For the first time since its inauguration, one of the Soviet Union's most popular holidays, Aviation Day, was observed in August under wartime conditions. While the Red Air Force is much heard from these days, considerably less is said of the operations of the Civil Air Fleet. The Soviets have emphasized for years that they regard their commercial and sports aviation as a powerful adjunct of the fighting contingents.
The activities of the airlines and other branches of civil aeronautics have been decidedly subordinated to the all-out war effort. Civil flying has not been curtailed, but rather it has been redirected. Private travel and transport of non-essential freight is restricted. On the other hand, expansion has been registered in the aerial ambulance service, which even before the war was a prominent department of the Civil Air Fleet.
It is noteworthy that since the Nazi invasion began scores of civilian airmen have been decorated by the government, alongside the military fliers, "for exemplary and self-sacrificing execution of orders of the Red Army command in fighting German Nazism and for courage and valor displayed therein."
There was cited Pilot Andreyev. While transporting wounded soldiers, his plane was attacked by Nazi pursuits and burst into flames. Under incessant enemy fire, the pilot made a perfect landing. While the German fighters circled over them, Andreyev and his crew carried 25 seriously wounded men to a place of safety.
Another Civil Air Fleet ambulance was similarly attacked. The wounded pilot with great difficulty tried to land his craft on an island, but it hit the water and began to sink. Flight Mechanic Polyakoff, who was unhurt, saved the commander of the plane, the radio operator and all 15 gravely wounded Red Army men aboard.
Commander Riza of the PS-84, a twin-engined (air-cooled) transport, regularly flies over the front lines. In a single night he made three flights into enemy country. All flights were successful, notwithstanding foul weather and anti-aircraft fire. Although in decorating him, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR has not stated his mission, it is apparently a part of the Civil Air Fleet's operations nowadays to deliver to the guerrilla detachments behind the German lines their ammunition, food, literature, and perhaps to bring well-trained and armed parachuting saboteurs.
Equally renowned for his daring calls behind the Nazi lines is civilian Pilot Verveiko who, when last heard from, was attached to a Kiev unit. He flies at night and under enemy AA fire.
On the 2,000-mile front, it is all in the day's work for a civilian pilot to undergo the experience of Commander Krugloff of an ambulance plane which with a group of wounded soldiers aboard was attacked by three Messerschmitts. His ship damaged, himself badly wounded, Krugloff landed and dragged his wounded Red Army charges to safety, all this under withering German machine gun fire.
Remaining aloft 14 to 16 hours at a time, Pilot Zinchenko made over 20 flights to evacuate wounded Soviet citizens.
Pilot Taranenko, delivering medicines to field hospitals, was attacked by Nazi fighters, while several wounded soldiers were with him. His plane was damaged by enemy fire. So, Taranenko landed and it was not on an emergency field either effected repairs and flew the wounded to a hospital.
The foregoing incidents afford but a brief cross-section of the Soviet civil ambulance service. As the war continues, this invaluable collaborator with the Red Army Medical Corps will continue to set and break its own records for the extent, elaborateness and daring of its work.
Nor has the expansion in medical work interfered in the regular airline operations. Since the beginning of the war the Civil Air Fleet has been striving to maintain the record set last year when it placed the USSR in the first place in the world in the total mileage of regular routes.
Until that fateful night of June 22 when the Wehrmacht lunged across the Soviet frontiers without a warning, the transport of passengers, mail and express was steadily growing in importance in the USSR, ably complementing corresponding rail and waterway facilities. By 1940, Soviet airlines totaled 88,000 miles, compared with 36,581 miles in the United States. If we included the foreign lines operated by the two countries at that time, the figures are, respectively, 93,000 and 80,109 miles. The US led in the number of passengers carried and although in this respect the Soviet Union was left considerably behind, it in turn was far ahead of the rest of the field. The Soviet lines transported 307,000 passengers in 1939, by far the highest figure for any European power, but US lines accounted for 1,876,000 air travelers that year.
But the USSR led with mail transport when it reported 11,517 tons in 1939. It is also world leader in air freight haulage. In 1939, the last prewar year, it shipped by air 39,654 tons of freight as against 4,757 tons carried in the US. However, Soviet air travelers are fully appreciative of the advantages of their country's airlines. They know that the railroad trip from Moscow to Alma-Ata, to give only one example, requires five days, but the 2,235 mile beeline is traversed by the airliner in less than 15 hours.
