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The Russian Revolution in Aviation History

bert hall igor sikorsky red baron

The Non-October Revolution 

We are almost to the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, but first we have to wait for November. The revolution was not exactly mis-named; one of the revolution's reforms was to join the Western world in using the Gregorian calendar instead of the Julian calendar, which meant skipping about two calendar weeks. But they didn't do that till 1918, so the revolution date of November 7, 1917 still counted at the time as being in October. Thus for a while babies were named politically correct names such as Oktyabrin, instead of Noyabrin as the new calendar would have had it. (The revolution also got rid of some of the less useful letters in Cyrillic, though not all of them, according to my Russian teacher, who said that's what happens when revolutionaries get old and tired.)

The dissolution of Russia had a great effect on the war, much like the effect of America's joining the war, except in the opposite direction, and a lot more timely. That is, as soon as Russia stopped being a threat, Germany moved its forces westward and started a major push to win the war before America got there, because although America had declared war back in April, and was about to suffer its first official combat deaths on November 3rd, it wasn't until spring 1918 that American involvement really became effective. 

Not the Fiercest Front in the Air

As far as the air war went, America's effect was mostly in terms of morale (and not always that, as the Allies wanted airplanes from America, but got pilots, who were already in greater supply than craft to go up in.) It was likewise only discouraging, rather than a major change, to lose Russia as an ally in the air war. The Russian air force was not a major priority for the tsarist government, and Russian pilots weren't known for being fearsome foes.

The Red Baron, whose first flying experiences were in bombers, and who experienced the eastern front both in the cavalry and in the air, had commented on Russian pilots in June 1916: 

The machines stood ready and each pilot tested his engine, for it is a painful thing to be forced to land on the wrong side of the Front, especially in Russia. The Russians are terrible to captured fliers. If they catch one they will certainly kill him. That is the one danger in Russia, for they have no fliers of their own,or as good as none at all. If a Russian flier appeared, he was sure to have bad luck and be shot down by his own men. The anti-aircraft guns in Russia are often quite good, but their number is not sufficient. Compared to the Western Front, in any case, flying on the Eastern Front is like a holiday.

Bert Hall of the Lafayette Escadrille (not James Norman Hall) was sent to Russia in January 1917 to help out the Imperial Air Service, and in his diary he said about the Russian aviators that "They fly about six hours per month and rest the remainder of the time."

They Should Have Kept Sikorsky

Ilya Muromets 1914 Sikorsky bomberThe Russian Revolution did have one major effect on aviation history. Perhaps the Bolsheviks were trying to outdo the tsar in hostility to Russian military aviation - anyway, they managed to chase Igor Sikorsky, who had developed the first four-engine bomber in 1914, out of Russia to the United States. (Look at the progress in aviation from this photo of his Muromets bomber compared with the famous Kitty Hawk picture just 10 years before.) By the time of the next world war his company was producing a very different format of flying machine: helicopters.

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