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Kostyantyn Kalinin — Ukrainian aircraft designer who died in prison designing a Stealth-like bomber


Serhiy Hrabovsky, deputy editor in chief of the Suchasnist magazine, explores the fate of a Ukrainian scientific and engineering luminary, one of the many who were exterminated by the Soviet regime in the late 1930s.


There was a period in the cultural history of Ukraine which embraced the 1920s and early 1930s, and which has been dubbed Rozstrilyane Vidrodzhennya (literally: "Renaissance that was executed by firing squads"). Whenever this subject is written about or discussed, mostly literature, the theatre and cinema, the arts and education are dealt with. However, this period of national Ukrainian revival, or rather of the formation of a new Ukrainian nation, saw the flourishing of science and technology, and to ignore it would mean to present a lopsided picture.


A different Kalinin

Ukrainian scientists made worthy contributions to the development of psychology, nuclear physics, biochemistry, mathematics, electrical welding and building of airplanes. In all of these fields of scientific endeavour, Ukraine produced figures of pivotal significance for the world science without whose contributions and breakthroughs the advancement in these respective fields would have been slowed down. Most of these scientists, researchers and engineers were physically destroyed by the totalitarian Stalinist regime. Later, in the 1950s and in the 1960s, when they were officially exonerated from any wrongdoing and their names and scientific contributions were allowed to be mentioned in the press and in books, they were persistently called either prominent “Soviet” or “Russian” scientists and scholars, without any mention being made of their Ukrainian ethnicity.

The protagonist of Radiy Polonsky’s novel Ostriv dyvakiv (“The Island of Mavericks”), written in the 1960s by an author who belonged to a group of liberal, dissident and near-dissident literati and intellectuals (later they were referred to as “the people of the sixties,”) in one of his reminiscences about the pre-war times, recalls seeing a photograph of a huge plane. Everybody thought it was the Maksim Gorky airplane designed by Andrey Tupolev and built in Russia in the 1930s. However, it turned out that the plane in the photograph was built in Kharkiv, then Ukraine’s capital. The plane was of an advanced design and in many respects was much ahead of its time. The designer’s name was Kostyantyn Kalinin, an aircraft designer known at that time only to a very few.

The last name “Kalinin” was, by contrast, well known in the Soviet Union. There was a top-ranking Soviet apparatchik, Mikhail Kalinin, who was a sort of the Soviet president (Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union), or “all-Union Elder” as he was usually referred to in the typical Soviet falsely sentimental way. In reality, he was one of Stalin’s henchmen, a puppet whose only worth lay in his absolute loyalty and servility. However, we shall be talking about a man who was no relative of this Stalin’s toady, and the only thing they had in common was their last name.

The Ukrainian Soviet Encyclopaedia had this to say about the Ukrainian aircraft designer: “Kalinin, Kostyantyn Oleksiyovych. Born in the town of Valuyky (now in Bilhorod Oblast, Russian Federation) in 1889; died in 1940 in the city of Voronezh. Ukrainian Soviet aircraft designer; a member of the communist party since 1923; a graduate of the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute; upon graduation in 1925, went to work in Kharkiv where he headed an aircraft design bureau in 1926. In 1928–1929 he designed passenger planes K-4 and K-5 which completely ousted foreign-made planes from use by the Soviet airlines. In the period from 1930 to 1938, a number of planes were designed by Kalinin, one of which, K-7, could seat 120 passengers; he also designed bombers K-12 and K-13. Kalinin was awarded Orden Trudovoho chervonoho prapora (“Order of Labour Red Banner”).” Not too much information, and, as was usual with the Soviet reference books, important facts were either twisted around, or ignored. The Soviets were experts in peddling misinformation.


The Ukrainian Kalinin

Kalinin of our story was “Ukrainian” not only because he worked in Ukraine, but in a much deeper sense. The name Kalinin sounds like a Russian one, but he was born in the land of Slobozhanshchyna (which is now part of Bilhorod Oblast), the land of the Ukrainian Cossacks, where Ukrainian traditions and customs had very deep roots. Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian spirit were part of everyday life.

