Monday, May 11, 2015

Prewar Russian Military Aviation

Whereas the prewar Russian military has generally been depicted as being technologically backward compared with the other great powers, this was not entirely true when it came to air power. After Louis Blériot’s flight across the English Channel in 1909, Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich, played an instrumental role in promoting aviation in Russia and was named the first commander of the Department of the Air Fleet, soon known as the Russian Imperial Air Service. In addition to raising funds for the purchase of French Blériots and Farmans, Grand Duke Mikhail sent Russian military officers to France for pilot training. By 1911, the Volkov Field Balloon School outside St. Petersburg had been expanded to include airplanes. Because harsh Russian winter conditions resistricted the length of training, Grand Duke Mikhail saw the need to relocate to the warmer climate of the Crimea, opening the Sevastopol School of Aeronautics for army and navy officers. More significant, Russia possessed an innovative aircraft designer of its own in Igor Sikorsky, who prior to the First World War had designed one of the world’s first successful, large multiengine aircraft, the four-engine Ilya Muromet, which in June 1914 successfully completed a 1,600-mile round-trip flight from St. Petersburg to Kiev. As will be indicated later, however, Russia unfortunately lacked the industrial infrastructure needed to fulfill its own aircraft needs once the war began.

In terms of aircraft attached to the armies that were being mobilized in 1914 (e.g., naval aircraft will be considered later), perhaps the best estimates are that Germany mobilized approximately 250 airplanes and 9 airships, compared with France with 141 airplanes and 4 airships, Russia with 244 airplanes and 14 airships, Great Britain with 63 airplanes attached to the British Expeditionary Force, and Austria-Hungary with approximately 50 airplanes. With the exception of Sikorsky’s Ilya Muromet, Russia’s aircraft were qualitatively inferior because most were older aircraft of foreign design that had already been decommissioned elsewhere, and the great variety of aircraft employed by the Russians created a logistical nightmare in terms of procuring parts and engines.
Russia, although possessing an excellent aircraft in the Ilya Muromets, relied heavily upon imported French motors for its domestically produced aircraft as well as on French aircraft that had become obsolete on the Western Front.

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