It was July 14, 1937, and my family was staying at Soboba Hot Springs and Resort in the mountains east of Los Angeles near the sleepy town of San Jacinto. We visited Soboba frequently; our parents took mud baths at the spa, and my little brother and I spent lazy days at the pool.
That July day we walked into the dining room for breakfast to find the staff and guests buzzing with the news that a Russian airplane had landed in a farmer’s cow pasture outside San Jacinto. After a hasty breakfast my family got into the car and drove down to see for ourselves. Sure enough, there was a big red and white plane, gleaming in the sunlight. Nobody could imagine what it was doing there, and seeing it made our astonishment grow. It is hard to remember, but there was no television then to flash the story around the world with instant explanations and commentary, and the U.S.S.R. was a closed and somewhat forbidding society operating under the dictator Stalin.
We eventually pieced together the story. Early that morning a newspaperboy had seen the plane bounce to a landing. He had run across the pasture to it, and the Soviet pilot, whose name turned out to be Mikhail Gromov, handed him a note written in English before the plane had left Russia: “We are Soviet airmen flying to America from Moscow across the North Pole. Please inform the Soviet Ambassador in Washington, the local authorities and the nearest flying field that we have landed safely.”
The next year the Soviet government honored the three fliers who made the trip with a postage stamp showing the sky blazers and a map of the air route between Moscow and San Jacinto. The flight of their single-engine Tupolev ANT-25 patrol plane proved the Soviets could repeat the feat of flying the transpolar route to the United States; their first flight had landed earlier that year at Pearson Army Air Corps Field in Washington State. Both flights were a wake-up call to United States military authorities that polar flights were not only possible but feasible. The flight into a Southern California cow pasture not only established a world distance record of 6,262 miles but set the stage for today’s polar air routes.
Dad paid the farmer twenty-five cents so we could drive onto his field to see the plane. It seems to me the bargain of a lifetime.