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Sarath Ramesh Kuniyl
Sarath Ramesh Kuniyl


High fliers

  • Oleg Konstantinovich Antonov
  • Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev
  • (Clockwise from bottom left) Alexander Sergeyevich Yakovlev, Pavel Sukhoi, Sergey Ilyushin and Nikolai Nikolaevich Polikarpov

The Indian Air Force plane which went missing with 29 people on board over the Bay of Bengal is one of the 105 AN-32s the IAF uses. The sturdy AN-32s can withstand extreme weather conditions and has excellent high manoeuvrability, all thanks to its designer Oleg Konstantinovich Antonov (AN stands for Antonov). He was one among the best. Here's looking at the Russian genius and the elite 'company' he was in:

Oleg Konstantinovich Antonov

Antonov, who was born in 1906, started taking a keen interest in aviation projects in school. He scoured shops for books on aviation and would study aircraft wreckage pieces at a local military base. He submitted his first aircraft design in early 1920s. It was approved and published in Smena, then the most popular Soviet youth magazine. His first flying object—the OKA-1 'Pigeon' glider—won the first prize in the 1924 Crimea competition.

In 1938, Antonov joined hands with another legend—Alexander Sergeyevich Yakovlev—and became his lead training glider designer. It was here, under his watchful eyes, that AN-2 took shape. The Soviet Air Force and Aeroflot, Russian airline company, gave AN-2 the cold shoulder, but Antonov managed the approval of the Communist Party, especially Nikita Khrushchev, the future leader of the country. And AN-2 became a reality in 1947. It is, reportedly, the only plane in the world that has remained in mass production for 50 years.

Antonov planes, known for their ability to lift off from small airfields, transport heavy loads, and high manoeuvrability, have 243 world aviation records to their name. The man himself holds 72 invention patents.

(Source: and Aircraft Finance: Strategies for Managing Capital Costs in a Turbulent Industry - By Bijan Vasigh, Reza Taleghani, Darryl Jenkins)

Alexander Sergeyevich Yakovlev

Yakovlev is hailed as one of Soviet Union's most successful aircraft designers. Like Antonov, Yakovlev was bitten by the aviation bug early in his life when, at six, he saw a plane for the first time. He worked as a delivery boy while in school and was part of the aviation designers club.

After his stint at the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy in 1931, he founded the Yakovlev Design Bureau (OKB-115), which designed aircraft, supersonic interceptors, gliders, vertical take-off and landing fighter planes, and helicopters. Yakovlev is, however, revered for his series of Yak planes—around 40,000 were built during World War II; two thirds of all Soviet fighter planes were Yaks. The Yak-9 was one of Yakovlev's masterpieces and was the most produced Soviet fighter plane during the war. His twin-engined helicopter—Yak-24—set many world records.

An example of his innovative approach: Under pressure to develop a fighter for higher altitudes during the war, Yakovlev reworked the Yak-1, with a shorter wing span, “reduced depth, and a surface area of 156 sq ft”.

Yakovlev was close to the dictator Joseph Stalin, and, under him, served as the deputy aviation minister between 1940 and 1956.

(Source: and Fighter By Ralf Leinburger)

Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev

It takes a genius to look at an aircraft design and correctly guess whether it will fly or not, or calculate the exact point on the runway from where the aircraft will take off.

Such was Tupolev's talent that while attending the Imperial Moscow Technical School—the leading technical institute in Soviet Union—in 1909, Nikolay Y. Zhukovsky, the father of Russian aviation, became his mentor. In a year's time, he successfully constructed his first glider. His academic wings were, however, temporarily clipped in 1911 when he was expelled from the university for “anti-government” activities.

After graduating in 1918, Tupolev and Zhukovsky founded the Central AeroHydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI). It was here the young engineer revolutionised aircraft manufacturing, by replacing wooden parts of planes with duralumin (a hard, light alloy of aluminium with copper and other elements). In 1922, Tupolev design bureau (OKB-156) was founded, and with it came the prefix Tu. Some of the famous aircraft from the bureau are Tu-2, Tu–95, Tu-160, Tu-154 and Tu-144. He was, however, arrested during The Great Purge under Stalin in 1937-38. Some say, Yakovlev, had a hand in his arrest.

