Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 62:
RUSSIAN AIR RECORDS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 62.

Today, we watch Joseph Stalin set aircraft distance records. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

If I learn one thing from history, it's that technology is effective when it flows from some internal wellspring of the technologists themselves. When kings and emperors interfere with this process, they only damage it in the long run.

Joseph Stalin, for example, completed his takeover of Russia in 1929, and he began ruthless collectivization and murderous purges. Then, in 1933, he started a campaign to build up Russian morale -- to draw attention away from his ongoing slaughter of so-called "enemies of the people." He flung Russian airplane designers and pilots into the competition for flight records. This way, the Russian papers were able to boast of technical success after success, while Soviet citizens were being trucked off to the gulags.

In 1933 Stalin seized on the work of the famous Russian designer Tupolev, who was already developing a long-distance airplane. But Russia's first sally in the records war was made in January 1934 when three Russian balloonists bested an American altitude record and, as it happened, died in doing so.

By 1938 Russia had claimed some 68 records for distance, altitude, and various "firsts." One of the more spectacular ones was a 6300-mile polar flight from Moscow to San Jacinto, California, in 1937. Before each flight, Stalin met the pilots, discussed their plans, and publicly worried about their safety. He met returning airplanes while flashbulbs popped. All the while, the death toll in Russian pilots rose. Then two things happened.

One was that Russia's lead started to slip. In 1939, for example, a plane left Moscow to set a record flying to New York. It was to arrive in time for the opening of the New York World's Fair, but it crashed in New Brunswick. The pilots arrived in New York, but did so in an American rescue plane.

But Russia's greater failure came in the Spanish Civil War -- that ghastly proving ground for facist and Bolshevik ordnance, before WW-II. By 1937 it had become clear that Russian airplanes, which had been designed to win distance and altitude records, were no match for German combat planes. Stalin reacted by jailing Tupolev and nearly 500 of his aeronautical engineers. Russian aviation had done brilliantly in the short term, but when all was said and done, it never did recover from the long-term damage that Stalin had done to it.

We see here what we've seen before in this series, but never in quite such gross and simple terms -- that engineers best serve the general health of society when they chase their own dreams.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Bailes, K. E., Technology and Legitimacy: Soviet Aviation and Stalinism in the 1930s. Technology and Culture, Vol. 17, No. 1, January 1976, pp. 55-81.

For more on this epoch in Russian aviation, see Episode 1274. This episode has been heavily revised as Episode 1429.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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