The Russian Origins of Strategic Air Operations
The Russian Origins of Strategic Air Operations
Sikorsky's Il’ya Muromets. Courtesy of Von Hardesty.
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 pre-War 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 Poytechnic 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 sixty feet in length. It was graced with a wingspan approaching ninety feet and weighed nearly two tons. The Russian Warrior could accommodate up to twelve 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 fifty-five 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 eighty-horsepower engine fell to the earth, landing on the Russian Warrior parked below.
An interior view of the 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 twenty 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’ia 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 twelve 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’ia 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.
The squadron’s activities increased with the approach of spring. A mission over German rearward positions on March 9th ended in the delivery of seventeen bombs (totaling over 650 lbs) on a railroad station, hangars, and military auxiliary facilities located in the town of Willenberg.. A return bombing run the following month was also reported to have caused considerable damage.
Long duration reconnaissance and bombing missions deep into hostile enemy territory continued to be the principal function of the Il’ya Muromets. However, as the number of planes in the EVK expanded so, too, did opportunities to demonstrate the airplanes’ adaptability. By late 1915, the squadron’s air crews had pioneered a number of techniques that subsequently became standard elements of strategic air power. Efforts to improve performance led to the development of advanced techniques in what is today referred to as bomb damage assessment. As early as summer 1915 Russian air crews were routinely using photographic equipment to record both the locations of enemy troops and the results of bombing missions. In the latter case, these efforts amounted to history’s first serious and sustained efforts to undertake “real time” bomb damage assessments.
The innovations introduced by the EVK also included the development of an entirely new type of strategic air operation: aerial re-supply. As Russian units retreated from advancing German forces in March 1915, Muromtsy were used to deliver ammunition and instructions to infantry regiments of the 29th Division cut-off by advancing German forces. In the absence of parachutes, zinc-lined boxes of rifle cartridges were wrapped in bales of rags and dropped from low altitude in the vicinity of retreating troops.
Like all of the Russian military’s aviation detachments, as the war progressed, the EVK suffered from the anemic state of domestic industry. Within six weeks of the inauguration of hostilities, worried airplane factory owners began writing frantic letters to the General Staff warning of the persistent shortages they confronted in attempting to replenish the military's aircraft. No less troublesome, they were forced to contend with a rising tide of worker unrest that grew in conjunction with the war’s increasing dislocations. Beginning in summer 1915 (and continuing until Russia’s exit from the conflict), airplane manufacturing plants faced an increasing number of strikes and work stoppages. These interrupted production and undermined efforts to equip the army with the machines that it required. In an effort to alleviate supply and production problems, factories began sending representatives abroad to secure necessary parts albeit it with only marginal success.
The situation facing the EVK was particularly acute when it came to the issue of supplying the engines required for its Muromtsy. During the opening months of the war, Shidlovskii’s Russo-Balt Factory had drawn upon its pre-existing supply of German-built Argus and Daimler engines to meet production needs. These were augmented by a small number of Argus engines produced under license by the factory itself. As the factory’s supply of foreign-made motors dwindled, Shidlovskii was forced to turn to Russia’s wartime allies in an attempt to make-up for the growing shortfall in power plants. The results were disappointing. Orders placed for French-built Renault and Hispano-Suiza engines encountered chronic delays and frequent cancellations as the French government understandably required that the nation’s increasingly burdened factories fulfill the growing demands of its own air corps before shipping equipment abroad. Subsequent appeals to the British led to deliveries of underpowered and unreliable Sunbeam engines in 1916. The British shipments were also marked by widespread build-quality issues including an array of engines possessing defective cylinders, connecting rods, and pumps.
The acute supply problems reached the critical stage by mid-1916. Between October 1916 and February 1917, the EVK failed to receive a single one of the forty engines ordered from the Russo-Balt factory. Unable to maintain existing aircraft, let alone deploy new machines into the field, the operational capacity of the squadron rapidly deteriorated. The collapse of the autocracy in March 1917 marked the effective end of Russian strategic air operations. Shidlovskii was removed as the squadron’s commander shortly after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Although individual Il’ia Muromtsy continued to undertake sporadic missions until Russia’s withdrawal from the conflict in March 1918, the squadron played no significant military role in the last stages of the war.
Judged solely from the standpoint of its impact upon military operations, Imperial Russia’s “Squadron of Flying Ships” was only a qualified success. Widespread production, supply, and service issues as well as growing technical obsolescence limited what might otherwise have been a greater contribution to the country’s war effort. All the same, these deficiencies should not detract from the EVK’s historic contributions to evolution of military aviation. In addition to functioning as the world’s first multi-engine heavy bombers, Sikorsky’s Il’ia Muromtsy were responsible for a number of historic innovations in the application of military airpower including: the first use of cameras to record bomb damage assessment, first use of multiple airplanes in the conduct of bombing runs, the first nighttime airplane bombing raids, and history’s first aerial re-supply operations. In time, these activities would all become standard elements of strategic air operations as airplanes assumed increasing significance in twentieth-century warfare.