By Carl J. Bobrow
By 1909 it was becoming more and more apparent that in future wars the skies above the earth would no longer play a benign role. Since the early nineteenth century the use of the balloon by the military in many countries, for reconnaissance purposes, had gained a wider acceptance. In the first decade of the twentieth century this predominantly passive observation deck would give way to newer and more effective contrivances for reconnoitering, specifically the aeroplane and the dirigible. It is easy for us to say from hind sight that these inventions would play an important role in the way that future wars would be fought and how European society as a whole would respond to the "threat from the sky". It should be noted that there were influential individuals at that time who believed that neither invention could or would provide any significant military value. Just as there were obtuse detractors who initially suppressed the militaries involvement in aviation, there were brilliant visionaries who saw the realistic possibilities that these new invention would provide and forged ahead regardless.
It is quite curious that both the aeroplane and the dirigible came into being almost at the same time. Although the dirigible showed promise early on for commercial as well as military use, with its extended range and high load carrying capabilities, the airships inherent weaknesses eventually forced its use to be limited. Aside from the psychological impact, due in no small way to its formidable size, it would eventually prove to be ineffectual in war. We need to keep this fact in perspective for it was not to be realized by the belligerents until it was tested under war time conditions. In the rush to maintain a balance of power England, France, Russia and Italy found themselves in a lopsided race to keep up with Germany's ongoing development and utilization of what was popularly known as the Zeppelin. This in itself would help spur the development of military aviation throughout Europe.
The stunning psychosociological reaction which resulted after the historic flight by Louis Bleriot across the English Channel in 1909 reverberated in England for decades. Their island home, touted to be a fortress protected by the world’s most powerful Navy, was now vulnerable by air. The concern of the populace was not simply for their personal safety, for it now seemed their very way of life was in the balance. Via the daily tabloids they came to the realization that military compounds, ammunition depots, rail centers, communication centers and other strategic locations were now open to aerial bombardment. It was even suggested that the Germans could covertly launch a fleet of Zeppelins with enough soldiers to invade the English homeland. It is important to remember there were but a handful of individuals who truly understood the limited potential of the flying machines which existed at that time.
The significance of the channel crossing was not missed by the keen mind of Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, who was in France at the time. Upon his return to Russia he instituted the development of the All Russian Aero Club. The purpose of the organization was not only to promote aeronautical activities but to inform and inspire the public on all things pertaining to flight. This was not unique to Russia, most of the European continent was enthralled by the sportsmanlike activities which were exhibited by the early fliers.
Though the military in general was led to aviation reluctantly, there were those members of the various military branches who immediately saw the vast potential of both the aeroplane and the dirigible. As the development of flying machines progressed their reliability and usable range increased. The use and the deployment of both the aeroplane and the dirigible expanded both commercially and militarily. Many of the fanciful notions held by both the public and the military of what these apparatuses could achieve were soon swept away by the grim realities of war.
It soon became apparent that aerial observation of ground activities would be crucial to the war effort. The development of the aeroplane underwent a rapid maturation, with aircraft for specialized use constantly evolving in order to fulfill the conditions required at the various theaters of conflict. The captive balloon which proved effective for the trench warfare type of struggle, which the First World War had become, was limited in its observation range and thus was useful only at the immediate front.
The need for long range reconnaissance for observing the rear staging areas was vital. On the western front such operations eventually were accomplished by the successful use of two seat observation planes which flew at high altitudes. As the war went on the use of the dirigible proved largely ineffective for daytime operations. Their intended use for long range reconnaissance as well as daylight bombing eventually was taken over by the aeroplane. At the onset of hostilities the aeroplane as a whole was still limited in operational range as well as usable payload. Only Russia and Italy entered the war with aircraft which could effectively provide the military with both long range reconnaissance and bombing capabilities.
The German high command had put their faith in the giant airships; once again a few visionaries realized that large multi-engined aeroplanes were to be the future. The Germans were well acquainted with the development of Russia's long range reconnaissance/bombers, probably more so than anyone else. It is interesting to note that one of their first attempts to fill this gap was a design based closely upon Sikorsky's Il'ya Muromets. How much of an influence the Murometsy had on both the decision to build the R-planes (an abbreviation of Riesenflugzeug, the giant German bombers) in Germany and their initial design parameters is open to speculation. The German military command was quite aware of the fledgling Murometsy squadrons, since their unopposed sorties into the German rear on the eastern front caused more than a mere annoyance. They must have realized that such an aeroplane would provide them with the long range strategic weapon that they desired. It seems reasonable to believe that these deep intrusions into their territory had some influence on their decision to build their Giants, particularly in view of their expeditious development and use. Only after a concerted effort to fill this military and technological void did the other warring nations develop their own large multi-engined aeroplanes for long range reconnaissance and bombing. How the Russians, whose industrial base was only in its infancy at the turn of the century, could produce a design that was effectively years ahead of any other nation is an interesting story.
