Russian Basic Trainers, Part 3

As a category, basic training aircraft are perhaps the most widely ignored of the various machines of the 1930-50 period. This is a shame, really, as there are several exceedingly important and interestingly designs amongst this group, aircraft which absolutely deserve more attention than they have received hitherto.Indeed, with that observation in mind, this series will look to highlight a few of the more significant examples.

Many readers will be familiar with the various advanced training aircraft of the Soviet VVS during the period 1930-50. These include various UTIs for fighter instruction, -U model trainers for machines like the Il-2, developments of the Ar-2 and SB for instruction and so forth. All such aircraft, of course, were military trainers, designed for more advanced students having been assigned a more specialised role within their respective service. But what of less advanced student pilots? Or, indeed, of civilian flight instruction of the time? In which aircraft did budding aviators learn the complexities of aerial navigation and technique?

In this series we will look to examine and spotlight some of these basic training aircraft. Additionally, we will look at these machines in a somewhat backwards manner-- in reverse order of progression. That is to say, we will first examine the aircraft which would have been used by student pilots just before assignment to specialised flight instruction in the Army.

The Indomitable Basic Trainer:  The Polikarpov U-2

Without question one of the truly great designs in aeronautical history, the U-2 (or Po-2, as one wishes **) shares a special pride-of-place with aircraft like the Douglas DC-3 and Boeing B-52 as virtually immortal flying machines. Indeed, so utterly outstanding was the U-2 that it could easily be restored to production today and would be completely relevant and effective as a primary training type. Agricultural examples were still in daily service when the USSR collapsed (1992), some of these sixty years after they had been built. In fact, in the more remote corners of the globe U-2s are still on register as working examples, both as training machines and also engaged in other minor communications duties.

Entering service in 1930, it is easy to overlook the the U-2's innovative and inspired design. "Of what significance could an 'old fashioned' fabric biplane be?", one might ask. But, this sentiment is wrong. The U-2 was the inspired brain-child of one of the finest aviation designers in history, one Nikolai Polikarpov, whose later designs in fighter aviation have become household words. In his own voluminous work, VB Shavrov explains to us exactly why the U-2 was special, detailing with very great care many aspects of the fittings, bracing, flanges, wing construction and other technical design minutiae which make the aircraft quite special, and indeed ahead of its time. No further justification of these claims is required save to observe that in service the U-2 was virtually indestructible, safe, reliable and possessed of superior handling. It passed its State examinations with an acclaim surpassed only by the Yak-7UTI, and subsequently has soldiered on under any and every conceivable condition, in a breath-taking variety of roles and always with consummate dependability.

Many heavy volumes would be required to adequately describe the U-2s development and service life, and that is not our purpose here. In the civil primary training role, the U-2 served primarily within the two main branches of non-military instruction, namely
the Osoaviakhim organisation and the GVF (Civil Air Fleet), which later included Aeroflot. A few were privately owned by larger flying clubs, and various concerns, groups or even government entities could also sponsor individual aircraft, even if they did not own them per se. In fact, the Maksim Gor'ki Squadron of aircraft (with several U-2s) was established near Moscow in 1933 for the specific purpose of disseminating propaganda. This unusual unit was originally created by Aeroflot, but subsequently its operations were run directly by the Central Committee. Even Pravda newspaper had its own U-2 squadron for a time; the U-2 was in service everywhere across the USSR.

Here are a few U-2 examples of civil aviation training opearations from the pre-war period.

U-2 "Black 2",
registration unknown

An example from Pravda's own training and advertising squadron, "Black 2" was finished in an over-all aluminium dope livery. The inscription Pravda was repeated both along the upper and lower rear fuselage, but not it would seem on the main wings, which also appear to lack any civil registration codes. The unit was disbanded officially in 1932, but some examples continued to be sponsored by Pravda within
Osoaviakhim, and U-2s marked with various Pravda inscriptions and logos are known even up to 1941.

U-2 "White 23", SSSR-S232

There were two main factory liveries for U-2s built before 1938, one an over-all aluminium dope finish, the other a dark khaki green finish with aluminium under-surfaces. S232 shows the latter scheme, complete with the usual civil registration codes on the rear fuselage, plus wing upper and lower surfaces (the latter in black). A tactical number was applied to the rudder. The appearance of this aircraft is exceedingly typical-- perhaps even prototypical-- for pre-war civil U-2s, and must have resembled so many such aircraft of that time.

