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Naval Aviators

It is an extract from a book “The Fleet of the State of Russia. The roots and origin of the Russian Navy” written by V.Dygalo.

Early in the warm morning of 16th September, 1910, Sebastopol was very busy and lively. Everybody was waiting for the first Navy airplane flight. By 10 o’clock a huge crowd of people had gathered around the Kulikovo Field. On the field that was situated on the outskirts of the city an airplane “Antoinette”, surrounded by a group of military people, stood in splendour. Among them there was a tall stately officer in the naval uniform notable for wearing a flying helmet with big protective goggles. He climbed into the cabin, the mechanic span up the propeller and moved at a safe distance from the airplane. Holding their breath, the spectators were watching the airplane slowly gathering speed and, suddenly, taking off to soar. Thousands of thunderous “hurrahs” deadened the roar of the engine, and the people started to throw up their hats and caps into the air. The pilot waved his hand from the cabin saluting the audience. This aircraft was piloted by the naval officer lieutenant S.F. Dorozhinskiy.

One week later, on the 22nd of September, 1910, Lieutenant G.V. Piotrovskiy on airplane “Blerio XII” with a mechanic on board undertook the Russia’s first above-the-sea flight from Saint-Petersburg to Kronshtadt. Within half an hour he managed to fly 25 verst (1 versta=approximately 3 500 ft). It was the Russia’s first intercity flight, and the press solemnly proclaimed Piotrovskiy “the pilot of long distances”.

Many times, while taking off his plane from the Kulikovo Field, Dorozhinskiy wished it would be wonderful to modernize and adjust the Antoinette in such a way as to make it possible to take off from water and land on sea aerodromes. In 1911, he made an attempt to fix the plane on the floats, two main floats and tail one, which he had constructed himself. But while carrying out trial tests, the airplane floats went deep into the water, thus preventing it from picking up speed necessary for taking off. After this event, a modern floatplane (model “Voizen-Kanar”) was commissioned in France. Dorozhinskiy leant how to fly on it and became Russia’s first hydroaviator. Along with S.F. Dorozhinskiy many other seamen tested airplanes in terms of possibility to use them at sea. For example, 24 May (6 June), 1911, lieutenant V.V. Dybovskiy conducted a submarine search operation on airplane, thus laying the foundations for air anti-submarine operations. 19 April, 1911, is the date that can be considered the organizational start of the Russian Fleet aviation, when the Naval Minister Admiral I.K. Grigorovich approved the formation of the first naval aviators unit in Sebastopol which consisted of two divisions each of which had three airplanes. Same year, three single-float aircrafts of Curtis model and two “Voizen” airships were commissioned at international factories. The Black Sea was chosen to become the center of the hydroplanes tests.

In a year, the process of the naval aviation formation began in the Baltic Sea Fleet. At the outset of the World War I, our naval aviators were carrying out courageous and risky operational flights on their beautiful “dragon-flies”. It is the Russian naval aviators who were the first to deliver an air bombing attack on enemy ships. 29 October, 1914, during the Sebastopol assault operation carried out by the German battleship “Geben” and artillery bombardment, seven Russian flying ships flew off and, circling above the cruiser, dropped their bombs. They failed to find out how severely it was damaged, but this military episode clearly demonstrated that hydroplanes were becoming the striking force at sea capable of acting independently.

The Russian naval aviators’ actions were successful not only at the theatres of war. 8 August, 1914, the Arctic’ centuries-long silence was broken by a formidable roar of the aircraft engine: Lieutenant Y. Nagurskiy conducted the first Arctic Ocean flight on the floatplane “Farman”. His task was to find the lost expedition headed by Georgiy Sedov. Nagurskiy’s flight was, without any doubt, the beginning of the practical application of naval aviation in the severe Far North weather conditions.

The development of the Russian naval aviation was focused on two main directions: ship-based aviation and coast-based aviation. By the end of 1917, the Baltic Sea Fleet floatplanes park consisted of 98 items while the Black Sea Fleet was equipped with 112 aircrafts. These were foreign airplanes “Teliet”, “Newpor”, “Spad”, “Lebed”, “Short”, “Ferry”, and domestically-built flying ships like M-5, M-9, M-15, M-20 with engines ”Ispano-Siusa”, “Ron”, “Salmson”, “Gnom and Rom”, “Sopvich”, etc.