PHOTO # 1 The world’s first multi-engined enclosed cabin aeroplane popularly known as the Grand. This aircraft first flew in the spring of 1913, until it was severely damaged in a freak accident while on the ground. This flying testbed launched Igor Sikorsky's long career in heavy aviation. [Courtesy of Sikorsky Aircraft/UTC] By the age of twenty-four, Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky had already demonstrated his adept ability as an aircraft designer. Many of his designs were as innovative as they were successful. Some of these aircraft proved superior to both the foreign and domestic designs which were entered into the national military trials. Sikorsky's meteoric rise in these endeavors was due in part to his intuitive genius as well as his empirical approach to problem solving. In his long career no greater challenge would be faced than the design and construction of his multi-engined aeroplanes built in Russia.
PHOTO # 2 The second Il'ya Muromets built, a type B, this aircraft was given the name "Kievskiy" in honor of its achievements by Czar Nicholas the II. In this aircraft Igor Sikorsky and a crew of three made the epic 1,600 mile roundtrip flight from St. Petersburg to Kiev. Note the passenger on the observation platform in front of the nose. [Courtesy of NASM] After the successful construction of the world’s first and second multi-engined enclosed cabin aeroplane Igor Sikorsky decided to demonstrate that his large aircraft had a practical purpose. His plan called for a daring flight in his most recently redesigned Il'ya Muromets, R-BVZ No. 128. On June 30, 1914 Sikorsky, with a crew of three which consisted of two copilots, Lieutenant G.I. Lavrov of the Imperial Russian Navy, Captain K.F. Prussis of the Imperial Russian Army, and his trusted mechanic, V.S. Panasiuk, took off from Komendantsky Field near St. Petersburg for the 1,600 mile roundtrip flight to Kiev. The trek was intended to subject the aeroplane to varying operational conditions. Such a long distance flight would provide invaluable information for future design criteria and Sikorsky was well aware of this. Although he had successfully established world records for weight, altitude and duration in his previous multi-engined designs, he was quick to realize that these flights were not the same as the venture he was about to embark on. Manufacturing an aircraft that was to operate as a long range transport would require a design that could fly under various conditions. One practical way to recognize what these parameters would be was to conduct a lengthy cross country flight. Needless to say the publicity would benefit the company he worked for.
The Il'ya Muromets was provisioned with an ample supply of fuel as well as numerous spare parts to help ensure a successful flight. They had planned for only one stop near the city of Orsha for refueling. Aside from this one site there were no other airfields along the way, the only hope for an emergency landing would be one of the larger cultivated fields south of the great forests. The brilliant success of their round trip flight proved not only the viability of Igor Sikorsky's design but the possibility of long distance transport by aeroplane. The effect on the Russian aviation community was stunning, his designs would influence generations. Detailed news of the flight reached an astonished audience in the rest of Europe as well as the United States. Shortly after this epic flight an even more startling event unfolded which certainly obscured the news of Sikorsky's accomplishment; this was the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand and the subsequent outbreak of World War One.
PHOTO # 3 Igor Sikorsky standing seventh from left, below outboard engine of an Il'ya Muromets type B. This aircraft was delivered to the military and was equipped with Salmson engines. Photo taken during the winter of 1914-15.[Courtesy of Sikorsky Aircraft/UTC] With the commencement of hostilities Mikhail V. Shidlovskiy, the Director of the Russo-Baltic Wagon Company (R-BVZ) which built the Il'ya Muromets, for which Sikorsky was the chief designer, quickly realized that he had the opportunity as well as the obligation to help the Russian war effort. Having very close ties with the Ministry of War he was able to persuade them to order a number of Il'ya Muromets aircraft. He suggested that a squadron utilizing the Il'ya Muromets be created. The idea was to fly and operate them much in the way that a naval fleet works. Shidlovskiy and others felt the Il'ya Muromets not only possessed the potential to operate as a long range reconnaissance aircraft but also as a bomber and rightly so. This concept was a bold one for the time, as well as a shrewd business deal since the order could only be filled by one firm, the R-BVZ. Since 1909 it was widely believed that the dirigible would succeed in these tasks. Although the Russians did have a few French built airships and a few domestic made dirigibles in their service they were quickly shown to be outmoded for this aspect of military duty by 1914. Although the Germans made extensive use of their Zeppelins, particularly in the early stages of the war, these were of a much better design than the type employed by the Russians or for that matter anyone else. With this fact in mind Shidlovskiy's proposal struck a chord. The acceptance of Shidlovskiy's suggestion by the Ministry of War and the approval of Czar Nicholas II, led to the creation of the first squadron of Murometsy and a contract to supply military versions of the Il'ya Muromets.