It was surely not accidental that after the collapse of the Empire, Kostyantyn Kalinin, a WWI air force pilot, an officer who was awarded the Russian Empire’s Orders of St Stanislav and St Anna for bravery (he was wounded several times), joined the air force of the Ukrainian People’s Republic where he served in 1918 and 1919. After Ukraine lost her short-lived independence, he fled to Moscow where he enrolled in the Aviation Academy. Strangely enough, at the time of his enrolment, the secret police must have overlooked him, and he studied for some time without being harassed. It was only in 1922 that he was expelled from this Academy for his “political convictions and leanings” and he fled again — this time back to Kyiv. His talents were so obvious that he became a student of the Kyiv Polytechnic with ease. He majored in aircraft design, and as early as in 1925 the first plane, designed by him, K-1, was flight-tested. Most of the aircraft designers at that time preferred the biplane designs, with two sets of wings, one above the other, but Kalinin chose the monoplane design as his favourite which, ten years later, became the dominant design in world aircraft building. Kalinin was invited to come over to Kharkiv to work at an aircraft design centre which he headed shortly after his arrival in the then capital of Ukraine.

At that time there was another design and aircraft building centre in Kharkiv, in addition to Kalinin’s. The Kharkiv Aviation Institute had its own aircraft design centre, headed by Yosyf Neman who, in fact, worked for some time at Kalinin’s centre, and became an aircraft designer in his own right before he had turned thirty. Two of the planes designed at the Institute, KhAI-1 and KhAI-5 (also known as R-10) were successfully tested proving their airworthiness. R-10 was a light bomber which could also be used for reconnaissance. More than five hundred of these planes were used in combat missions during the Second World War. But in 1938, the Neman aircraft design centre was closed down because its head, Yosyf Neman, was arrested by the secret police. He was one of many millions who were imprisoned or sent to concentration camps on trumped-up charges.

A series of planes designed by Kalinin culminated in K-5, the most widely used plane in domestic flights at that time. In fact, 260 K-5 planes were the best-known passenger aircraft in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. The landing gear on some of these planes was modified to make it possible for the planes to land on water. Incidentally, Kalinin’s previous plane, K-4, won the gold medal at the Berlin International Exhibition. However, Kalinin’s ambition was to build a plane of much bigger size, an intercontinental liner.


Kalinin’s jumbo plane

The design work on a new plane which was called K-7, began as early as in 1928. “An idea to build a very big plane came to me back in 1925. By 1929 the project had been worked out in principle and it took two more years to get it carried out… Creation of planes of such size requires engineering innovations, new ways of solving engineering problems. In our case it was a new concept of the wings which had to carry some of the load. For that time it was a revolutionary idea that helped solve many problems. We worked at the creation of a craft with the aerodynamics of a flying wing, which in itself is an ideal airplane. In order to have such a flying wing, we had to build a plane which would have quite a few things placed in the wings,” said Kalinin later.

The plane that eventually was built in 1933 was an exceptional craft for its time. In August 1933 it was successfully flown for the first time. Seven engines, 750 hp each, provided a great lifting power. The wing span was 53 metres. The plane had several modifications, passenger and military ones. One of the passenger modifications could carry 128 passengers to a distance of 5,000 kilometres. The air force modification was a veritable “flying fortress,” built nine years earlier than Boeing B-17, the famed American bomber. K-7 was armed with 8 aviation guns and 8 rapid-fire machine guns. It would be extremely difficult for enemy fighters to approach K-7 from any side since every point in the immediate vicinity of the plane could be observed and covered by at least three gunners. The plane could carry, depending on the distance it had to fly, loads of 10 to 16.5 tons. Additional fuel tanks, suspended beneath the plane, provided enough fuel for flying a distance of 2,400 kilometres with 6 tons of bombs on board. K-7, modified for delivering troops in landing operations, could carry up to 112 parachutists, and a 8.5-ton armoured vehicle, or a field gun, suspended beneath the plane and then released on parachutes. For comparison, the Maksim Gorky (ANT-20) plane designed by Andrey Tupolev in Moscow and tested in 1934, could carry only 76 passengers; its military modification was armed with two guns, six machine guns and could carry ten tons of bombs.

From the memoirs of the participants of the first test flight of K-7: “The plane was rolled out onto the runway in early August 1933. Mykhailo Snehiryov was appointed to be the test pilot. When the engines were started for the first time, a strong vibration in various sections of the plane was registered, and it became clear these sections had to be reinforced. On August 19 Snehiryov actually flew the plane for several seconds, 5 meters above the ground, flying in a straight line. The pilot reported that during this test flight, the rudders vibrated with an amplitude of about one meter —and that was unacceptable. The whole empennage was redesigned and a new one installed. The head of the Main Board of Aviation Industry Petr Baranov and test pilot Gromov arrived in Kharkiv the day before the next test flight which was to take place on August 21. At six o’clock in the morning the plane was on the runway with six people on board. Kalinin took the seat of the second pilot, as was his custom. The weather was not unfavourable for the flight, though the low clouds hang over the airfield, and there was a light mist. The engines were started, the plane smoothly rolled along the runway and took off. ‘The plane obeyed the wheel well … It was unbelievably easy to control the plane — it responded to the slightest move of the control column,’ the test pilot Snehiryov said after the flight. After flying in a circle over Kharkiv, K-7 safely landed.”


