The Royal Air Force Transport Command (RAFTC), formerly Ferry Command, faced one of its toughest jobs in the spring of 1944 – to diplomatically help Russian aircrews ferry four dozen PBN-1 Nomads from the eastern seaboard of the United States to Murmansk. There the long-range flying boats would join the Soviet Northern Fleet. They were badly needed for ice reconnaissance flights and anti-submarine patrols to protect Russian supply lines against German attack in the Barents and Norwegian Seas.
An improved version of the PBY-5 Catalina flying boat, the Nomad was manufactured by the Naval Aircraft Factory which the U.S. Navy operated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In all, according to Joseph F. Baugher, 138 Nomads were made available to the Russians in 1944 under U.S. Lend-Lease arrangements. Through the top-secret Project Zebra, the U.S. Navy also provided training on the PBN-1 to some 300 Russian pilots and crew members.
The first Soviet personnel arrived in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in April 1944. At the Coast Guard station there, they received 80 hours of specialized flight training in preparation for ferrying their new aircraft across the North Atlantic route via Gander, Newfoundland, and Reykjavik, Iceland.
Bridging the Language Barrier
One problem stood in their way – the language barrier. Word came down from the British Air Ministry that the Montréal-based RAFTC was to provide “safety crews” for the ferry flights from Elizabeth City as far as Reykjavik, recalled Air Commodore Griffith Powell in his 1982 book Ferryman.
Since the Russians could speak only a few words of English, the arrangement was essential, wrote RAF Flying Officer John Narburgh in an unpublished memoir. “All the radio traffic, filing flight plans, weather briefings, etc. would have to be in English. The solution was to have an RAF skeleton crew composed of pilot, co-pilot and radio operator fly along with each Russian crew as far as Reykjavik, Iceland, and then have the Russians carry on by themselves to Murmansk.” The RAFTC pilots did all the take-offs and landings, times when communication with air controllers is critical. Once in the air, they would turn control over to the Russian crews.
On the Soviet side, the personnel included the members of 25 crews, as well as a number of senior officers. This meant that 24 crews would each make two trips, with a crew in reserve. Responsibility for dispatching these aircraft lay with the RAFTC Elizabeth City unit.
The first phase of deliveries began May 25, 1944, while the second started on July 1. Departures for Gander were organized in groups of four aircraft in phase one, and groups of three in phase two. The last group for the Northern Fleet left Elizabeth City on July 27, 1944. A separate list can be found on Flights of History showing the departures by date and giving the name of the RAFTC captain on board each aircraft, identified by its Bu number.
Efforts were made to pair the RAFTC captains and radio operators with the same Soviet crews on both trips. This allowed them to develop a level of working communication, but Narburgh, who was one of the RAFTC captains involved, figured it also effectively restricted socializing between the Soviet crews and their Western counterparts.
Assignments for the RAFTC safety crew followed a standard pattern. The men would arrive in Elizabeth City a week or so before the established departure date. From there, they could make it to Gander in one day if the weather co-operated, and get to Reykjavik the next day. Then they would return to Montréal from Iceland in a day or two, or perhaps three.
After their first trip, as Narburgh observed, the RAFTC crews would then have to wait for their counterparts to return, as the Russian crews completed the delivery to Murmansk, then made their way across the U.S.S.R. into Siberia, crossed to Alaska, went south to Seattle, Washington, and finally traversed the continental U.S. to Elizabeth City.
The schedule of Captain Joseph A. Webber, an American from Colorado, illustrates how it worked. On May 13, 1944, he travelled from Montréal to Elizabeth City. He left for Gander in Bu02843 on May 25, reached Reykjavik on May 27, and was back in Montréal on May 28. His second trip began on June 11, when he flew from Elizabeth City to Gander in Bu02826. He reached Reykjavik on June 15, and returned to Montréal June 20. Meanwhile, RAFTC had its normal ferrying commitments. Webber was back in Elizabeth City on June 26 to take Catalina JX376 via Bermuda to Largs, Scotland. Webber, incidentally, had a long history with the ferry organization, having served as co-pilot to Captain Rogers (Hudson T1419) during the experimental trans-Atlantic air delivery of Hudson bombers in 1940.
John Narburgh served as safety crew captain on two trips. With Bu02833 he flew from Elizabeth City to Gander on May 28, 1944. His second trip saw him landing at Gander with Bu02812 on June 29, 1944.
On one of his flights, a potentially disastrous situation developed when the Russian captain reversed course. The Russians had orders from their superiors to fly in formation groups. Having lost sight of his companion aircraft, the Russian captain decided to go back to look for them.
