LTA Russia

Soviet propaganda poster

Historical Note

I haven't seen much about the Russian airships. Up until 1996, I never knew they existed. I chanced upon this illustration on the left. Since then, I've come across other graphic references to Russian airships. In the mid-1930s, General Nobile of Italy spent five years in Russia working on the "Red Airship Program". During that time, nine airships of his design were built -- including the V6, similar in design to his Italian ships.

Russian airship stamps
Soviet Zeppelins on Airship Stamps



Wassili Kupzow, 1933



The bulk of the bells (about 700) in the Hermitage stocks come from the collection of Alexander Matveyevich Kovanko (1856-1920), one of the Russian pioneers of airships.

Russia Yesterday

"Russia purchased two airships from France in 1909. Russia began an airship building program in 1931 and there was a commercial airship service operating inside the Russian interior by 1937."

"The Russian Army Air Service (RAAS) was established in 1912. By the outbreak of the First World War the RAAS owned 360 aircraft and 16 airships, making it the largest airforce in the world. However, with limited financial resources, expansion was slow and by 1917 the Russians had fewer that 1,000 aircraft in service." 24 Feb 2003

The Soviets never flew a Zeppelin-type rigid airship, but they had a program in the 1930's whereby they obtained the services of the famous (but temporarily disgraced) Italian airship pilot/designer Umberto Nobile (who flew the Amundsen-Ellsworth expedition over the North Pole with the Italian-built NORGE in 1926 and repeated the venture in 1928 with the Italian-sponsored near sistership ITALIA, only to crash the ship and incur the wrath of Mussolini after a truly remarkable saga of over a month in a tent on an ice floe waiting to be rescued.)

Later recounted in several installments of the LTA SOCIETY BULLETIN ("Buoyant Flight") and in a book entitled "MY FIVE YEARS WITH SOVIET AIRSHIPS" Nobile (who became something of a "rehabilitated national hero" and media sensation up to his death in Rome in 1974) the Soviet venture was ambitious.  Their commisars for airship policy believed that, despite having little experience, they could produce HUNDREDS of airships because  developmental timeframes and economic/industrial conditions were totally different than in capitalist countries. 

Nobile stayed until around 1937 (then for awhile even ended up teaching aeronautical engineering in Chicago before being declared an "Enemy Alien" and being shipped back to Italy in '43.)  The Soviet airships, of which there were at least a dozen successful ones,  were semi-rigids of good streamlining, around 700,000 to 1m. cubic foot displacement.  One of them (B-6?) set an endurance record of some 170 hours in 1937 and it was rumored that one or two were in use in the interior of Russia into World War II, but 1945 would seem to be stretching the date.

It is ironic that despite their industrial capability (and the fact that they found considerable quantities of helium in Siberian gas reserves) the Soviets never embarked on a program of using airships for maritime patrol,  fishery, border security, etc.(I guess guard towers and barbed wire were sufficient.) 

Occasionally in the 50's-70's there was talk of their developing a super atomic-powered rigid and there was a modest program under a designer named David Bimbat which developed small non-rigids for forestry patrol (they looked  a lot like motorized observation balloons)  Their largest-built venture in this period seems to have been a ship on the order of 200-foot length; even twelve years after the fall of the old Soviety Union, the definitive history of Soviet LTA remains elusive. 25 Feb 2003

Nobile was a big fan of the Maybach engines produced by the Zeppelin Co. in Germany (NORGE and ITALIA used versions of the 245hp.  six-cylinder "MbIVa altitude motor ", 110 of which were built for airship use in 1917-1918.  German Naval Airship L61 and post-war commercial airship LZ-120 BODENSEE were fitted with this engine and were surrendered to Italy in 1920 as war reparations.  Former German Army Zeppelin LZ-120 (factory # LZ-90) was also delivered to Italy, but was fitted with the older Maybach "HsLu" 240-hp. power plant.

MbIVa's featured six over-sized cylinders,  a compression ratio of 6.7/1 and a dry weight of about 860lb. (in the 1918 version with aluminum pistons.)  There was a floatless carburetor at each end of the engine (working with a ball-and-sump setup) and the engine was hand-cranked, with compression reliefs on the cylinders magneto starting and hand-powered suction primer.  Designed for high-altitude flying, they could not be run a full throttle below 6000 feet.  Rugged, reliable power plants, they could run out about 2000 hours between overhaul.

"Mark H. Foxwell" <> 25 February 2003

According to Hartcup's Achievement of the Airship pp 240-2, Nobile worked in the USSR from 1931 until 1935.

He "is believed to have been responsible for the design of nine semi-rigid airships."

The rationale for the Soviet program was to provide transport to distant rugged regions, notably Siberia, as well as such utility functions as surveying.

There were works at Leningrad, and Zagi near Moscow, the latter also the center of Tsiolkovski's metalclad efforts. The plan was to make 92 ships but it is unknown how many were actually made.

The BV class was similar to the Italia at 700,000 cu ft, 3 engines (never says what kind), 68 mph top speed, range 2000 miles, crew of 16 and capacity for 16 more passengers. A BV claimed an endurance record of 130 1/2 hr, range of 3107 miles in 1937; later that year the BV-6 was lost attempting an Artic rescue and this is conjectured to be the reason for abandonment of the program.

