Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: The Imperial Russian Air Service: Famous Pilots and Aircraft of World War I (Alan Durkota, Thomas Darcey and Victor Kulikov)


Aviation history enthusiasts have long had limited access to the few works dealing with Russian aviation history for the periodleading up to and including World War I. The average Russian knew only what the Communist Party allowed him to knowabout imperial Russian aviation, which was very little.

A small group of scholars in the West, including the late Jean Alexander and Harry Woodman of England, and Dr. J. Kipp andVon Hardesty in America, began to study the era and publish their research on early Russian aviation. They were assisted intheir work by the recollections of a few early Russian aviators who had managed to escape from the Bolsheviks and who tookup residence in Europe and America. Among them was my father, the late Igor I. Sikorsky.

As a young boy, I was fortunate enough to meet many of these Russian airmen and engineers when they visited with my father.Men like Alexander Seversky, Boris Sergievsky and Vadym V. Utgoff are "bigger-than-life" childhood memories. I clearlyremember my first airplane ride in a Sikorsky S-38, seated on my father's lap in the co-pilot's seat with the charismaticSergievsky at the controls. I was about 7 years old.

Wandering through The Imperial Russian Air Service not only brought these unique people back to life but also told memuch about their early careers in Russia. This 560-page book has more than 600 rare photographs, scale drawings of over 40different aircraft, and 48 pages of color illustrations. In addition, the book is nicely divided into several sections, which makes it easier for the reader to cross-check between subject chapters. I understand that more than 10 years of research went into thisbook. Knowing how difficult it was (and often still is) to extract historical information and photographs from the former SovietUnion, I am impressed by the extent of detailed information that the authors were able to gather.

The first sections of the book review the army, navy and EVK (bomber) branches of the Imperial Russian Air Service in abrief and easily understood manner that clarifies both the organizational and operational aspects of a little-known militaryservice. The "Russian Aces" section covers, in considerable detail, the aviation careers of some 17 World War I Russianpilots. The amount of information on these early airmen is remarkable. The section covering French aviators who earned acestatus while flying for Imperial Russian Air Services is equally good.

The "Distinguished Russian Pilots" section details the aviation careers of many Russian aviators, not all of them aces, who madesignificant contributions to aviation in Europe and America, as well as in Russia. This section was of particular interest to me,since I had met a number of these pilots in my youth.

In the "Famous Russian Aircraft Designers" section, a great deal of detailed data on the work of Dimitri Grigorovich andSikorsky is presented. The section on Russian aircraft manufacturers is also packed with much valuable information, some ofwhich I believe is being presented for the first time in the English language. The 48-page color section shows the colors andmarkings of a great variety of Russian Air Service aircraft, as well as individual aircraft markings and decorations. An addedbonus is the inclusion of three paintings by renowned aviation artist James Dietz, adding a touch of action to the beautifullycrafted, three-view designs of Alan Durkota.

The book's final sections are appendices that cover Imperial Russian awards, lighter-than-air aviation, combat victory tablesfrom each aviator in the book, and nearly 60 pages of three-view drawings by Ian Stair and Harry Woodman.

In short, this book is an overview of the birth and organization of the Russian Imperial Air Service, the production plantscreated to supply it with aircraft, and some of the earliest Russian aeronautical engineers who prevailed despite the officialopinion that French and British designs were superior. In addition to the technical data, the book provides a unique source ofinformation on the men who flew those aircraft during World War I, the forgotten aces of that war. It is a valuable addition toany serious collection of aviation history.
Sergei Sikorsky

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