Taking advantage of down time, Narburgh was snoozing on one of the bunks in the Nomad when his radio operator alerted him that the aircraft was now heading towards Gander. He woke up in a hurry! Rushing to the cockpit, he used word-by-word translation sheets to make it clear that the aircraft had to resume its planned course immediately or risk running out of fuel and ditching in the North Atlantic. The Russian captain seemed far more concerned about obeying his orders to fly in formation.
Finally, as the senior captain, Narburgh pulled rank, and the aircraft got back on course for Iceland. “In the end, we all landed at Reykjavik within 15 minutes of each other and everyone was happy, and out came the bottles of vodka. On future trips, we never heard any more about keeping in sight of the other planes.”
The American Clyde Pangborn was another of those double-duty escort captains. His first mission took him to Elizabeth City on May 27, 1944. He left for Gander on June 1 in Bu02827. Bad weather kept him there until June 11, when he flew to Reykjavik. He arrived back in Boucherville, Québec, Montréal’s seaplane base, on June 14 in JX486. This Coronado flying boat had been taken off the delivery list to start a return ferry service to bring the special RAFTC safety crews back from Reykjavik.
His second trip – this time with Bu02811 – took only five days from his arrival in Elizabeth City on July 13 until he returned to Boucherville on July 18 in Coronado JX490. Between his first and second Nomad trips, he even managed to fit in a delivery, ferrying Liberator KG907 to the U.K. with an incredible over-and-back time of three days.
Nomads to Soviet Black Sea and Baltic Fleets
The 48 PBN-1s allocated to the Soviet Northern Fleet represented only part of the total 138 promised to Russia under the U.S. Lend-Lease program. Thirty Nomads would go to the Soviet Pacific Fleet, while 60 were destined for the Soviet Black Sea and Baltic Fleets, with Lake Habbaniyah in Iraq fixed as the hand-over point. These 60 aircraft left Elizabeth City between September 28, 1944 and March 27, 1945, accompanied by an RAFTC safety crew.
In preparation for the long trip, RAFTC added a flight engineer (aeronautical mechanic) to its safety crews, as Powell explained in Ferryman:
“We had to take them, or accompany them, depending on which side is telling the story, to Lake Habbaniyah near Baghdad, via San Juan (Puerto Rico), Trinidad, Belem, Natal, thence across the South Atlantic to Bathurst, Port Lyautey in Morocco, Djerba and Kasfareet. This was quite a circuit and I knew it could not be handled without a good flight engineer, so the safety crew was increased.”
Pangborn was among a number of pilots who served on safety crews for these Middle East deliveries as well as for the first batch that went to the Soviet Northern Fleet. His schedule is probably typical. He arrived in Elizabeth City on October 10, 1944. He had 20 days there before departure on the first leg of his route, to San Juan, on October 30 with Bu02898. On November 15, he reached Lake Habbaniyah near the Euphrates River. Two days later, he caught one of the regular BOAC Liberator flights to Cairo, then travelled by U.S. Air Transport Command (ATC) to Casablanca, arriving there on November 20. He continued via ATC to New York on November 23/24, and returned to Montréal by airline November 24.
At Lake Habbaniyah, the Soviets took over full responsibility for ferrying, flying the Nomads on to Baku, Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, and then to Sevastopol in Crimea, on the Black Sea, for service in either the Black Sea or the Baltic Fleet. Fifty-nine PBN-1 Nomads actually reached Sevastpol, one having been lost in a crash after take-off at Elizabeth City.
Soviet Pacific Fleet
The third batch of PBN-1s transferred to the Soviet Union under the U.S. Lend-Lease plan left Elizabeth City between August 25 and September 11, 1944. These 30 Nomads, destined for the Soviet Pacific Fleet, were ferried by U.S. Navy crews via Panama to U.S. Naval Air Station Kodiak in Alaska. From that point, Soviet crews flew the aircraft across the Chukchi Sea and on to Vladivostok. RAFTC air crew were not involved.
Two Lost Nomads
Two PBN-1 Nomads were lost before reaching their final delivery point. One was destined for Murmansk, the other for Sevastopol. As a result, the number of Nomads that actually reached Murmansk was 47, while 59 reached Sevastopol.
Andotten Bird Cliff Crash 1944
The first crash occurred in June 1944. RAFTC Captain Webber had escorted Bu02826 to Reykjavik. On June 12, the RAFTC safety crew completed their assignment, and Colonel V. N. Vasilyev of the Soviet Union’s Red Army took command. The Nomad left Iceland on June 16, heading to Murmansk. This was the longest leg of the delivery trip, a gruelling flight that could take as long as 19 hours. The ship never reached its Arctic destination. On June 17, in foggy conditions near the coast of German-occupied Norway, it crashed into the famous Andotten bird cliff on Norway’s Soroya Island. There were no survivors.
