The Early History Of The Soviet Aviation Industry

This year marks 100 years since Soviet civil aviation began to take off. Even the early Bolshevik government was keen to introduce air routes to connect people and supplies over the large land that spanned 12 time zones. However, it would be 1921 when a series of routes emerged.

Even though Soviet aircraft were heavily focused on military operations, there were passenger breakthroughs from the beginning, such as the Yakovlev AIR series. Photo: Unknown author via Wikimedia Commons

Foreign connections

The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission notes that as the government’s Main Administration of the Aerial Fleet launched civil routes, Soviet pilots were using surplus military aircraft from World War I. Namely, aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky’s Ilya Muromets were modified and filled with passengers and mail between Soviet cities.

Despite the promising start, there was a lack of funds to keep the progress going. So, the government had to put an end to these operations. Nonetheless, with a little help from Germany, passenger activity soon got going again.

Deruluft was a joint German-Soviet airline tracing its formation back to November 1921. The carrier launched its first permanent aerial link between Moscow and Königsberg, with stops in Kaunas and Smolensk, in 1922, and formed a series of other important routes during the remainder of the 1920s. However, during this decade, it flew mainly foreign aircraft, which were largely Dutch or German.

The company mostly conducted mail and cargo operations, but it did dip into passenger services, which were growing in demand each year. In 1923, Deruluft flew 338 passengers. However, this figure grew by nearly 10 fold by the time the 1930s approached. Thus, there was now a requirement for new passenger operations.

Rohrbach Roland
Deruluft originally flew with foreign builds, such as the Dornier Merkur, the Rohrbach Roland, and the Junkers Ju-52. Photo: Iberia Airlines via Wikimedia Commons

Looking closer to home

Andrey Tupolev, a pioneer in Soviet aviation, was making waves with other influential experts during this period. These innovators laid the foundations for what was to come.

“During 1916-1918 Andrey Tupolev, in cooperation with Nikolay Zhukovsky, worked on the development of aerodynamic tunnels. Graduating with honors from the university in 1918 young Tupolev with professor Zhukovsky founded TsAGI (the Central Aero Hydrodynamic Institute). Tupolev was the head of the aviation department.

“One of the major innovations brought by Tupolev to the Soviet aircraft manufacturing industry was replacing wooden parts of the planes with duralumin. This upset the wood producing industries. But Tupolev overcame the wood lobby and insisted on using duralumin in aircraft construction,” RT shares.

“On 22 October 1922 the famous OKB Tupolev (Tupolev design bureau) was founded. It was also known as OKB-156, with the design office prefix Tu. It was home to more than 300 different projects. More than 100 of them were built. About 70 were in serial production. Among these were world known civil and military aircrafts such as Tu–95, Tu-160, Tu-154 and Tu-144. More than 78 world records were set with these planes.”

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Local innovations

While many of the aforementioned aircraft are well known, they were introduced much later in the timeline. The Tupolev ANT-1 was Tupolev OKB’s first plane, based on the engineer’s work with boats and aerosleds. The aircraft performed its first flight on October 20th, 1923, but did not enter passenger service.

The Tupolev ANT-1 had a range of up to Range: 540 km (291 NM). Photo: Mike1979 Russia via Wikimedia Commons

The ANT-2 was the first all-metal aircraft designed by the bureau. This small passenger plane could carry two passengers and a pilot. However, despite conducting its first flight on May 26th, 1924, it would remain an experimental aircraft.

The ANT-9 would be the civil model to grab the attention of the public for Tupolev. This nine-passenger plane was developed in response to the demand for domestic aircraft. It performed its first flight on May 5th, 1929, before being introduced in the 1930s. The tri-engine airliner began flying with Deruluft on its Berlin-Moscow service from 1933, marking the start of operations with a Soviet-produced plane for the airline.

Even though it was a viable business, Dereluft’s life was cut short in the spring of 1937 amid tensions arising between Germany and the Soviet Union.

Tupolev wasn’t the only bureau working on passenger aircraft in the 1920s. Notably, Aleksandr Sergeyevich Yakovlev was designing and building the AIR-1, a two-seat light biplane. The type conducted its first flight on May 12th, 1927, and over six units would go on to be built. The AIR-1 prototype was fitted with an ADC Cirrus engine. The aircraft was also developed into the AIR-2 – an improved model.

The AIR-3 would also go on to make a name for itself. The two-seat monoplane hit the skies for the first time on August 17th, 1929.

Another shakeup

In March 1923, the authorities formed the Volunteer Association of the Aerial Fleet, also known by the name of Dobrolet. This outfit was the union’s first major civil air group, and it introduced regular air service with Junkers F-13s between Moscow and Nizhnii Novgorod.

Passengers often suffered on these flights amid poor conditions, including cold weather and loud noise, but the organization expanded, reaching far into eastern regions such as Outer Mongolia and Siberia. Yet, Dobrolet would not reach its full potential. The Soviet Union’s communist officials grew weary of large organizations and were eager to have greater control over these operations.

Subsequently, in October 1930, Dobrolet was combined with the Main Administration of the Civil Air Fleet into one state-owned outfit, which would soon be known as Aeroflot.

Aeroflot A350-900
Aeroflot is still going strong. Photo: Getty Images

A lasting impact

Civil aviation was now showing its maturation at the turn of the 1930s. The Soviet Union had its own passenger aircraft developed and in the air. The 1930s would go on to absolutely shake up aviation, not only within the Soviet Union but across the globe. New technological advances would shape the direction of the industry heading into World War II.

Overall, several key names mentioned in this article are still recognizable today. Aeroflot, Tupolev, and Yakovlev are titles of companies that presently form an integral part of the Russian aerospace scene. While plenty has changed across the industrial spectrum of the land, the impact of the early days of Soviet aviation can still be felt around a century later.

What are your thoughts about the early history of civil aviation in the Soviet Union? What do you make of these developments? Let us know what you think in the comment section.