Soviet x-plenes

Introduction

F

or over 70 years from 1918 the world’s largest country was tightly controlled by a tiny group of elderly men in The Kremlin, in Moscow. Their power was absolute. They could take giant decisions, and so could make giant mistakes. They also sometimes found they had to choose between diametri­cally opposed objectives. While on the one hand aviation was a marvellous instrument for propaganda, trumpeting the achieve­ments of the Soviet Union, the underlying theme of Soviet society was of rigid secrecy.

Thus, when The Great Patriotic War began on 22nd June 1941 the outside world knew very little about Soviet aircraft. The knowledge was confined largely to the mass-produced Polikarpov biplane fighters and Tupolev monoplane bombers, and to the ANT-25 monoplane designed to break world distance records. Only very gradually did it become apparent that the austere and sombre Land of the Soviets (this was the name of a record­breaking bomber) was home to an incredible diversity of aircraft.

Other countries – the USA, France, Britain, Italy and increasingly Germany – had numer­ous aircraft companies from which flowed many hundreds of different types of aircraft. They also had individuals who sometimes managed to create aircraft and even form tiny companies, but the aircraft were invariably conventional lightplanes aimed at the private owner. Few people in what became called The West’ would have dreamed that in Stal­in’s realm individuals could even set their sights on high-powered fast aircraft bristling with strange ideas.

At the same time, the Soviet Union was far from being the earthly paradise that was orig­inally intended. It is said that power corrupts, and the record shows that anyone who ‘stuck his head above the parapet’ was likely to get it cut off. It seems incredible that in 1936-40 Stalin should have been able to unleash what was called The Terror, in which anyone who might have posed the slightest threat – for ex­ample, any senior officer in any of the armed forces – was simply put through a show trial on invented charges and shot.

In the aircraft industry, time after time peo­ple who made mistakes, or in some way fell foul of someone more senior, were simply dismissed or even imprisoned (and in a few cases, executed). It is beyond question that this omnipresent air of repression did much to counter the natural enthusiasm of count­less workers who longed for their country to be the greatest on Earth, and a leader in ad­vanced technology. When one reads what happened it seems remarkable that so many diverse aircraft actually got built.

This book is the most comprehensive at­tempt yet to collect the stories of the more important of these X-Planes (experimental aircraft) into one volume. Of course, some of the strange flying machines featured were built after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we did not want a ponderous title. Translation of the Communist state into an intensely capitalist one has tended to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Whereas 60 years ago Soviet designers could obtain funds for often bizarre ideas which a hard-nosed financial director would have considered an almost
certain non-starter, today Ivan at his modern keyboard and screen knows that if he gets it wrong his shaky firm will go out of business.

Ironically, instead ofbeing a closely guard­ed secret, the experimental aircraft and pro­jects of the Soviet Union are today better documented than those of many Western companies. The process of rationalization has seen almost all the famous names of the aircraft industries of the UK, USA and France disappear. In many cases, and especially in the UK, their irreplaceable archives have been wantonly destroyed, as being of no in­terest to current business. We may never know what strange things their designers drew on paper but never saw built. In con­trast, the Soviet Union never destroyed any­thing, unless there was a political reason for doing so. Accordingly, though this book con­centrates on hardware, it also includes many projects which were built but never flew, and even a few which never got off the proverbial drawing board.

As in several previous books, Yefim Gordon provided much information and most of the illustrations while Bill Gunston wrote the text and put the package together. The in-flight photograph of the MiG 1.44 featured on the jacket is from a Mikoyan video. A special vote of thanks is due to Nigel Eastaway and the Russian Aviation Research Trust who provid­ed the remainder of the visual images.

Sukhoi S-37 experimental fighter.

Soviet x-plenes

 

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