Planes, morals and famine

The plane was flight-tested in 1933, when millions were dying in rural Ukraine in an artificially created famine. What should we think of the people who designed and built planes when they knew that peasants were dying from starvation? They could not help seeing some of these skeletal peasants who had managed to get through the army and police cordons only to die in the streets of Kharkiv. What should we think of the people who worked for the Soviet military industrial complex? What kind of moral values were these designers guided by providing the tyrannical regime with strategic bombers, probably the best in the world as far as their range and bombs carrying capacity were concerned? What kind of moral principles did they have that allowed them to work at building the largest fleet of strategic bombers in the world at the time when untold millions lived in abject poverty? Do we have the right to accuse them of callousness and immorality? I am afraid there is hardly a clear-cut to answer we can give today to any of these questions. One thing is clear though — Kalinin, in contrast to many of other designers, did want to build passenger rather than military planes, whereas others devoted themselves entirely to designing and building military hardware, a solid support of the Soviet regime. Kalinin was eager to design and build passenger planes but was forced to build bombers and other military planes.

The test flight showed that K-7 was quite airworthy. A test flight which would determine what was the maximum speed at which the plane could fly, was to take place on November 21. Then, the next day the plane was to be flown to Moscow. In the afternoon of August 21, K-7 with twenty people on board, took off.

From the memoirs of the engineer Chebyshev who watched the plane’s test flight from the ground: “K-7 flew above us at the appointed hour, and when the pilot saw that we were ready with our instruments to measure the plane’s speed, he made a circle and evidently prepared to throttle up when he would be flying above us again, but without reaching the place we were at on the ground with our instruments, the plane suddenly dived and began descending at an angle of about 30 or 40 degrees. The distance to it at that moment was about 3 or 4 kilometres. The plane crash-landed, lost its landing gear, bounced off the ground, and then fell again, its engines still working. And immediately it burst into flames.”

Out of twenty people on board fifteen died. One of the survivors, Semerenko, a test pilot, described what happened: “When he entered the straight line — it was while the plane would be moving along this line that the speed was to be measured, the test pilot Snehiryov opened the throttle, and immediately a strong vibration began at the tail unit… There was a sharp sound of something breaking and it became impossible to control the elevators. K-7 went into a dive and could not be brought out of it. The vibration continued; I tried to assess the angle at which we were heading toward the ground… Shortly before we hit the ground the plane banked sharply to the left. The plane was completely out of control. Nothing could be done, and all that was left was to wait for the end… And then we hit the ground.”

The thing that ruined K-7 is called “flutter”— vibration that broke apart many planes in those times when they reached a certain speed, very high by the then standards. It was only several years later that Mstyslav Keldish, a superb mathematician and would-be academician, provided mathematical description of this phenomenon which allowed to successfully deal with it. Baranov who has been mentioned earlier, ordered to have two more K-7 planes built with improved tail units. A year later, the Kalinin Centre was transferred from Kharkiv to Voronezh, Russia, and the building of the two planes was never completed.

Officially, the transfer was explained by a necessity to create a design centre at the aircraft building factory that was being created in Voronezh. But it is very likely that the real reason was of a very different kind — the Soviets wanted Ukraine to be no more than a producer of grain, metal and coal, and high-tech industries were to be concentrated in Moscow, or at least in Russia. It was the time when the Bolshevik political line changed from propaganda of “international brotherhood to undisguised Russian imperial chauvinism. Even the Soviet phraseology went through a change — deeds followed the words.


Tragic finale

In Voronezh, the Kalinin Centre proceeded to work at the K-12 plane, codenamed BC-2, which was to be modified for military purposes. It was to be a multipurpose plane which could be used for reconnoitring, bombing missions, spotting for adjusting artillery fire, transporting troops or the wounded. Kalinin’s design was once again innovatory and it took quite some time and a lot of arguments to convince the military who commissioned the plane that K-12 was an aircraft they needed. In 1936 the plane was successfully tested and in 1938 they began to be built. But Kostyantyn Kalinin did not see a single one of them — on April 1 1938 he was arrested and died in prison soon after his arrest. The death was caused by tortures he was subjected to. The exact date of his death is not known but must have occurred either in the late spring or in the fall of 1938. Many of his colleagues at the Centre suffered a similar fate, disappearing without a trace in the GULAG limbo.

