The igloomobile or, A mobile home like no other

One of the 3 Kharkovkiy Zavod Transportnogo Mashinostroyeniya imeni Malysheva Project 404 all terrain vehicles operated by the 4th Soviet Antarctic expedition of 1958-60. Anon., “Ça et là.” La Patrie du dimanche, 3 May 1959, 12.

My reading friend whose wrath reaches the stars, I humbly beg you to forgive the non-aeronautical topic of this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. My main excuse is that last week’s peroration revolved around Antarctic expeditions in the 1930s. A second topic on the same continent seemed most appropriate to me.

Reading the short text that accompanied the photo above, published in the 3 May 1959 issue of La Patrie du dimanche, a weekly from Montréal, Québec, which disappeared a few decades ago, will, at least I hope so, bring you to better feelings toward me.

The igloomobile.

Tractor built especially by the Russians for Antarctic expedition treks. It contains, in addition to the usual furnishings of a dwelling, a scientific laboratory and an electricity generator. It weighs 34 tonnes [about 33.5 Imperial tons or 37.5 American tons]. Each caterpillar track is [1 metre] 3 feet wide. It carries 20 tonnes [about 20 Imperial tons or 22 American tons] of gasoline in a trailer.

You may be wondering why the Soviets, not the Russians, there is a difference, needed a vehicle the size of the one on our picture. A good question, say I. This story began in 1948 when 8 Western countries with claims over vast tracts of Antarctica (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, United Kingdom and United States) began negotiations for the creation of a condominium on this continent. It goes without saying that all the parties involved were keen to prevent the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from gaining a foothold in Antarctica. The Soviet government naturally refused to play along. It proclaimed its interest in Antarctica, refused to recognize any claim, and reserved the right to formulate its own claims, in 1950.

Anxious to participate in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the Soviet government created the Sovetskaya Antarkticheskaya Ekspeditziya in 1955 to organize a series of expeditions to Antarctica. This Soviet Antarctic expedition was part of the Arctic and Antarctic research institute of the Soviet committee on Antarctic research of the Academy of sciences of the USSR, in other words the Arkticheskiy i Antarkticheskiy Nauchno-Issledovatelskiy Institut of the Sovetskiy Komitet po Antarkticheskim Issledovaniyam of the Akademiya Nauk Sovestskogo Soyuza. And yes, my reading friend, the IGY, a period of about 16 months (July 1957 to December 1958) dedicated to Earth-based research carried out at the world level, was mentioned in July 2018 and February 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee. No other international geophysical year has taken place since 1958? Pity.

The first Soviet expedition to Antarctica arrived on site in 1955 and created 2 research stations in 1956. Its tracked tractors, modified agricultural / industrial vehicles, although very slow, proved to be more efficient than its trucks, largely unusable in deep snow. The expedition returned home in 1957.

If I may digress, it’s hard to imagine what driving a vehicle in Antarctica feels like. The cold and the strength of the wind are breathtaking and there are virtually no landmarks. Worse still, magnetic compasses and radio compasses are unreliable because of the proximity of the magnetic South Pole and interference of various kinds. It is therefore necessary to navigate with the help of the Sun or the stars, when it does not snow of course. If a snow storm breaks out, vehicles can not be more than 2 or 3 metres (6 or 10 feet) apart. Increasing this distance dangerously increases the risk of losing sight of the convoy – an error that can prove fatal. It goes without saying that such a reduction in distance between the vehicles dangerously increases the risk of collision. The maintenance of vehicles, which is done in the open air, is obviously a nightmare.

Did I mention that Antarctic exploration is mainly done in the spring or summer? The Antarctic winter is much worse.

The second Soviet expedition traveled to Antarctica in 1956. Its members used heavy artillery tracked tractors that were far superior to the vehicles previously used. These powerful vehicles could pull heavy trailers loaded with fuel – a vital commodity in Antarctica that accounted for between 70 and 75 % of the freight carried. The expedition could therefore create 2 other research stations that remain operational in 2019. The expedition returned home in 1958.

The third Soviet Antarctic expedition arrived on site in 1957 with an upgraded version of the previously used heavy artillery tracked tractor. Its members traveled to hard to reach areas where they created 2 research stations used for a limited period of time (about 11 months and about 12 days). They returned home in 1959.

While the performances of the heavy artillery tracked tractors was largely satisfactory, the same could not be said of the comfort offered to the crews. As brutal as the winter season was in the USSR, it did not compare to the conditions encountered in Antarctica in the spring and summer. The engineers of the Kharkovkiy Zavod Transportnogo Mashinostroyeniya imeni Malysheva were therefore ordered to turn the aforementioned heavy artillery tracked tractor into a habitable vehicle which was to be tested by the members of the fourth Soviet Antarctic expedition. Said engineers apparently made use of an aviation-related organisation to design the cabin of the vehicle.

Yours truly must confess that I was not able to identify the organisation in question. Indeed, the city of Kharkov housed an aeronautical research institute, the Kharkovkiy Aviatsionny Institute, and an experimental design office, the Sukhoi Opytnoye Konstruktorskoye Buro. Better yet, Kharkov housed an aircraft manufacturing factory active since the 1930s. So be it, let’s move on.

