About World War 1: 1914—World's First Heavy Bomber Is Russian
The Ilya Muromets Strategic Bomber
The Russian Behemoth
When World War One started, military aviation was in its infancy. The flimsy airplanes available to the world's military forces in August 1914 were used mainly for reconnaissance. Russia, considered backward in so many ways, was the only country to have a bomber—a four-engined behemoth that dwarfed every other airplane in the world. Its wingspan of 97 feet was only 23 feet shorter than the length of the Wright brothers' first lumbering flight only 11 years earlier.
The Russian Empire was feared for the size of its army and its vast spaces, which had swallowed up invading forces before, most notably the French invasion of 1812. It was not known for its technological advances, and it did have some spectacular and bizarre failures, perhaps the most infamous being the Tsar Tank, a monstrous armored tricycle with 30-foot wheels developed between 1914 and 1915.
A Russian Failure
Initially a Passenger Airliner
Created by Igor Sikorsky in 1913, the Ilya Muromets was originally to be the world's first multi-engine, multi-passenger airliner. It took its name from a mythological Russian knight, a folk hero with super-human strength who supposedly lived in the seventeenth century. In February 1914, on its maiden flight, it carried 16 passengers-- a first for a heavier-than-air machine. As war approached, Sikorsky militarized it and, in July 1914, Tsar Nicholas II christened the Ilya Muromets S-23, Type B, the world's first four-engined heavy bomber. No other country had an airplane even remotely close to its size, carrying capacity and range.
A 1914 German Bomber
The Ilya Muromets Compared to Other Bombers in 1914
When Germany declared war on Russia on August 2, 1914, the Russians had two Muromets bombers. By December, the Imperial Russian Air Force had ten. No other country had anything close to it. In 1914, the British had the Sopwith Tabloid, a single seater aircraft that could be fitted to carry five 20-lb bombs. Its loaded weight was 1,700 lbs. The French had the two-seater Voisin III, which weighed 3,000 lbs and could carry 200 lbs of bombs. The Germans had the bird-like two-seater Etrich Taube, from which the observer could drop 4.4 lb bombs. Its loaded weight was 1,900 lbs. All had single engines.
A 1914 British Bomber
Nothing Else Even Came Close in 1914
The Muromets had an enclosed cabin with heat and electricity and carried a crew of four to eight or as many as twelve and weighed 12,000 lbs. There were openings in the fuselage which allowed mechanics to climb out onto the lower wings and service the engines in flight. Its four engines gave it a maximum speed of 68 mph, which initially compared favorably with the competition. It could carry up to 1,100 lbs of bombs and, depending on its load, it could fly for up to ten hours before refueling. It had fittings for up to nine machine-guns at a time when pilots were shooting at each other with pistols and carbines and throwing ropes trying to foul the enemy's propeller. The very first versions were armed with an 8mm machine gun and a 37mm cannon and it was the first plane to have a tail gunner.
Ilya Muromets (Winter Version)
During the war, 73 Ilya Muromets were built. They performed daylight bombing, night bombing and photographic reconnaissance. The Germans were reluctant to attack them because they were so well-armed, the rear gunner position being especially problematic. Small fighters even found themselves buffeted from the propellers' wash. And the Ilya Muramets was so large, it was just plain hard to shoot down.
In September 1916, the only Muramets lost in combat was shot down by the Germans, but by 1917 the bombers were showing their age and there were better heavy bombers in the war. The constant flying had worn them down so that only four were still deployed near the front, while the rest were used as trainers. Some production did continue, however, even after the revolution and they were used mainly as transport until 1922 when the last Ilya Muramets was finally retired.
The Ilya Muramets came to influence the design of many heavy bombers created as the war dragged on. The Germans tried to copy it from the wreckage of the single bomber they recovered, incorporating the knowledge into their own heavy bombers, but their four-engine bomber, the Zeppelin-Staaken, wasn’t available until September 1917. The Russians licensed the design to the French and British. The British, especially, developed four-engine heavy bombers which were influenced by the Russian bomber. Igor Sikorsky (1889 - 1972), its creator, immigrated to the U.S. in 1919 and later developed the first American helicopter in 1939.
US Advances Stunted by Wright Brothers Patents
The American military had hardly any planes in 1914. This was partly because of the feeling that the U.S. was protected by the oceans, but also because American airplanes were prohibitively expensive due to the Wright brothers tying up the aircraft industry with expensive patents. They may have augured the era of flight but, as their 1910 Wright Model B showed, they seemed to be stuck with the pilot (and passenger) sitting forward on the wing with
Still Sitting on the Wing in 1910
Interesting detailed 3D animated model of the Ilya Muromets
Questions & Answers
© 2012 David Hunt