U-2 SSSR-S117

S117 was another Osoaviakhim operated example, this photographed at Minsk during 1939. The finish was exceedingly bright and reflective-- much more so than the original early aluminium dope-- and was likely a new coat of AII Aluminium lacquer, save for the wheel covers and upper cowling which look to have remained as built. No civil registration codes were seen on the wing surfaces. One wonders if the entire aircraft might not have been re-fabriced, which would explain these observations well.

U-2 SSSR-S223

S223 is known from a classic TASS photograph dating from 1937. There have been many photo captions associated with this image over the years, and each gives a different location and attribution to this aircraft! The oldest caption which the author could find (1937) suggests that this U-2 served with the Kolomna Flying School (im. M.V. Vodopyanov) during that year, and suggests that this is in fact the most likely answer. The large parachutists' logo on the tail suggests the role of this machine within the club, and indeed civilian parachute training was on the club's agenda at this time. Civil registrations were repeated on the wing surfaces in the usual manner.

U-2 "White 2", SSSR-S686

Another extremely typical example was this machine, S686 which carried the tactical numeral "2" on its rudder. This U-2 was photographed in flight, date and location unknown.

U-2 SSSR-Kh62

Most of the "Kh" series aircraft on the civil register had received special modifications, or were experimental one-off type variants. U-2 SSSR-Kh5 was a three-seat 'limousine' version with a special cowling and transparent wing centre panels, for example. Kh62 was fitted with an extra fuel tank ahead of the pilot to port. It seems to have been sponsored by Izvestiya at the time it was photographed, and bore their logo on the starboard fuselage side (at least).

U-2 "BS"
, registration unknown

This rather smart looking U-2 was photographed in 1936, and the original photo inscription states that it was operated by
Osoaviakhim. Most civil examples did not feature an engine cowling for the M-11, but this machine did so. It was also the case that some Osoaviakhim aircraft carried national (military style) insignia rather than civil registrations, as here. As a result, it is quite possible that this example had a dual Army-Civilian use, as did some examples in service with this organisation. The meaning of the letters "BS" on the rudder is unknown.

U-2 Izvestiya, Gor'ki Squadron
, registration unknown

Izvestiya served with the curious Maksim Gor'ki Squadron of propaganda machines, which included such oddities as the enormous ANT-14 and subsequently the even larger ANT-20. Examples in service with this unit are known with either civil registrations or national insignia, as here. No markings of any kind appear to have been applied to the wing surfaces.

U-2 SSSR-Sh101

Civil aircraft of the "Sh" series were operated by Aeroflot, mainly in their pilot training programme. Sh101 is a classic example of such machines, albeit it sports some additional trim colour on the rudder and the inter-plane 'N' struts. The photo is on orthochromatic film and so the colour of these details cannot be known with certainty, red being illustrated here. Part of the registration number in the image is obscured by the lower wing, and thus the '0' could possibly be a '9', '8' or '6'. On balance the author feels that it is indeed a '0' as shown, and the identity should therefore be SSSR-Sh101.

Part 4 will deal with U-2 aircraft engaged in military basic training... stay tuned.

** Soviet aircraft nomenclature was meant to change during 1940 from the old purpose-designation system to a new method which made use of the designer's initials. Ergo, Yakovlev's I-26 fighter became the Yak-1 as of January 1941. Strangely, this change in system was exceedingly haphazard. Some aviation equipment never changed their designation, such as Polikarpov's various fighter aircraft like the I-16. Some items, like Mikulin's in-line engines, were already designated "AM-" by 1940, before the official changes were actually agreed. By1941 the U-2 had been in service already for eleven years, and the universal employment of its designation U-2 was simply impossible to displace; everyone, the Government included, continued to use this name. However, when Polikarpov passed away in 1944 there was an ensuing clamour to both mark his passing and also to get aircraft nomenclatures in order. The 'correct' modern nomenclature Po-2 was introduced by the Government during the year, and indeed the type's Tekhnicheskoe Opisane (Technical Manual) for 1944 is indeed titled "Po-2". These two designation refer to the same aircraft, and should be understood to be entirely interchangeable.