Made in large numbers for the armed forces of the USSR and its allies, the AT-T heavy artillery tracked tractors was interesting in that its chassis and transmission system were derived from those of a main battle tank. This T-54 and its derivative, the T-55, were among the most famous vehicles of this type of the 20th century. Manufactured in greater numbers than any other main battle tank (between 85 and 100,000 units between 1946 and 1983), in the USSR, in Poland and in Czechoslovakia, these robust, reliable, well-armed and well-protected vehicles served / serve / will serve in the armed forces of 50 or so countries on 4 continents (Africa, America, Asia and Europe). Did I mention that the AT-T’s engine and transmission system were mounted at the front of the chassis, not at the rear, as was the case with the T-54 and T-55?

Completed around May 1958, the first example of the new all-terrain vehicle, officially known as the Project 404, was certainly imposing: 3.5 metres (about 11.5 feet) wide, 4 metres (over 13 feet) high and 8.5 metres (nearly 28 feet) long. Recognizing the importance of maximizing interior space and comfort, the engineers designed an 8-person cabin with a 2.1 metre (6.9 foot) high ceiling placed on an elongated and modified AT-T frame. The aluminum exterior panels of the cabin contained 8 layers of synthetic insulation. All riveted joints were sealed with great care.

The Project 404’s driver was at the front of the vehicle. The (double?) windows through which he saw were equipped with electric defrosters and a hot air heating system. A well-equipped radio compartment was behind the driver, on the right. There was also an access door on the right side of the vehicle. The berths of the 8 crew members were on the left side in a separate compartment. The next compartment contained the kitchen where canned food could be heated and hot drinks prepared using an electric stove and an electric snow melting device. The toilet with sink was behind the kitchen. Would you believe that the crew seemingly had access to a small dryer?

It should be noted that some vehicles had a well insulated, roof-mounted bubble at the front, which allowed a navigator to calculate his position without having to stick his nose out.

The powerful diesel engine and transmission system of the Project 404 were located inside the cabin, at the front, below the driver. A panel allowed the crew to make repairs in shirt sleeve. The fuel, on the other hand, was in the centre of the vehicle, under the floor. The powerful heating system was at the back. And yes, my reading friend, crews had to learn to tolerate the smell of diesel fuel and the presence of (minimal?) amounts of exhaust fumes. They also had to adapt to the roll and pitch inherent in the movement of vehicles in Antarctica.

Project 404’s huge caterpillar tracks allowed it to negotiate a wide variety of icy or snowy terrain. As incredible as it may seem, the pressure on the ground was not greater than that of a human being. The Project 404 was not amphibious but its chassis is waterproof. In need be, it could cross flooded areas if the water was not too deep.

The Project 404 could pull 1 or 2 trailers weighing about 70 tonnes (almost 69 Imperial tons or more than 77 American tons) in all without much difficulty.

Before I forget, please note that this vehicle was quickly nicknamed Kharkovchanka.

The fourth Soviet Antarctic expedition arrived on site in 1958 with some (5?) AT-Ts and 3 Kharkovchankas. The latter left the Mirny station, on the coast, in January 1959. Their destination was the Komsomolskaya station, about 975 kilometres (about 600 miles) away. A second convoy comprising 5 AT-Ts left the Mirny station only in September. It arrived at the Komsomolskaya station in October. At the beginning of November, the Kharkovchankas and 2 of the AT-Ts undertook to reach the Vostok station, about 540 kilometres (about 340 miles) away. They arrived before the end of the month, and ... What is it, my reading friend, you seem very excited? And yes, when Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human being in space, in April 1961, he was aboard a Vostok space capsule, but back to our story. The gearbox of one of the Kharkovchankas did not withstand the harsh conditions of the trip. Using manual winches included in the emergency tooling, the crews managed to install a spare gearbox.

Two Kharkovchankas and one AT-T left the Vostok station at the beginning of December 1959. One of the Kharkovchankas bore the number 23. This was the very one on the photo at the beginning of this article. Go see if you don’t believe me. Their destination was the American Scott-Amundsen station, located at the South Pole. The convoy apparently arrived there just after Christmas. The Americans welcomed the Soviets with open arms. Cold War or not, it was not every day that they received visitors. The convoy began the return journey at the very end of December. It arrived at the Vostok station after 10 days. The crews traveled to the Mirny station by airplane. The Kharkovchankas, on the other hand, remained at the Vostok station.

Another convoy, consisting of two AT-Ts, conducted numerous surveys (altitude, ice thickness, etc.) between the Mirny and Komsomolskaya stations from April 1959 to January 1960. The crews made the return trip to the Mirny station by airplane. The AT-Ts, on the other hand, remain at the Komsomolskaya station. The expedition itself returned home in 1960.

The Kharkovchanka make the Mirny-Vostok journey year after year until 2009, even though an upgraded version of the vehicle, the Kharkovchanka-2, entered service in 1975. In the opinion of all their users, these vehicles were / are the best ever designed for Antarctic transport.

See you later.

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Rénald Fortier