Aviaarktika Colours, Update & Correction

It can be somewhat difficult to explain exactly why some errors in interpretation persist so vehemently. The case of the colouration of Soviet aircraft in Arctic service has been one of these episodes. For years and years all authors-- including this one-- have been convinced that these machines must have been painted with some kind of red, or red-orange, colour. Surely, no?.. Well, no. I must hold up my own hand here and state for the record that I was patently wrong; and in retrospect, actually, I struggle to explain why I clung onto such errant ideas for so long given the sheer lack of evidence to substantiate them. It was as if we were all mesmerised by the concept, and for myself I must admit that I feel a bit foolish as a result.

However, be that as it may, let us now turn our attention to a proper examination of the surviving evidence, written, photographic and physical. The matter of this colouration is-- and could have been-- known all along were someone to have paid better attention to it. Late, perhaps, is better than never, so let us re-examine this subject and put the record straight.

Polar Aviation

For many years it has been assumed that the USSR of the 1930s must have used a type of bright red, or red-orange, colour for aircraft operating in the Polar regions. This idea sprang from many sources, and it was abetted by many seemingly innocuous errors and mis-interpretations, such to the point that virtually all authors and historians were convinced of the existence of such a colour and reproduced it in artwork and written articles. This alleged Arctic Red colour was assumed to be similar (or identical) to that seen on other, more recent, Aeroflot examples operating in Aviaarktika service. The wide-spread use of orthochromatic type film during the era allowed researchers to “see” this kind of colour in many photographs, further strengthening the idea. And, of course, the very enthusiastic use of various red colours right across the USSR (for patriotic and political purposes) only added to the impression that this colour simply must be so.

An Ilyushin Il-14 in Polar Aviation service ca. 1980s

However, at long last the author realised that, in fact, no physical evidence of such an Arctic Red colour has ever been found. This discovery was rather curious in that a fair number of physical aircraft remains have been located in the Arctic regions over the years, and indeed some of these can be found in situ to this day. All of these surviving wrecks have been photographed in colour, and many have had parts and bits recovered from them. And in all of this evidence, where is the Arctic Red colour? It is nowhere to be found. So far as the use of an Arctic Red colour is concerned, no image nor physical sample can be located which is earlier than 1965 (or thereabouts; it is not yet possible to establish an exact date). This further realisation caused the author to turn his attention to the documentary record. Besides various written anecdotal accounts, surely we should find mention of this red colour from an official source? In fact, despite the most diligent search, we find no such reference.

As a result, the author is required to conclude-- and to submit-- that the existence of an Arctic Red colour dating to this period in Soviet aviation (1930 - 1950) is a myth. Without doubt, various types of red paint did appear on Aviaarktika aircraft (as was the case throughout the USSR) as decoration and trim, however, there was no dedicated Polar use colour of this shade in use at the time.

On the contrary, an authentic Polar use high visibility colour did exist at the time of these Soviet expeditions, and is known in all of the available historical records-- physical, written and photographic. This colour was, in fact, Arctic Yellow (or Gold) [цвет полярного золота]. That this paint has escaped wider attention in historical work is no doubt related, firstly, to the errant ideas concerning the mythical red colour, and secondly to problems in the interpretation of period photography. Moreover, documentary references to this colour were very difficult to find, and indeed are known only from a single source, complicating matters of identification. The archeological evidence is quite clear, though, and examples of Arctic Yellow colour are found everywhere on surviving pieces of aircraft.

Examples of Arctic Yellow as retrieved on various surviving aircraft parts

The wide-spread use of orthochromatic film at the time exacerbated problems with interpretation. Since on this film red and yellow colours would appear to be 'identical' (this emulsion is insensitive to both), that is to say, "black", it was all too easy to assume that the areas in question were red. The later appearance of additional photography using monochromatic and panchromatic films did help, but alas not so in the minds of many observers (like this one).

Revisting the Photographic Record

Looking to the available photography, how can we compare these images to the now recognised physical and written evidence? We can start with a case-in-point, if ever there was one: ANT-6A SSSR N-169. Below are three photographs of the same aircraft, althought not strictly at the same moment (an early, middle and later appearance with various detail changes are seen).

SSSR N-169 at the North Pole, 1937. The photograph is of outstanding quality, not only showing professional technique but also proper camera equipment and fine AGFA Superpan film. The high contrast between the yellow and red areas resulted from the use of a yellow or blue-green lens filter, an item strongly advised by AGFA when employing this film (indeed, they would not guarantee the film’s behaviour without it). Aside from the artwork on the tail, the appearance here is the original livery for '169', likely having been applied at the factory when it was built.
N-169 photographed at Franz Josef Land, 1937, on orthochromatic film. Being red and yellow in colour, the aircraft simply appears to be “black” in tone everywhere with no contrast, this resulting from the film’s insensitivity to both hues.
A later view of N-169, date unknown. The aircraft now shows flag artwork and red trim details similar to N-170 [which, see]. The civil registration, SSSR-N-169, has been entirely re-applied, this time in a different font style. The red trim on the middle fuselage has a curious appearance, and without a larger view of the aircraft its colouration cannot be known. It might be the older 1930s ‘Army Red’ colour, which would explain this appearance, but more information is required to be certain.