Paradoxically, Kalinin, when in prison, did not stop working on new designs — he made drawings of a plane with a totally new concept on his mind. He called his new plane K-15, which did not progress — for obvious reasons — from the first sketches to any further stage, but the same idea, independently and much later, was successfully used in building such planes as the US Stealth and other hypersonic fighters and bombers. When right after the war the Soviets started research in the field of hypersonic flight which resulted in the creation of jet fighters, they used the relevant research materials captured by their troops in Germany.

Oblivious of Kalinin’s pioneering ideas, the Soviets sought solutions elsewhere. Kalinin was only one of many researchers who were destroyed by the Soviet regime and whose ideas instead of being used, were buried in the secret police archives.

Two aircraft design centres were thus closed down almost at the same time — one of Yosyf Neman and the other one of Kostyantyn Kalinin. The Kharkiv school of aircraft design and construction ceased to be. Similarly to so many other spheres of science and art, the development of Ukrainian aircraft design was rudely disrupted and the researchers, scientists and engineers whose talents could be creatively used, were “liquidated” as “enemies of the Soviet people.”

The aviation design in Ukraine goes back to Levko Matsiyevych who also happened to be one of the founders of the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party. In the Soviet times, this name, among so many other names, was a taboo, “unmentionable.”

The entry about Kalinin in the Soviet Ukrainian Encyclopaedia, quoted at the beginning of our story, was a typical Soviet product of misinformation and suppressed facts. The same can be said about entries that dealt with a great many other prominent Ukrainians whose names were allowed to be mentioned but whose dates of death tragically concentrated around the years 1937 and 1938, the time of “great purges.” The encyclopaedia editors were instructed to do something about the dates — and they obediently did. In the post-Soviet times, a lot of archive materials — but by far not all — became accessible and the true stories about “the enemies of the Soviet people” began to emerge. These “enemies” were first mercilessly annihilated by the Soviet regime and later their contribution was “rediscovered” and attributed to “the advantages of Soviet science and technology.” Also, many other unsavoury facts were discovered in the archives. It emerged, for example, that the prominent Soviet Russian aircraft designer Andrey Tupolev had a hand in the demise of Neman’s and Kalinin’s design centres, either because he wanted to get rid of his “rivals” or because of some “political” considerations. But Tupolev and his pupil Petlyakov did use Kalinin’s ideas in designing Tu-2 and Pe-2 bombers which did play a significant role in the battles of the Second World War. In fact, shortly before his arrest, Kalinin had his new plane, K-13, tested but later this bomber was destroyed as “a project that was an act of sabotage” (now it must sound absolutely absurd, but in the nightmarish Soviet reality of the 1930s it was the order of the day). Only a little later, it turned out that Kalinin’s ideas were not “sabotage” but could be successfully used in the creation of diving bombers.



In 1958, the British magazine Air Pictorial, featured a photograph of Kalinin’s K-12 with a caption that read, “This craft was a prototype of all modern hypersonic jets.” In 1978, the Russian Academician Artobolevsky remarked that, “Igor Sikorsky (aviation pioneer who designed and tested planes and the first successful American helicopter, was born in Kyiv in 1889; he had Ukrainian Cossacks among his ancestors — S.H.) was accorded the honours of an American hero at his funeral, but another brilliant aircraft designer, Kostyantyn Kalinin remains unknown in his own country — he was destroyed when he was still a young man.”


When confronted with stories of the kind described here, Ukrainians are prone to say, “Well, but, you know, we can sing so well.” Yes, we can sing very well indeed. But it turns out singing is not the only talent the Ukrainians have. Long before the Antonov aircraft design centre was set up (Oleg Antonov, a leading post-war aircraft designer; among achievements of the Ukrainian aircraft design centre bearing his name are the world’s biggest transport planes), Ukraine had two aircraft design centres which had produced pioneering ideas and innovative planes. Back in the 1930s, Ukraine gave the world a number of prominent mathematicians, one of whom, Mykhailo Kravchuk, developed ideas which were used in the creation of the world’s first computer. The theoretical background to nuclear physics was being developed at about the same time also in Kharkiv. There were psychologists and educators with pioneering ideas who disappeared without trace in the GULAG. There were so many others whose names we just don’t know and who should still be discovered and dutifully honoured.


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