Moscow is the great focal point for air transport. Regularly and frequently the liners take off for or arrive from Leningrad, Ashkhabad, Tblisi, Mineralniye Vodi and other European and Asiatic cities of the Union. Some schedules have had to be drastically revised or eliminated; for instance, the German occupation of Kiev caused the discontinuance of one of the most popular air routes, that between the Russian and Ukrainian capitals. Since in nearly every case of Soviet evacuation, valuable equipment is removed in good time by the defenders, airplanes on the Kiev route and others undoubtedly have been transferred to increase the service elsewhere.
Incidentally, the run on the Moscow-Mineralniye Vodi route is by the six-engined USSR-L-760, the successor to the giant Maxim Gorki type. The L-760 has a range of 3,000 kilometers (1,875 miles) and accommodations for 64 passengers and a crew of eight, as this writer reported in the pages of Aviation last year. Recent cables from Europe have told of its conversion into a heavy bomber. The weight of this ship in flight is 45 tons: wing spread 210', height 23'.
Other aircraft types widely used for mail and passenger traffic include PS- 84, PS-40, PS-35 and others. Whereas in the past speed and comfort used to be sacrificed for sturdiness, durability and carrying capacity, today these ships compare with the best in the world. On the Moscow-Irkutsk line, 2,835 air miles long, a 20-hour schedule is maintained. At the beginning of 1941 the 11-passenger PS-35s averaged 250 mph rate on some runs. On heavily patronized runs this plane is augmented by another twin-engined ship, PS-84 which takes aloft 21 passengers. Used on the Moscow-Stockholm line, this plane cruised at 170 mph, though there have been hints from the pilots that they used it quite regularly at 190 mph; maximum speed is, of course, higher. Resembling America's DC-3 (which, incidentally, has been basic equipment on most of the Soviet international lines), the PS-84 has 1,250-mile range and 18,000-foot ceiling. It takes off at 80 mph, lands at 85 or lower, handles easily, flies on one engine with which it maintains 95 mph. Its adaptability to complex air and ground conditions led to its introduction in 1941 on the Arctic airways, of which more presently.
Also widely employed in commercial flying is the Stal-11 which has several versions. Particularly well streamlined, this was first built in 1936 when a Hispano-Suiza engine powered it, later to be replaced by a liquid-cooled native power plant. In 1939 the seven-passenger model of Stal set the present world speed record for non-military planes, when it covered 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) nonstop at 251 mph.
Prior to the war a number of international airlines operated under the auspices of the Main Administration of the Civil Air Fleet. They linked the country with Berlin, Stockholm, Sofia, Kabul and other centers of Europe, Asia and Near East.
On those, as well as on the domestic lines, a great many pilots and flight mechanics were known as "millionaires"; each had to his credit at least 1,000,000 kilometers in the air. The quality of their training has made it possible in recent years to take advantage of the latest technological advances made by aeronautical research in the USSR and abroad. On the initiative of some veteran pilots and with the cooperation of engineers and other technicians, civil aircraft have been built to operate normally at altitudes of 13,000 to 19,000 ft. These heights endow the planes with greater speed and result in a substantial conservation of fuel. The utilization of such norms has made possible, among other things, mail from Irkutsk to Moscow in less than a day.
Some of the goods carried by air transports are vegetables, fruit, fish, cotton, medicines, spare parts for factory machines. In the last three years the time of delivery of perishable merchandise has been cut by more than 50 percent.
The Soviet Union is the only country that operates a regular airline serviced by lighter-than-air craft. Moscow is linked by a dirigible line with Sverdlovsk, the important industrial metropolis of the Urals. For about four years the semi-rigid DP-9s have been in use there. Filled with non-inflammable helium (the USSR is the only country, aside from the US, that has its own deposits of this gas in adequate quantities), this type has a capacity of 25,000 cubic meters. Its comfortable passenger gondola has sleeping accommodations for 16, a salon, buffet and smoking room. All captains and copilots of lighter-than-air ships are graduate engineers. A good many pilots, navigators and mechanics on these lines, as well as on regular airlines, are women. In Moscow there is a school for advanced training of both male and female dirigible personnel.
The Civil Air Fleet does not confine itself to transport work. Distinctly apart from the wartime medical service there is a so-called sanitary aviation. Planes take aid and medical personnel to remote, isolated spots of the country. If no landing fields are available, the physicians, nurses and surgical instruments come down to the patients by parachute. Sick persons from a distant outpost are often rushed by air to a medical center.
