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Russia remembers 4-engine Ilya Muromets wooden biplane of century ago

December 23, 2013, 9:55 UTC+3 MOSCOW
The Ilya Muromets is reckoned the world's first batch-manufactured four-engine airplane
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An Ilya Muromets biplane bomber on display at the Air Force Museum at Monino near Moscow

An Ilya Muromets biplane bomber on display at the Air Force Museum at Monino near Moscow

© ITAR-TASS/Marina Lystseva

MOSCOW, December 23. /ITAR-TASS/. Russia's first famous airplane Ilya Muromets (Elijah from Murom) made its first flight near St. Petersburg exactly one century ago, becoming the prototype for many four-engine airliners of the 20th century in various countries and earning fame for its designer and air pilot Igor Sikorsky.

The first flight was a training one. Two days later, on December 12, the airplane carried a load of 1.1 tonne, which was a great record for those times. At least another two records ensued: the Ilya Muromets took off, carrying 16 people and a dog on February 12. The airplane made a successful flight from St Petersburg to Kiev on June 17. The flight was crowned with a real triumph. Chief designer Igor Sikorsky was only 24 years old. In most flights he flew the airplane himself, Konstantin Pakhalyuk, leading specialist at the science sector of the Russian military history society (RVIO), told Itar-Tass.

The Ilya Muromets is reckoned the world's first batch-manufactured four-engine airplane. To tell the truth, it had a predecessor, the Russkiy Vityaz (Russian Knight) airplane devised by Sikorsky at the beginning of the self-same year 1913.

"Already at that time, his success was taken note of by Nicholas II," Pakhalyuk pointed out. "And the State Duma awarded a prize amounting to a very large sum of 75,000 tsarist rubles. However, presently, an incident ensued: during a competition of military airplanes, another plane was flying over the Russian Knight and that plane's engine broke loose and fell onto the wing of the Vityaz. Sikorsky was not hurt in the incident and later took up another project".

The airplane, a huge one for those days, had a wing span of 31 meters, was 19 meters long, and was equipped with four engines. At first, those were the German-made 140-hp Argus ones.

The Muromets constituted a wooden biplane with motors attached to the lower wing. The airplane was at the edge of scientific thought for those times. At first, a "third wing" was installed. However, tests did not confirm its usefulness. The Ilya Muromets was being also devised as a bomber and as a passenger plane. If history evolved in a luckier way, the beginning of regular passenger transportation by air would have been set. But then the First World War broke out.

"Immediately following the St Petersburg-Kiev flight, a decision was made to supply the airplanes to the troops," Pakhalyuk related. "At first, the airplanes operated separately but later on a decision was taken to unite them into air squadrons under the command of Mikhail Shidlovsky, a big industrialist who was promptly promoted straight to the rank of Major-General. In February 1915, the airplane "Ilya Muromets Kievsky" commanded by Second-Captain Gorshkov made a bombing raid for the first time in East Prussia.

The Muromets was used both as a bomber and a reconnaissance plane. It carried photographic instrumentation for aerial photography and machine-guns to repulse enemy attacks. Historians estimate the overall number of airplanes made at being 60, all in all. However, only about 40 bombers took part in combat operations. The German-made engines were replaced by the English Sunbeam and the French Renault ones. Russian designers also tried to arrange a domestic production.

After the revolution in Russia, Igor Sikorsky continued his activities in emigration, specifically in the USA where he became famous for designing helicopters as well.

The four-engine airplanes turned out to be not quite widespread, also because higher-powered engines came into being by that time. However, the American "flying fortresses" were provided with four engines with success, just as Soviet long-range bombers and many passenger turboprop airliners in the second half of the 20th century.

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