Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Recommended: The Russian Origins of Strategic Air Operations

By Scott Palmer, Western Illinois University
Presented at:  Russia's Great War and Revolution

Igor Sikorsky's 1911 Pilot's License (Sikorsky Archives}

Imperial Russia was an unlikely location for the launch of an aeronautical revolution. Although, by the eve of the Great War, the country’s military force boasted one of the world’s largest air fleets with some 260 aircraft at its disposal, this quantitative strength masked significant qualitative deficiencies. Virtually all of the machines that the Imperial Air Fleet possessed had been purchased directly from foreign manufacturers or were non-native models built under license in Russian factories. In almost every instance these craft represented obsolescent models. In the worst cases, they included aircraft marked by serious performance and design flaws. The difficulties facing Imperial Russia’s prewar aircraft industry did not, however, preclude true innovation. In the years that immediately preceded the onset of hostilities, Igor Sikorsky demonstrated that despite Russia’s lack of productive capacity, the country’s inventors were capable of matching (and even surpassing) the most advanced concepts and designs emerging from Western European workshops.

Like many early aeronautical pioneers, Sikorsky developed a fascination with flight as a young boy. While enrolled as an engineering student at the Polytechnic Institute in Kiev, he read reports of the Wright brothers’ famous 1908 demonstration flights in Paris. Inspired by news of the Americans’ success, Sikorsky abandoned his course of study in order to devote full time to building his own airplanes. Over the next sixteen months, while working out of a barn on his father's estate, the young designer produced a series of monoplanes and biplanes each more airworthy than its predecessor. The culmination of these early efforts was the S-6 B, the first functional hydroplane designed by a Russian. For this design, Sikorsky earned a 30,000 ruble prize from the Russian War Ministry and considerable fame. In less than four years, Sikorsky (age 23) had emerged from obscurity to become his nation’s most celebrated aircraft constructor.

Sikorsky’s meteoric rise caught the eye of Mikhail Shidlovskii, a member of the State Council and director of the Russo-Balt Carriage Factory. One of Russia’s leading industrialists, Shidlovskii had built a reputation as a visionary entrepreneur through his pioneering work in the nation's nascent automobile industry. Shidlovskii was a rare commodity in late Imperial Russia: a generous patron with money to spare. Impressed by the performance of Sikorsky’s airplanes, and sensing a business opportunity, he agreed to support the young designer’s vision for a revolutionary new airplane: a large, multi-engine craft containing an enclosed cabin for the crew.

With financial backing provided by Shidlovskii, Sikorsky labored throughout the autumn and winter of 1912-1913. The four-engine airplane that emerged from his workshop the following spring was enormous by contemporary standards. Initially dubbed The Grand (later re-christened The Russian Warrior), the machine surpassed 60 feet in length. It was graced with a wingspan approaching 90 feet and weighed nearly two tons. The Russian Warrior could accommodate up to 12 passengers, inclusive of the two man crew required to operate the behemoth. More impressive still, it could lift in excess of 1,600 pounds and stay aloft for hours at a cruising speed of up to 55 miles an hour. At that time the largest airplane in the world, Sikorsky’s creation represented a major accomplishment for Russia's hard-pressed aviation industry. The triumph was short-lived. Less than two months after its public unveiling, the Russian Warrior was destroyed at a military competition when the motor of a Russian-made biplane, flying overhead, came loose. The 80-horsepower engine fell to the earth, landing on the Russian Warrior parked below.

 Sikorsky's Il’ya Muromets (Courtesy of Von Hardesty)

Undeterred, Sikorsky set out to construct an even larger (and improved) airplane. Unveiled in the spring of 1914, the Il'ya Muromets was, like its predecessor, a stunning achievement in airplane construction. Possessing a wingspan some 20 percent larger and capable of lifting more than 2,000 pounds, the Il’ya Muromets represented a significant improvement over Sikorsky's first multiple-engine airplane. Of particular interest were the changes made by Sikorsky in the design of the aircraft's fuselage. Unlike the cabin of the Russian Warrior, which sat atop the plane's central frame, the passenger hold of the Il’ya Muromets was incorporated into the fuselage. This design innovation would serve as the model for all future military and civilian passenger craft. More impressive still were the dimensions of the new compartment. Over five feet wide and six feet high, it was capable of comfortably accommodating up to a dozen people. The plane was specially equipped to meet passengers' needs on long-distance flights. The fuselage was divided into several compartments complete with wicker chairs and small tables. The airplane also included a sleeping cabin and an observation platform, which was mounted toward the rear of the craft. Additional features included a generator for producing electric light to illuminate the cabin, a heating system, and, in another aviation first, a toilet.

On 23 May 1914, the main Military-Technical Administration placed an order with the Russo-Balt Factory for the delivery of ten aircraft at a cost of 150,000 rubles apiece. However, the onset of hostilities in August 1914 brought into stark relief the continuing inability of Russian native factories to produce quality aero engines in sufficient quantity. By the time that the war commenced in August 1914, only two of the Muromtsy had been completed. Growing delays in the shipment of engines from Great Britain and France made it impossible for the Russo-Balt factory to deliver completed aircraft to the military by contractual deadlines. Faced with the prospect of sinking further resources into an expensive machine offering as yet uncertain military advantages, state officials elected in early November 1914 to cancel the army’s contract for the remaining aircraft scheduled for delivery.

With the prospect of bankruptcy looming thanks to the impending cancellation of the 1.5 million ruble order, Shidlovskii intervened with military officials in an attempt to salvage the Il’ya Muromets program and his company. In late November, he petitioned the General Staff to allow him to take personal command of the military's existing aircraft. Noting that his experience overseeing production of the planes as well as his status as a veteran naval officer qualified him for the post, Shidlovskii argued that with improved supervision and the proper training of aircrews, the military potential of the airplane behemoths would finally be realized. Perhaps recognizing that it had nothing to lose from this unorthodox request, Stavka agreed. The cancelled contract with Russo-Balt was re-instated. On 14 December 1914 the General Staff ordered the formation of a unified "Squadron of Flying Ships" (Eskadra vozdushnykh korablei, or EVK) that would consisting of 12 Muromtsy (ten in active service, two in reserve) once the planes emerged from the factory. In the meantime, five existing aircraft were dispatched to the town of Iablonna, not far from Warsaw. Shidlovskii was promoted to the rank of major-general and placed in command of the squadron. To assist him with overseeing the training of flight crews, he enlisted the aid of the airplane's inventor, Igor Sikorsky.

Shidlovskii proved to be an effective commander. Although the program continued to suffer from production delays and the doubts of some skeptical commanders, once engaged in regular service, the EVK demonstrated that “heavy aviation” held considerable promise for the nation’s military forces—and not simply as a reconnaissance instrument. On 28 February 1915, while undertaking an observation flight along the Vistula River near the town of Bobrzhin, a single Il’ya Muromets dropped over 600 lbs of explosives upon German ground forces. Given that previous aerial bombardments had amounted to little more than a pilots tossing an errant grenade or two over the sides of their aircraft, the scale of the attack undertaken by Sikorsky’s aircraft was truly historic.

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