The Baltic Fleet naval aviation consisted of two air brigades united into an air division and one ship-borne aircraft unit. The Baltic Sea Fleet air division included two air brigades, one ship-borne aircraft unit and one airship detachment. In the Baltic Fleet the ship-borne aircraft was based on the hydroairtransport “Orlitsa”/”Female Eagle” (former steamship the Empress Alexandra) of 3 800 tons displacement and speed of 12 knots. The Orlitsa could place four float airplanes. In the Baltic Sea Fleet hydroairtransports the Emperor Alexander I and the Emperor Nikolay I of 9 240 tons displacement and speed of 14-15 knots could take on their boards 7-8 hydroplanes, while hydroaircruiser “Almaz”/”Diamond” could place 4 airplanes. They were united into the Black Sea Fleet hydroaircruiser division.

It was planned to equip each of the two light-weight cruisers of Svetlana type, built at the Baltic Fleet, with two hydroairplanes “Teliet”. The Baltic Sea Fleet coastal aviation was based on the air station “Brigitovka” in Revel as well as in Gelsingforce and Abo (Turku). The coastal aviation of the Black sea Fleet was based in Balaklava.

The training of the naval aviators was conducted in Oranienbaum, Gapsal and Bakin Schools as well as in the Aerobatics and Air Warfare School in Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin) near Petrograd.

Until 1917, there were 16 aircraft factories and works with highly-skilled personnel. Many prominent engineers and constructors worked on aircraft construction.

In the Russian Fleet, earlier than in other fleets, the idea of aircraft-carriers was introduced. For the first time it was clearly formulated by the ship engineer Captain K.M. Matsievich (who later became a very famous Russian naval pilot). According to his report, presented to the head of the Naval Headquarters in 1909, it was he who introduced the idea of the aircraft-carriers construction as well as catapults for catapult-assisted ship-deck take-off.

During the Civil war, both the Red and the White exploited the aircraft park inherited from the former tsarist army and fleet. During those battles, the aviation suffered huge losses because the aircraft factories did not work and aircraft park was not replenished which eventually led to complete deterioration of the Soviet Russia aviation.

It is only by the beginning of the first five-year plan (policy introduced by the Soviet government in 1920-1930) that the Soviet naval aviation started being equipped with the first domestically-constructed models of airplanes following the construction plan worked out by D.P. Grigorovich and the Naval aircraft construction bureau such as ROM-2, MP-5, TOM-1, TB-1a, MBR-2 and, by 1936, MDR-4. During the 1930th, a further impulse was given to development of the ship-based catapult aviation with which many battleships and cruisers were equipped. Heinkel catapults were bought in Germany.

In 1920, the Soviet naval pilots were given a lot of special governmental tasks. It is the naval pilots that formed the polar aviation which was to explore the Northern Sea Route. In 1934, facing extremely difficult weather conditions, they managed to save the members of that polar expedition and the crew of the steamship Tchelyuskin. For fulfilling this challenging mission, seven polar pilots were decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union award. Among them were four former Black Sea naval pilots V.A. Liapidevskiy, S.A. Levanevskiy, V.S. Molokov and I.V. Doronin.

When, on 30 December 1937, the People’s Navy Commissariat was set up, the naval aviation was renamed into the Navy Armed Forces, and then it was finally determined as one of the main branches of the Fleet. Within a relatively short period of time, the Navy Armed Forces significantly gained in numbers and quality. By the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, the aircraft park of our naval aviation consisted of more than 2,5 thousand battle airplanes: bombers, torpedo-bombers, fighters and naval reconnaissance aircrafts, while the Navy Armed Forces personnel, by that time, had already acquired some battle experience in the course of the Russian-Finland war (1939-1940), thus, having enhanced their alertness and operational readiness and, in close cooperation with other branches of the Navy, our aviation honed the skills necessary for solving even the most difficult and challenging operational missions. In those bloody, violent battles with the formidable enemy, they managed to accumulate the priceless experience of tactical and strategic use of the reconnaissance, mine-torpedo, bombardment and pursuit aviation.

