The Wise Report: The Monino monoliths

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The droop-snout of the Sukhoi T-4, a mach 3 bomber that first flew in 1972. Below 370 mph the flight crew could view the world from a window with an uncanny resemblance to a London Underground train; at higher speeds the nose swivelled up to form a sleek dart and the view was through a periscope. The T-4 project was cancelled in 1975.

We thought it was about time we had a regular columnist and so we turned to Sam Wise, a man who travels the world driven by an unquenchable desire to stand in the shade of vast aluminium, steel and titanium machines. In the first of what we hope becomes a monthly column, here is his report from arguably the best aviation museum in the world, Monino, home of the Central Air Force Museum in Russia. 

“Stalinist architecture is fascinating. Littering the former USSR and its satellite states are
hundreds of brutal, monolithic monuments to communism and Stalin’s ego, utterly striking in their scale and form. The Socialist-Realist movement was all-encompassing in the completely controlled artistic world of the Soviet Union, especially in the early years of the Union when the new country was keen to celebrate the success of the proletariat in the class struggle – and later the Red Army’s supreme victory over Germany in the Great Patriotic War.

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A kind of missing link between the Sea Harrier and the F-35B, the Yakovlev Yak-43 was part of the Soviet navy’s ambition to create a supersonic ‘jump-jet’ force. As the Cold War ended, the US manufacturer Lockheed struck up a arrangement with Yakovlev to harvest its propulsion know-how to aid with its efforts to build the X-35, forerunner of today’s F-35B.

Stalin, the exemplar egomaniac, was hugely in favour of enormous testaments to his, and the USSR’s, power and influence, especially to his own people.
At its heart, this scale of architecture was intended to both impress and impose,
simultaneously inspire awe and dread at who was in charge. Much of Soviet art was like this – when we see posters, paintings and the like from the country it can seem drearily conformist – well, largely this was the intention. Too much individualism or creativity, and people start getting ideas.

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Interview with a MiG-27 pilot here.

 

Many such monuments are a glorification of socialism, communism and the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution that changed global history – giant statues of Lenin and Stalin (the latter mostly gone now), idealised tributes to labourers and workers that perhaps didn’t quite reflect the attitudes or opinions of those that built them. Even if you didn’t like them – hated them even – you knew they were in charge of your every move and you’d better play ball. Just look at the chilling and blankly named Rear-front Memorial looming over Magnitogorsk

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A Sukhoi Su-7. Over 90% of Russia is birch forests full of old tactical fighters.

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The Lavochkin La-250, which first flew in 1956, was an attempt to build a high-altitude interceptor large enough to carry a new generation of air-to-air missile. It was nicknamed ‘Anakonda’ for its snakelike appearance and unforgiving handling. Just about everything on the La-250 was never perfected, including a weak engine was weak, an unreliable radar, and a dangerous hydraulic system. It was axed and replaced with the vast Tupolev Tu-28, an interceptor as long as a Boeing 737! The Lavochkin bureau had created a vitally important fighter aircraft family in World War II, but didn’t last long in the jet age, the lamentable La-250 being their last attempt to build a fighter. The bureau then moved into the field of missile and spacecraft design.

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The Myasishchev M-55 was created to combat prying high altitude spy balloons. It was later adapted for reconnaissance and geophysical research. In a highly unlikely move, an Irish company offered the M-55 as a “digital communications station” for the South East Asian market!

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The MiG-105 was an experimental spaceplane built in support of the Spiral programme, It was developed by a team led by G.E. Lozino-Lozinsky.

But who could fail to weep at the majesty of Батьківщина-Мати in Kiev, the Mound of Glory (quiet at the back!) outside Minsk or, most breathtaking of all, the gargantuan Родина-мать зовёт! on the outskirts of Volgograd, site of that most bloody of battles.

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After all the USSR suffered at the hands of the German war machine – about 27 million people killed, or more than one in ten of the population – you can’t blame them wanting to shout to the heavens about their victory. The monuments to the war dead have tended to stay preserved but outside of Russia many of those other reminders of an unhappy past have become, justifiably, the subject of defacement and destruction, their illusions of a powerful and prosperous union no longer effective.

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The Tu-95 ‘Bear’ remains one of the longest serving military aircraft.