A true leader, Tupolev would stand up for his colleagues and friends, but at home it was his wife Julia Nikolaevna, who was his pillar of strength. Tupolev's son, Alexei, carried his legacy forward, designing the first supersonic passenger jet, the Tupolev Tu-144.

(Source:, and Tupolev: The Man and His Aircraft By Paul Duffy, A.I. Kandalov)

Pavel Sukhoi

Sukhoi is a name to reckon with in Indian Air Force, especially after the successful test flight of Sukhoi-30MKI fighter fitted with a Brahmos cruise missile in June. But, do you know, which plane did Pavel Sukhoi see for the first time? A Farman biplane.

Sukhoi found a mentor in Tupolev at Imperial Moscow Technical School. It was only natural then that he was employed at TsAGI in 1925 and assigned the task of developing bombers TB-1 and TB-3. Two years after Tupolev was arrested in 1937, Sukhoi established his design bureau—Sukhoi OKB or OKB-51. In 1945, Stalin asked him to build jet fighters but he based his design on already existing German Me-262 twin-jet fighter. This upset Stalin and Sukhoi and his bureau lost his trust and favour.

It was only after Stalin's death that Sukhoi spread his wings again. He started working on jet bombers and fighter designs and the new supersonic Su-7 and Su-9 series of fighters were rolled out.

Pavel Sukhoi developed, in all, “50 original aircraft constructions”. Sukhoi is Russia's major aircraft manufacturing company today.

(Source: and Russian Aviation and Air Power in the Twentieth Century - edited by John Greenwood, Von Hardesty, Robin Higham)

Sergey Ilyushin

Born in a peasant family in 1894, Ilyushin tried his hand at almost everything—he was factory labourer, delivery boy, digger, caretaker, cleaner, mechanic, clerk and armyman—but found his true calling in designing aircraft. He fell in love with planes while working in a hippodrome, which was being converted to an airfield for an air show.

Ilyushin picked up a bit of mathematics and physics from a neighbour. A bit of luck, and the fact that he was literate, helped him enter an aviation school and get a pilot licence.

For a man so passionate about planes, Ilyushin was not a great flier. He joined the Red Army in 1919, not as a pilot but as a mechanic. The stint there taught him about aircraft structure and their use in combats. He was passionate about gliding, but the first aircraft he designed in 1923 failed the flying test.

He established his design bureau (Ilyushin OKB) in 1933 and had a relatively young team around him, who looked up to him, and Ilyushin the manager and mentor didn't disappoint them. The bureau's first aircraft was a bomber—TsKB-26—which was later upgraded to DB-3 (effective long-range bomber) and DB-3F. But it was IL-2 or the “The Hunchback” that earned the distinction of being the most used Soviet plane in World War II.

Ilyushin's designs were simple yet creative, which made Yakovlev hail him as “master of simple solutions”.

(Source:, and OKB Ilyushin: A History of the Design Bureau and Its Aircraft by Yefim Gordon, E. Gordon, Dmitriy Komissarov, Sergey Komissarov)

Nikolai Nikolaevich Polikarpov

You may lock the body but not the soul. And the brain, Polikarpov might have added. After all he and his team designed the I-16—one of world's first cantilever monoplanes—in prison! They were accused of “counter-revolutionary activities” and “sabotage” after Stalin was unhappy with their progress in producing a “serviceable fighter”. They were arrested in 1929 and Polikarpov was sentenced to death, though the sentence was changed to 10 years of hard labour later.

One of the founding fathers of Soviet aviation industry, Polikarpov would have ended up as a clergyman if he had not gone against his father's wishes and got himself enrolled in St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute.

After graduating, he joined the Russo-Baltic Wagon Factory, where he, along with Igor Sikorsky, developed the Ilya Muromets bombers. The feather in his cap, however, was the U-2 biplane.

Though Polikarpov's designs ruled the 1930s, soon younger designers like Yakovlev took over the mantle.

(Source:,, Air Warfare: An International Encyclopedia, Volume 1 - edited by Walter J. Boyne, and Fighter By Ralf Leinburger)

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Topics : #aviation | #Russia

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