The Maxim Gorky: Aviation’s Titanic

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Tupolev ANT-20 "Maxim Gorky"

Maurie White’s father, an engineer who produced truck radiators, was one of forty people invited onto the Maxim Gorky, a mammoth passenger plane that was comparable to a Boeing 747 and cruised at speeds up to 140 miles per hour. Designed to be a monument in the air, the Gorky was scheduled to take off from a Moscow airport with workers commended by the Soviet government.

15-year-old White, who accompanied his father and ten-year-old brother, never boarded the plane. A company car set out to the airport late and got lost on the way. When they arrived to the runway, its gate was locked and the plane had already taken to the skies. White, who was looking forward to his first airplane trip, looked at the empty grounds with disappointment. He had no sense of his good fortune until learning that the Maxim Gorky had crashed and become aerospace’s version of the Titanic.

The Maxim Gorky and Stalin’s Plan for Aerospace

Named after the dramatist whose play The Lower Depths is still widely staged and anthologized, the Maxim Gorky’s model number was Tupolev ANT-20. The craft was designed by Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev, an engineer who held important aeronautic positions in the Soviet Union until the era of Brezhnev.

Originally planned as a heavy bomber, the Gorky was part of Josef Stalin’s vision to transform the USSR into a world aviation power. The Gorky was built in the heyday of Stalin’s Five-Year Plans that were aimed to industrialize the USSR at breakneck speed, including its military transport. With war looming in Western Europe during the early 1930’s, Stalin placed emphasis on building grand-scale airplanes that could defend Soviet territory in battle or, at least, capture international attention.

Tupolev’s ANT-20, built by a factory of 800 craftsmen from July 1933 to April 1934, had plenty of features to exhibit the USSR’s industrial capabilities. Weighing over 30,000 short tons when empty, the ANT-20 had a wingspan of 207 feet (compared to 196 feet across the Boeing 747-100) and a length of 108 feet. The craft, with a range of 750 miles, was powered by eight engines of 900 horsepower each and achieved cruising speeds of 130 to 140 miles per hour.

Most impressive was the plane’s functionality. On board with a crew of 23 – including eight for navigation – were the Gorky’s printing shop, photo lab, cinema, library, cafeteria, and radio station. The ANT-20 was the first airplane to include its own ladder and the first to use alternating current in addition to direct current. The plane could even be disassembled for transport by rail.

The Last Flight

Funded by public contributions, the Maxim Gorky made its intended statement in the eyes of reporters, photographers, governments, and the general public. The Gorky enjoyed its maiden flight on June 19, 1934, when it powered over Red Square and became the largest operating aircraft in world history. The Gorky became a roaring symbol of Soviet industrialization, known to Western journalists as ‘the propaganda plane’ and ‘Maximum Gawky.’

The events of May 18, 1935 were in a similar, ritualistic vein. In an act of workers’ solidarity, technicians, manufacturers, farmers, miners, artists, and students boarded for a flight over the Moscow aerodrome, where citizens and high-ranking politicians were attending an open air ceremony. The plane after ignition, which has been captured on film, was known to be an awesome sight. When arranging a flight that was meant to inspire the Soviet people, there was no place to imagine the Maxim Gorky crashing.

The Gorky left its Moscow runway on May 18th with two older biplanes. The biplanes took position alongside the Gorky’s wings; one was intended to take photographs, while the other provided symmetry and helped to underscore the Gorky’s major difference in size.

Soviet authorities are thought to have devised stunts for the flight, one of which led to catastrophe. According to eyewitness accounts, pilot Nikolai Blagin attempted to loop his Polikarpov I-5 biplane around the Gorky and instead smashed into its port wing. The two planes fell out of the sky and crashed in the residential area of Sokol, a Moscow suburb. Blagin and 47 others were killed.

Aftermath

Larger airplane crashes have occurred since the Maxim Gorky’s time, but the Gorky crash took place under a self-promoted grandiosity. In this sense, the Gorky draws eerie parallels with the RMS Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. The crash was judged by Soviet officials as a blow to its propaganda cache, although later memorial services helped, in rather opportunistic ways, to build national unity.

Nikolai Blagin, who may or may not have pulled the fatal stunt on his own, was vilified in the Soviet press after his death. Newspapers in Warsaw printed an anti-Soviet suicide letter that was allegedly written by Blagin but is now considered a forgery. Soviet leaders even coined the term ‘Blaginism,’ meaning to act with callous disregard for authority. Yet Blagin was granted his place in the Maxim Gorky Memorial at Novodevichy Cemetery, where each of the victims is interred.

A second Tupolev ANT-20 was built through Stalin’s orders and took flight in 1938. The second plane, model number ANT-20bis, served on routes in Russia and Uzbekistan but also crashed and killed 36 people on board after its autopilot was mistakenly shut off. It is believed that one of its pilots allowed a passenger to sit in his chair shortly before the craft went down.

The Maxim Gorky has captured the imagination of onlookers before and after its tragic result. A 1934 painting by Vasilly Kuptsov, for instance, now hangs in the Russian Museum at St. Petersburg. In 1936, composer Nicolai Myaskovsky finished his Sixteenth Symphony, whose third movement conveys the national mourning. Amongst flight enthusiasts, the Gorky remains an intense conversation piece.

Technology always brings its dangers, as Maurie White and others who bore witness to the Maxim Gorky have confirmed. Flight has reached incredible heights with its advent of jet engines, mach speeds, and, ultimately, travel in space. As humans, we are brave yet strangely fragile when defying our environment. For every accomplishment, incredible risks must be overcome.

Sources

  1. ‘Andrei Nikolaevich Tupolev.’ Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale Group, 1998.
  2. Palmer, Scott W. Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  3. Palmer, Scott W. ‘The ANT-20 “Maxim Gorky” in Flight.’ Blog entry for Dictatorship of the Air web site, January 4, 2007.
  4. White, Maurie. ‘The People’s Plane.’ American Heritage. 1997 Oct;48(6).
  5. Various sources were used to gain a consensus on the Maxim Gorky’s specifications and flight data.
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