U.S. warplanes have been flying over Russia this summer — and it may be the best thing to happen to relations between the Cold War rivals in years.
A mixed crew of U.S. and Russians pilots flew two veteran Douglas DC-3 aircraft along the legendary and deadly Alaska-Siberia route, made famous in World War II as the ‘AlSib' — arriving in Moscow to the delight of local crowds.
"Last time somebody flew this route was over 70 years ago," pilot-engineer John Makinson told NBC News.
Russia suffered the biggest loss of life in World War II, but most historians agree the Red Army would have struggled to defeat the Nazis in Europe without American equipment.
The United States supplied the Soviet Union with tanks, guns, clothes, fuel — and thousands of warplanes that were delivered via Alaska and Siberia.
The ‘AlSib’ was a long and dangerous journey that claimed the lives of 160 American pilots. Planes were lost to the extreme cold, and a single navigation error over the thinly-populated Siberia could be as deadly as gunfire from a Messerschmitt.
Since July, a project called "Warplanes to Siberia" has seen the two DC-3s — including one which participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy — retracing the route successfully, completing the trip earlier this month. The project was originally hatched by the U.S.-based BRAVO 369 Flight Foundation.
However, their symbolic trip, which continued on to Moscow, was not without worries.
"Of course I was scared, especially when flying over the [Bering] Strait" between Alaska and Siberia, pilot Sergey Baranov admitted.
Now retrofitted with modern navigation and weather forecasting technology, the aircraft completed the three-week journey without major incident.
And the reception in Russia made it all worth it, pilots said.
Russia and the United States are at odds over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and its suspected meddling in the war in eastern Ukraine. U.S.-bashing is ubiquitous in official Russian rhetoric. But ordinary Russians, it seems, remember and still cherish the World War II friendship with Uncle Sam.
The “Warplanes to Siberia” team enjoyed great reception, with enthusiasts lined up for miles to watch the DC-3s, the pilots told NBC News at the Vnukovo airfield outside Moscow.
“Even my positive expectations were exceeded several times, everyone welcomed us so warmly, it was just wonderful,” said Glen Moss, 27, a professional private pilot from Punta Gorda, Florida.
Baranov — whose Rusavia defense aviation company bankrolled the expedition — said Russian authorities were initially doubtful about the project but later endorsed it.
The planes,which are adorned with the Soviet military red star, have been given places of honor at Russia's premier airshow, MAKS, where they will participate in displays through Sunday. They will later be given permanent places in a World War II museum.
“The people here are really appreciative of airplanes, which means that they’ll have a good home here,” said pilot-engineer Makinson, who is Canadian.
Baranov admitted he doubted the project would have any real impact on U.S.-Russian relations.
“But if we plucked at some heartstrings, that’s good enough for me,” he said.