Our naval aviators piously revered and multiplied the military traditions of the Civil War naval pilots and, by performing heroic deeds and feats of arms, they did their best for the victory to happen sooner. It is the fleet pilots – Lieutenant Petr Brin’ko and Captain Aleksey Antonenko – who stood up staunchly for defending the Motherland from the enemy and were the first to be decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union award and the Great Patriotic War medal.

24 June, 1941, off the Kola Peninsula, our pursuit planes faced and attacked six enemy bombers. During that battle, commander of the 4th fighter squadron of the 78th air regiment, senior lieutenant B.F. Safonov brought down “Unkers-88”, thus opening the scoring for the Northern Fleet pilots. A short, though glorious, life was granted to this man. He did not spend a full year in fights but, yet, within this time he managed to bring down 30 Nazi airplanes independently and 3 planes in group fighting. 16 September, 1941, Boris Feoktistovich was decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the news about his second decoration with the Hero of the Soviet Union did not catch B.F. Safonov alive: 30 May, 1942, he conducted his last operational flight, having brought down two more enemy bombers…

During the first days of the war, the Nazi propaganda hastily declared worldwide that the Soviet aviation had been destroyed, and Reichsmarschall Gering assured the Germans that no soviet bomb could be thrown down on their “vaterland”. At the beginning of August 1941, however, our aviation bombed the Nazi Germany capital. The idea of this air-raid on Berlin from the Estonian Saaremaa Island was suggested by the Navy Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant-General S.F. Zhavoronkov. Since it was impossible to reach Berlin from the rear aerodromes due to the fuel supply shortages, it was decided to use the Saaremaa Island for this purpose. On the night of 7 August, five airplanes bombed Berlin. These planes were piloted by Colonel Evgeniy Preobrazhenskiy, Captain Andrey Efremov, Mikhail Plotkin, Vassiliy Grechnikov and senior lieutenant Petr Trychkov. The rest ten airplanes dropped their bombs on the reserve target which was the Schtettin port constructions as a heavy thunderstorm, raging that night, prevented them from reaching Berlin. Within a period from 7 August to 4 September, the air group headed by Preobrazhenskiy conducted 52 operational flights, at that, 33 airplanes managed to hit their targets dropped more than 36 t high-explosive and fire-bombs along with 34 bombs with propaganda leaflets.

During the Great Patriotic War, while fulfilling various military missions on land and sea, the Navy aviation conducted more than 350 thousand sorties of aircrafts. According to our data, the Soviet naval pilots sank 835 enemy ships and transports, brought down during air warfare and destroyed on the aerodromes 5 500 Nazi airplanes, numerous number of tanks, artillery batteries, pill-boxes, depots and railway echelons.

Heavy aircraft-carrier, project 1143.5 Heavy aircraft-carrier, project 1143.5 Airplane ship-deck with Su-27K

Our Motherland appreciated the naval pilots’ deeds at their true value: 259 Fleet aviators were decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union award while 5 of them – A.E. Mazurenko, V.I. Rakov, B.F. Safonov, N.G. Steranyan and N.V. Chelnokov were decorated twice. Not only naval pilots were decorated with government awards, but many naval aviation divisions and units. Fifty of them were decorated with the Order of the Red Banner and other orders. Two air divisions and 28 air regiments were re-organized into Guards’ divisions and regiments.

Heavy aircraft-carrier, project 1143.5 Admiral of the Soviet Union Fleet Kuznetsov Heavy aircraft-carrier, project 1143.5 "Admiral of the Soviet Union Fleet Kuznetsov”

In the post-war years, piston-engined airplanes were replaced with modern supersonic jet-propelled aircrafts capable of flying for long distances at a very high altitude and equipped with cutting-edge devices and instruments for sea-based and coastal-based targets search and destruction.

Nowadays, the Russian Navy coastal-based and ship-based aviation is armed with all-weather sea missile carriers, low-flying attack aircrafts, fighters, anti-submarine airplanes and helicopters, vertical take-off and landing ship-borne airplanes. Anti-submarine cruisers of “Novorossiysk” type and heavy aircraft-carrying cruisers of “Admiral Kuznetsov” type are used as ship-borne aircraft carriers.

Further development of the Navy aviation proceeds in the direction of aircraft modernization, flight speed increase, range ability and flight duration increase, its all-round automation, elaboration of technical solutions for sea-based and ground-based targets search applying new physical principles as well as construction of high-precision long-range weapon equipped with powerful full charges.