Aircraft engineers are somewhat more constrained by the physics of aerodynamics than
Soviet sculptors and so it’s rare to find an aircraft conforming to the ideals of
Socialist-Realism. When you look at the Myasishchev M-50, ignominiously dubbed the
‘Bounder’ by its NATO opponents, however, it’s hard not to imagine that Stalin’s ghost came back to influence its designers in some way. Only one ever flew and only one survives, as unique as any other testament to the Soviet Union’s prowess, and this now languishes in the famous Central Air Force Museum at Monino.

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For 52 years the V-12 has been unchallenged as the biggest helicopter ever built. Unsurprising really, as this awesome beast weighs in at 97,000 kg — or the same as four and a half fully-loaded Chinooks!

Even in a field of giants it towers over the rest of the museum, its bow proudly soaring into the sky unlike any other design there. It truly does look like an artist’s imagining of a
warplane of the time, unblemished curves and wildly placed wingtip engines, at once
beautiful and space-age.

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The Myasishchev M-50 (foreground) was not, as Aviation Week claimed in 1958, a nuclear-powered bomber. The Sukhoi T-4 closest Western analogue is the XB-70, but the T-4 flew eight years later.

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It’s quite hard to picture it flying – even just as an aeroplane its size and form belies any ability to take flight, particularly with the aforementioned engines sitting ungainly on the end of the wings. Somehow it fits the style. If it were carved from stone on some hill overlooking Plovdiv, or Novosibersk, or Kaunas it would look completely and wonderfully in place, a Soviet Monument to the Long-Range Aviators or some such title, deliberately designed to look imposing and formidable to those who saw it.

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Despite its fantastic appearance, the M-50 was far slower than desired.

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More on the Tu-141 here. And more on the MiG-105 here.

You really can’t shake the feeling that it was designed from the outset to make an aesthetic statement about the USSR’s new nuclear outfit despite all the impracticalities that that would entail for the jet.

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The first commercial supersonic aircraft to fly, the Tupolev Tu-144, towering above the Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft. Though much maligned in the Concorde-centric West, many Russians have a different perspective on the Tu-144. The Su-25 is a tough and simple ‘flying tank’, described by one pilot as a 600mph ‘Jet-powered Toyata technical’.

Then again, that doesn’t sound completely wide of the mark either, does it?
Perhaps it’s vaguely fitting that the M-50 had no real impact on aviation history. For all the disinformation at the heart of Soviet sculpture, so too was the M-50 a Soviet failure. It didn’t set the world on fire and as a bomber didn’t go anywhere.

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The Myasishchev 3MD strategic bomber. The ‘Bison’ sat between the US B-52 and British Victor in dimensions and capability. Only nine of the 3MD variant, which could be armed with the P-6, KSR or Kh-10 missiles, were built before the Myasishchev OKB dissolved in 1960 (though the design bureau would be reborn in 1967).

Even in the museum, you’ve got much more successful bombers on show – the M-4 Bison behind it started the so-called bomber gap panic, the Tu-16s in front still fly in some form with the Chinese Air Force and, of course, the Tu-95 is very much at the frontline of Russian long-range aviation today. It came at a time when ICBMs rendered the nuclear bomber all but obsolete and it’s almost a wonder this unique and irrelevant airframe was preserved by the USSR. Despite how totally suitable it looks it’s a touch of serendipity that it looks so at home among the pantheon of Soviet Socialist-Realist monumentalism, in its own way reminding us of a culture and a mindset totally divorced from our own in the West.

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The first ‘Flanker’ airframe (given NATO reporting name ‘Flanker-A’) was the T-10-1, which flew in 1977. The aircraft had an ogival wing planform with an s-shaped leading edge. Following a troublesome gestation, the T-10’s form changed considerably: production Su-27s (Flanker-Bs onward) have a very different, and less beautiful, wing

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MiG built a family of monstrously fast and powerful fighter prototypes from 1959-61. The Ye-152M/1 (Ye-166) was the fastest single-engined aircraft ever flown, and built for flight at Mach 2.85.

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4 comments

  1. yorksranter

    “Aircraft engineers are somewhat more constrained by the physics of aerodynamics than
    Soviet sculptors and so it’s rare to find an aircraft conforming to the ideals of
    Socialist-Realism”….although some of them were determined to try.

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