A Norwegian fisherman who witnessed the crash reported it to the German authorities. The Germans recovered four sets of remains, which they buried in a cemetery on the island. They believed the men were Americans, a reasonable conclusion since the aircraft was American-built, and American products and currency were found in the wreck.
After the war, when American authorities investigated further, they found no matches with any missing American airmen. However, the circumstances mirrored those of the PBN-1 crash in 1944. Further investigation regarding the six Soviet crewmen presumed lost in the crash is now being carried out through the official U.S.- Russia Joint Commission on prisoners of war and service people missing in action, a bilateral research group set up in 1992.
Take-Off Crash at Elizabeth City 1945
The second crash occurred on January 11, 1945, during a night take-off from Elizabeth City’s Coast Guard station. The pilot was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force serving in RAFTC. He survived the accident, as did three Soviet aircrew. Although no official accident report has surfaced, the pilot was reported to have said that he followed the line of flares on the Pasquotank River until the Nomad lifted off, but acknowledged that he lost his horizon when he switched to instrument flying.
The Nomad, PBN-1 Bu02915, plunged into the river. Four Soviet airmen perished. They were: Captain Vladimir Levin, Lieutenant Afanasy Borodin, Senior Lieutenant Dmitry Medvedev and Captain Nikolay Chikov. Canadian RAFTC civilian member Peter Nataros of Toronto, radio operator, also died. The loss of this aircraft reduced to 59 the number of Nomads that reached Sevastopol, down from the intended 60.
Project Zebra Day
Seventy-five years after the fact, the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City honored those killed in the crash. At the January 11, 2020 ceremony, Elizabeth City mayor Bettie Parker proclaimed “Project Zebra Day” in recognition of the former top-secret project. Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, was a guest of honour. The official Soviet news service, Sputnick, reported that hundreds were on hand for a few short speeches, a moment of silence, and a tribute at the river bank where officials tossed a wreath and red flowers onto the waters of the Pasquotank River, followed by a 21-gun salute. Soviet Consular officials later visited Park Lawn Cemetery in west-end Toronto to lay bouquets on the grave of Peter Nataros.
RAF Transport Command and its predecessors kept index-card records of crews assigned to aircraft on delivery status, communication or other flights. While not all “crew cards” have been preserved, a large collection is held in Ottawa, Canada, at the Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH), Department of National Defence, Government of Canada. My thanks to Emilie Vandal, Chief Archivist, DHH, and to Major Mathias Joost (Ret’d.), former member of the Operational Records Team at DHH, both of whom provided crew cards for many of the captains assigned to support the PBN-1 deliveries to the Soviet Navy.
Thanks also to the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City NC for kind permission to use their photograph of the recovery of the wing from PBN-1 Bu0915, to Darrell Hillier for his ever-generous sharing of background on the RAF Gander unit, and to Ian Macdonald, who disclaims any special knowledge of the subject but kindly agreed to read a draft of this article.
Canada Department of National Defence, Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH), Ferry Command crew assignment cards, DHH 84/44.
Christie, Carl A. Ocean Bridge: The History of RAF Ferry Command. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1995, pp. 212-214.
Baugher, Joseph F. US Navy and US Marine Corps BuNos Third Series.
Hampton, Jeff. “Stalin, FDR, Project Zebra and a crash everyone tried to pretend never happened,” The Virginian-Pilot, January 18, 2020.
––– “Details come to light about WWII secret mission in N.C.” The Virginian-Pilot, July 26, 2014.
Hillier, Darrell. North Atlantic Crossroads: The Royal Air Force Ferry Command Gander Unit 1940-1946. Atlantic Crossroads Press, 2021, pp. 144-146.
Narburgh, John. “Keep ‘Em Crossed: Memories and Letters from World War Two.” Unpublished manuscript. Undated. Collection of the Narburgh family. (Excerpt and photo courtesy of Darrell Hillier.)
Powell, Air Commodore Griffith Powell, C.B.E. Ferryman. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife Publishing, 1982, pp. 106-108.
“Soviet transports.” A PDF file listing western-built aircraft which saw service in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block, presented by the editorial team of “Soviet Transports.” It is current to the beginning of January 2021.
Sputnick/Gregory. “Hundreds in US’ North Carolina Pay Tribute to Soviet Pilots Killed on Secret WWII Mission.”
“Gander Airport, Record of Internal Flights, May 1943–December 1945.” The Rooms, Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, GN 166.10, Box 1.
The Transat, Bulletin of the Trans-Oceanic Radio Officers Association, photo of Peter Nataros, p.5.
U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs. Fact sheet. Minutes of Technical Talks held 20 February 2017.