Many observers would baulk at the suggestion that these three images show the same aircraft, but be quite certain that indeed they do. The extreme differences in appearance amongst these images is caused by the behaviour of different film emulsions, and, as is manifestly evident, without a fair amount of expertise in dealing with these photographs, the scope for profound mis-interpretation is clear. However, having said that, these images in fact agree with each other in their own way, and corroborate a likely appearance for this aircraft. Each photo supports the idea that the scheme is a factory applied Aviaarktika Arctic Yellow livery with red trim; and, indeed, given the properties of these disparate films, one really cannot think of any other colouration that would fit the evidence. There had been an attempt earlier to interpret the first image as "Arctic Red" with very dark blue trim, but this choice of colouration is not especially logical, and neither can it be explained by the orthochrome image. We should all have known better.

SSSR N-171 showing the Factory No 22 applied Arctic high visibility finish, with AII Red trim and registrations applied over Arctic Yellow.

SSSR N-170 wearing a more elaborated scheme, this with additional areas of red trim, re-applied codes and a Naval flag artwork on the tail, similar to the later appearance of N-169.

Interestingly, we have a surviving ANT-4, allegedly from Aviaarktika service, allegedly SSSR N-317. There is no doubt that the livery it wears now is not original; by no means. This scheme looks like it dates from the 1980s, or thereabouts; it does not demonstrate any kind of surface that would be 80+ years old and exposed to the elements. The grey-blue trim is not overly convincing, and when new it was likely this kind of ubiquitous blue shade seen everywhere on every kind of vehicle in USSR days. The yellow paint, however, does at least seem to harken back to an authentic memory of its original appearance. Certainly, had the restorers seen a bright red-orange species of faded paint when they undertook this work, they would have replicated that in some form? One would at least think so; and recall that at the time, actual in-use paint of this type would have been available to them.

Looking further afield, how should we now interpret the appearance of other Aviaarktika aircraft? One highly confusing aspect of Polar aviation service is that the Army did not seem to be overly bothered with special purpose colour schemes. During the 1930s, most aircraft in the Polar region operated in their normal military livery with no 'Arctic' modification nor trim of any kind. It was the Tupolev Bureau itself which made great efforts to distinguish between civil model TB-3s (the ANT-6a and G-2) and military versions, the civilian examples receiving 'Arctic' and other suitable liveries, even to include 'natural metal' type finishes. The sweeping painting and colouration changes seen within the VVS just after the war impacted upon Polar aviation, similarly, and special 'Arctic' schemes were abandoned in favour of dour Army green-over-blue two colour liveries using gloss lacquers (AGT-4, A-24g, etc).

SSSR N-227 was a Tupolev G-1 registered in 1933, and was originally finished in an unpainted dural sheet livery with an A-17 Clear top coat. Sometime after the war it was re-finished in the Army's preferred military fashion of green/blue, in this case with A-24g over AII Blue (not AMT-7) (1). Some Pe-8s seem to have worn Arctic Yellow over-all liveries, while others manifestly in Aviaarktika service showed green/blue military schemes.

Soviet DC-3s/C-47s/Li-2s/PS-84s were similar, exhibiting any of the above colouration in Polar service. Indeed, revisiting the photograph of PS-84 SSSR N-359, might we in fact see a partial application of Arctic Yellow? In the author's previous work an alleged 'red' colour was shown, but now this historian thinks that such an interpretation might be wrong.

Other observers have been quick to point out (rightly), however, that cases are known of special finishes for Polar use having been applied in the post-war period. Lavochkin fighters took part in a Polar Expedition flight as a part of the 911 IAP, for example, and these machines were finished at the factory in an over-all AII Red livery specifically for this assignment. But, again, one might note that this was another example of factory work, not the result of any instruction from the Army, so far as is known.

Can There Be Any Conclusions?

It is the author's current hypothesis that the use of special Polar colouration was mainly a development of civilian aviation in the USSR. The Army seemed to be quite happy enough-- both before and after the war-- to operate aircraft in the Arctic zones with no special markings, trim or identification devices. Without doubt, some such use of special colouration by the military did occur, but these cases were very much the exception and not the rule. The aviation factories and their respective associated design bureaux seemed to have been the driving instigators in the development of these schemes, and much of the work actually undertaken in this regard was theirs. Civil Tupolevs, Petlyakovs and the like often wore Arctic liveries, as built, but military examples of the same aircraft rarely did so. Indeed, the later development of the red-orange Polar finish of the 1970s and 80s was instigated by and for Aeroflot, not for the VVS. In the author's mind this behaviour reinforces the aforementioned hypothesis, and continued to show the relevance of Polar liveries to civilian aviation and not military.

So far as an earlier "red" Arctic finish goes (for the period 1930-50), the evidence is conclusive and we can rest assured that this myth is disproven. The Soviet Polar livery of this time was golden, not red, and we must all re-evaluate our work and conclusions bearing this revelation in mind.


1. AII Blue was an especially hard wearing lacquer and was enthusiastically preferred by the NKAP for many uses. In addition to being recommended as an internal cockpit finish and structural component paint, it was mentioned specifically in most remont (repair manuals) for use even into 1944. It is little wonder that units in the field might have employed this paint even after the war, and so far as is currently known, manufacture of this varnish did not cease until 1947.