In 1939 Soviet ambulance planes had flown 70,372 hours, brought doctors to 11,372 patients, carried 2,840 sick people to hospitals. In the Russian Soviet Republic alone aviation rendered medical aid to more than 40,000 persons that year.
Sanitary aviation is employed to exterminate malaria-breeding mosquito spots. The splendid harvests of corn, cotton, sugar beet in recent years have been due in no small measure to the dusting and spraying of the fields by planes.
That dread scourge of agriculture, the locust, has its most formidable enemy in aviation. Breeding in the south of the country, particularly in the regions of the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya and on the shores of the Aral Sea, the locust is now the quarry of intensive chemical war from the skies. In one hour an airplane covers 150 hectares of farm land. In this way century-old breeding grounds of the Asiatic and Morocco locust were completely purged of this parasite.
Similar techniques were enlisted to destroy pests that damaged the cotton crops in Central Asia, Azerbaijan. Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. During the Second Five-Year Plan chemicals were sprayed by aircraft over 488,000 hectares of land sown with cotton. In 1940 a cotton area of 80,000 hectares was covered, in 1939 alone 210,000 hectares of cotton fields had been cleared. By spraying or dropping poisoned bait, the pests are destroyed 30 times faster than by hand. The recent years have seen the use of newly- developed airplane atomizer on the beet-root weevil. This pest was destroyed on territory of 96,000 hectares by last year.
Aviation is used for forest fire patrol work. It helps to detect and prevent fires and also delivers firemen and their apparatus wherever required, sometimes letting them down by parachute. This department of the Civil Air Fleet has within its jurisdiction over $95,360,000 acres of forest land. Here, too, harmful insects and animals are hunted from the air. Every year new forests are sown in the USSR from aircraft.
Soviet fisheries also benefit from the work of the Civil Air Fleet. Fishermen are assisted during the shoaling season with aircraft spotting fish and directing surface vessels to profitable locations.
Also systematic is the part of the airplane in Soviet science. Hundreds of exploring expeditions make use of aircraft. In the Soviet Arctic a thick network of air routes links the polar stations. transpolar ports and new industrial cities with one another and with the nation's centers outside the Far North. Perhaps the world's longest airline is that between Moscow and Anadyr. Passengers and express leave Moscow regularly for the far-off cold Chukhotka. The planes fly east along the Arctic Ocean coastline. Machinery, foodstuffs, mail and workmen are carried by air to the Arctic, bringing furs and other local products on the return trip.
Military value of the Northern Sea Route is enormous. It is there that the Red Navy Northern Fleet makes its home. It is there that Soviet naval units have lately been sinking German submarines. Were it not for the continuous cooperation of Arctic airmen, the Northern Sea Route's shipping could not function as effectively as it does. These fliers now carry on year-round reconnaissance and reporting of ice movements. In planes of wide range they scout over the Laptevykh, Kara, Eastern Siberian, Chukhotsk Seas and other waterways. They inform by radio the pilots of surface vessels regarding the condition of ice and help them choose the shortest and safest itineraries. This flying job is so complex, difficult and responsible that the very best of airmen are assigned to it.
Aviation may be credited with the opening up of new frontiers for industry, agriculture and civilization in general. Far East has been the beneficiary no less than Far North. New population centers are springing up and huge stretches of farm land added as each year witnesses the opening of many hundreds of miles of air routes.
In the Pamirs, the Roof of the World, there is the Gorno-Badakhstan area which was formerly isolated from the rest of the world nine months of each year. During the three summer months the road to it led over craggy mountain ranges and turbulent streams. The inhabitants knew nothing of the existence of automobiles and other vehicles, but since 1929 they have been acquainted with airplanes and pilots.
A few words are in order about ground equipment. Radio beacons are functioning on all principal routes, including those in the Arctic. Airways used in night flying are lighted throughout, except in blackouts. Some of the largest airports have blind-landing installations.
Meteorological services are especially good because they are augmented by more than 50 weather observation stations in the Arctic which is known to science as the "weather kitchen." The Aerological Observatory is the headquarters which coordinates all aeronautical weather services. The surfacing of landing strips, maintenance of good emergency fields and other aids have led to the abandonment of the wintertime practice of exchanging wheels for skis on all main routes.
The Soviet national budget still provides generously for development of non-military aviation because it has more than amply justified itself in the war effort, tellingly proving the thesis that while the army, navy and air force protect the civilians of the nation against the invaders, this is one of the foremost factors in the civilian abetting of the armed services.
This article was originally published in the November, 1941, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 40, no 11, pp 50-51, 184, 186.
The original article has 5 photos, including