Initially the existing civilian models were procured for military use. As we shall see this would almost cause the demise of the whole program. With the rush to establish this new squadron the need for experienced pilots became paramount. Unfortunately at that time there were relatively few military pilots who had the notion or inclination to join such a squadron. They had neither the vision of how effective the Murometsy would be, or the necessary training to fly and control such huge aircraft. These pilots, who were familiar with small aeroplanes, mostly of foreign design, thought of themselves as the Calvary of the air. Although many of them knew and admired Igor Sikorsky this did not translate into a willingness to staff the squadron. Yet not all of the officers of the Imperial Russian Air Force (IRAF) viewed the formation of this squadron or the use of the Il'ya Muromets with such skepticism. These officers and pilots who did join would form the nucleus of what would eventually become the Squadron of Flying Ships (Escadra vozdushnykh korabley, or EVK). Initially, as stated, the squadron was equipped with the existing Murometsy, these aircraft were upgraded and modified in order to fulfill the operational parameters which were required by the military. Instead of sending these aircraft to the front by rail it was decided to allow them to be flown to their forward locations. Although the pilots who flew the ships were experienced flyers their lack of familiarity with this radically new design almost signaled the death knell for the future use of the Il'ya Muromets and the squadron as well. Since the pilots flying these aeroplanes were unable to achieve the standards of performance as required by the military it was decided to place all orders for the Il'ya Muromets on hold. Additionally the squadron was ordered to stand down, temporarily at least.
Shidlovskiy believed that the real problem was organizational, rather than the aircrafts inability to perform. He arose to defend his aircraft and ideas vehemently, stating that failure to make use of such an important weapon would be tantamount to a criminal act. With his influential contacts in the Ministry of War as well as other branches of the government M.V. Shidlovskiy was not only able to get these orders rescinded but went on to obtain an appointment as the squadron's new commander with the rank of Major General. Mikhail Shidlovskiy envisioned a squadron which would be self contained operationally and insular from the normal command structure. Being an ex-naval officer he was familiar with military regulations, procedure and conduct. Both his organizational skills and his familiarity with the Il'ya Muromets made him an excellent choice. It is interesting to note that Shidlovskiy saw no conflict with the fact that he should both head the EVK and also make money by supplying the IM's to the military. Such a feudalistic throwback could only exist in Russia at that time.
PHOTO # 4 A forward EVK aerodrome, note the large tent type hangers for the Murometsy, probably taken in early 1915.[Courtesy of Sikorsky Aircraft/UTC] In December 1914 Shidlovskiy officially assumed command of the EVK but it was not until January 1915 that the General had things organized enough to send for Igor Sikorsky to join him at Yablonna, the EVK's forward aerodrome near Warsaw. One of their first duties was to ascertain why the IM's were not performing up to their normal operational parameters. They knew the Il'ya Muromets were more than capable of exceeding the military's flight requirements. Igor Sikorsky confirmed what General Shidlovskiy had suspected. The lack of proper training and organization for both the pilots and the ground crews had contributed to the poor performance. Sikorsky found the airframes were no longer in an airworthy state, also the engines were running far below their rated performance. Aside from these mechanical hindrances the lack of advanced flight training for the pilots operating the Il'ya Muromets, with its complex control system, had contributed to their initial failures. It did not take General Shidlovskiy long to sort out the control and command problems, nor did it take Igor Sikorsky much time to instruct the squadron in resolving the difficulties encountered in both flying and maintaining the Murometsy.
PHOTO # 5 A jubilant flight and ground crew after a very successful and important mission over enemy lines, early 1915.[Courtesy of Sikorsky Aircraft/UTC] By February 1915 the EVK was commencing operations which included long range strategic reconnaissance and bombing missions. As a result of these first flights and their overwhelming successes the Stavka (the Supreme High Command of the Russian Military) withdrew the command of the EVK from the Field Inspector General of Aviation, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, and placed the squadron under direct supervision of Stavka. The amount of sorties flown increased significantly with the emphasis on reconnaissance, particularly for the rear staging areas. It is quite evident from these actions that the high command quickly realized the importance of the missions that the IM's were capable of carrying out. Commensurate to all this the original order for the Murometsy was increased as was the size of the squadron itself, so that by 1916 the squadron had substantially increased in size. At the EVK's zenith of activity no less than thirty Murometsy were available for combat sorties. A good many of the IM's which were built by the R-BVZ were employed as trainers. As the squadron developed, a central base of operations was established at Vinnitsa. From here regional squadrons were sent out to various field positions to operate over the vast Russian front. Training courses were held at Vinnitsa for both pilots, flight personnel, and the ground crews. Here under the tutelage of an experienced staff, comprised of both pilots and technical specialists, the next generation of the EVK was prepared to assume the rigors and responsibilities awaiting them at the front.