There were also some non-rigids built in 1937 at Zagi.

V-1 First of May 78,000 cu ft, 2 75hp engines, top speed 55 mph, endurance 12 hr, crew of 7. Designed to pick up passengers without landing!

V-2 "had double the capacity" [does this mean double the volume?], 2 230 hp engines, could carry 8 pax. Had a breakaway flight once with 13 aboard but the captain (who climbed up a handling rope) and a helmswoman brought her back despite a storm.

V-3 & 4 were 230,000 -- 250,000 cu ft and meant to cover 750 miles range but were abandoned after the BV-6 crash.

Hartcup goes on to say that "Today [1974] the USSR is probably the only nation using airships commercially." (referenced to his footnote 12) For geological prospecting and logging specifically. He mentions a modern B-1, "a non-rigid, made of glass fibre with a tricycle undercarriage."

Hartcup's references:

10 (background of Soviet interest in LTA):
British Public Records Office (PRO) Dept of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) 23/4139 & 23/3603;Mintschall, Vladimir "Status of the Airship in the USSR, Foreign Science Bulletin V 1 # 10 Oct 1963; Addinell, H "Russia and her Airships," Flight 1 Dec 1932.

11 (the non-rigids of 1937):
Kansas City Times, Stalino Ukraine 8 Sept 1938

12 ( "contemporary" airships):
"Phoenix Newsletter," The Airship Association, #8, July 1972.

As for the engines Nobile may have used: Nobile was a big fan of the Maybach engines produced by the Zeppelin Co. in Germany... Rugged, reliable power plants, they could run out about 2000 hours between overhaul.

And indeed all the best airships did use Maybachs, including the US ZRSs -- but we're asking about Soviet ships here. I suppose Maybachs were available until Hitler took power but after that I'd doubt very much that any such technology would be exported to the USSR. So Nobile had a couple years to place orders and lay up a stock but I doubt he anticipated a cutoff.

Perhaps Hitler neglected to instantly terminate private relations with Soviet enterprises. Certainly prior to his assumption of power there had been a long-standing relationship of convenience between Weimar-era German militarists and industrialists who wished to develop military aircraft forbidden by the Versailles treaty, and the USSR, which was also treated as an outlaw nation during the 1920's and wanted the benefit of participating with and observing the enterprises of one of the most advanced technological nations in the world. Most later Luftwaffe commanders got their training in Russia, at a base leased by the Germans; while they were being trained they were dropped from the official military rolls, thus evading Versailles prohibitions against training more than a small fraction of German officers to fly.

I always assumed Hitler terminated all such contacts immediately however; (and they were already faltering in the early '30s) nor did the German officers mind in the least since under him they could now train in Germany itself and develop all the weapons they wanted on German soil, eventually (1935) they did so openly.

So I suppose that if Nobile began with Maybachs, he soon had to substitute something Soviet-made. But I wouldn't doubt the Russians could create a good imitation of a Maybach if it were enough of a state priority.

"Robert Mosher" <> 24 Feb 2003

The Soviet Military Encyclopedia article on Dirigibles mentions the altitude record set by "B-6" -- properly transliterated as "V-6" and concludes with a note on "V-12" (of 3,000 cubic meters) as having operated in the Black Sea region from 1945-1947 helping to locate sea mines and sunken vessels.

The Red Army used 4 airships. They made 1500 flights. In 1943-44 the USSR V-12 airship made 969 flights. The Russians built and flew the Pobeda ("Victory") airship in 1944. In 1945 USSR V-12 and Pobeda airships made 216 flights. 200 000 cubic meters of hydrogen and 320 tones of cargo had been delivered.

SSSR-V1 non-rigid airship, for MSFS2000. By Alexander Belov. Non-rigid airship, first flown in 1932. The most successful airship type developed in Soviet Union prior the Second World war. During The Second World war SSSR-V1 was used for carrying supplies for captive baloon units of Red Army, making more than 900 flights. Fully animated model featured detailed engines and cart interior. 959K

Arie, M. IA. (Mikhail IAkovlevich): Dirizhabli
Kiev : Nauk. dumka, 1986 -- 262 p. : ill. ; 23 cm. -- Russian text.
LCCN: 87-126666
Antonov Design Bureau in the late 1960's?

Heather Campbell: Controversy in Soviet R & D: the airship case study.
Santa Monica, Calif., Rand, 1972.
LCCN: 79-316539

Umberto Nobile: My five years with Soviet airships
Akron, OH (1800 Triplet Blvd., Akron 44306) : Lighter-than-Air Society, 1987
LCCN: 88-153931

L. S. Hill: American and Soviet interest in airships
Santa Monica, Calif. : Rand Corp., 1963
LC: UH320

Viktor Petrovich Borozdin: Otdat' korabl' v vozdukh! : Dokum. povest
Moskva : Mol. gvardiia, 1979
LCCN: 79-381400 -- Russian

Russia Today

Last update: 25 February 2003