. There were regular flights to the Magadan region, Chukotka and Yakutia. By 1985, the building still had its original look and performed its functions easily despite the absence of major repairs.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the airport was in decline and the number of flights fell four-fold while the village of Seymchan’s population decreased. In the past quarter of a century, there have been attempts to demolish the building, burn it down and strip it for firewood. Only the actions of the locals have kept the airport from destruction.

The airport was recently recognised as a cultural heritage site after several years of promises and its inclusion in the Unified State Register as a monument of history and architecture of the Magadan Region was recommended.

The airport is now under state protection. Perhaps in the near future it will be restored and the number of flights to and from the airport will increase. At the moment, Seymchan Airport only receives one flight per week.

Other stories about the Magadan region’s airports can be found on Anton Afanasyev’s LiveJournal.