Army Aviation

Insight: Soviet VTOL Technology

Looking Back, July 2024
By Mark Albertson

Insight: Soviet VTOL Technology:
What They have Done, What They Are Doing,
And Why, by United Aircraft’s
Sergei Sikorsky[1]

Insight:  Soviet VTOL Technology.

As a fellow member of your association, I appreciate the invitation to address you today in a subject of much interest, not only to me personally but I think to all of us,

There are not going to be any major surprises. Possibly some of the things I have to say may not coincide with what is current thinking among some quarters. I offer them only as points for later discussion. My talk is more an explanation of what the Russians have done (with rotary wing equipment), what they are doing, and why they are doing it the way they are doing it.

VTOL, has a long history in Russia. It started in Russia in 1910 with experiments my father did. He abandoned them because of a lack of technological potential in engines and airframes at that time. However, his actions did inspire a number of other people to continue and in 1922-1925 a machine was put together in Russia.

It was a surprisingly modern configuration which was actually flown about 1932-1933 by the Research Institute in Moscow. Two young engineers cut their eye teeth on this first project. One of them was Nicolai Kamov; the other was a young engineer named Mikhail Mil.

Helicopters didn’t move beyond this first project in Russia for quite some time. Sporadic efforts during the late ‘30’s were in autogyro imitations and helicopters came into action right after WWII. In the fourth Five Year Plan initiated 1946-1950, the Soviet Government decided that it was going to get into the helicopter business. In Russia, there is no such thing as private initiative—anything that is decided is, first of all, decided by the government, and once the government has established a priority for it, the funding is there. Funding is not there on a one-year basis, as it is here in the U.S. It’s there at least through that running Five Year Plan.

The division was made in 1946 and the first helicopter that flew in 1950 was the Mil-1. It has a 575 hp engine; and it is still being very widely used for utility work, whaling, crop-spraying and for helicopter training in the State-run Soviet Aero Clubs. These are scattered throughout Russia and provide flight and mechanic training at ridiculously low prices, and conservatively estimated they train an average of 3,000 to 4,000 helicopter pilots a year.

These aircraft are the basic training aircraft on which Soviet pilots cut their teeth. A lot of them continue current; some go into the military services; some go into Aeroflot; and some go into industrial combines; but the Russians are building up a tremendous backlog of rotary wing trained pilots and mechanics.

In 1953, the Mil-4 was the next aircraft to fly. The Russians jumped the H-19 class of helicopter and went straight to the equivalent of an H-34 class. It had a “bathtub” below the fuselage which was used not only for navigation in marginal weather, but it also could be fitted out with a belly-mounted machine gun. The Mil-4 is a very, very rugged aircraft, and it’s put together more like a truck or a tank than an aircraft.

In the military version, the window is to the side of the heel of the pilot—the windows have rubber plugs in them—and during a troop mission, the soldiers riding in the aircraft can poke the plugs out and stick machine gun muzzles out of the windows. Well over 5,000 of the Mil-4 model have been built by the Russians, Chinese, and other people as well.

The civilian version of the same Mil-4 is being used in Asia, and the satellite countries as a light to medium category of utility helicopter. Aeroflot alone operates several thousand of these helicopters as a sort of liaison service all over Russia.

In 1957, the Mil-6 flew. Although it might not have been a surprise technologically, its sheer size was a distinct surprise. It has two 5,500 hp gas turbine engines, a gross weight of roughly 93,000 t0 94,000 pounds; and can carry, roughly, the equivalent of 65 to 90 armed troops in its large cabin. The significant point I’d like to bring home is that it took the Russians seven short years from the time they built the little Mil-1 to the time they fielded the very large, very sophisticated aircraft. This is one of the points I’d like to leave with you—the speed with which these people can assimilate their own knowhow and blend it with imported and observed technology, and then come up with hardware.

Among the Soviet helicopters discussed by Mr. Sikorsky was the Mil-6 helicopter, which served as a model for future designs.

These aircraft, I have reason to believe, are being put together in fairly large quantities. I estimate conservatively that there are probably 350 to 400 of these Mil-6 machines operational today and I have grounds to believe that the initial production lot was 500.

The next machine using components of the Mil-6 was the Mil-10, the Flying Crane. It first flew in 1960. Again, three years after they flew the Mil-6, they had the dynamic components down, under control and developed, and were able to put this Flying Crane together. This aircraft had a capacity to straddle large lumber stacks and it could carry large bulky objects below its fuselage. The cargo might include a bus, a lightweight cylindrical object, and possibly even intercontinental missiles from factories to on-site silos.

This same crane was followed very shortly afterwards by short-legged versions of the same machine. We’re beginning to see it used in increasing industrial operations taking place in the Russian boondocks.

In 1965, the venerable Mil-4 was slowly replaced by the Mil-8. The latter first flew in’65 and had two 1,500 hp engines. To save time the prototypes were built using Mil-4 hardware. Mil-4 main rotor blades (they went from four to five blades on the rotor head); the intermediate and the tail gear box, I was told on best authority, were taken directly from the Mil-4; and even though they have developed slightly higher powered transmissions systems in the meantime, this aircraft, in case of an emergency, can be flown today by using standard old Mil-4 blades and Mil-4 tail rotors. They can be ferried out under light gross weights to a repair base and either be scrapped or put back into operation. These same aircraft are being given away in fairly large quantities, and some have fairly sophisticated VIP interiors.

Helicopter operations in Russia form a half crescent located roughly from the Urals down around the Afghanistan-Mongolian-Chinese border. They are highly seasonal in nature, but are becoming more around-the-clock operations. From these central bases which are, generally speaking, in the southern part of Russia, helicopters move out in the spring as the thaws start and operate in the Russian tundra and far into the north.

As soon as the spring comes, their helicopters go out shuttling geological crews and industrial teams all over the Siberian peninsula. These same helicopters are increasing their operations through the winter and they’re beginning to establish permanent villages and cities, permanent geological stations, etc. throughout Siberia. They’re beginning to develop the know how of operating these helicopters in the Siberian winter, which means living with temperatures that go down to -35 and -40 degrees. I’ve talked to pilots who’ve told me they’re operating helicopters at -65 and -70 degrees.

In addition to supplying half the world’s gold, and having more forest reserves in Siberia alone than the total acreage than Western Europe, we’re now beginning to realize that Siberia is almost literally floating on an ocean of gas and oil. Russia has what a lot of people consider to be the largest known reserves of oil and gas in the world. This has catalyzed a tremendous expansion in Soviet helicopter operations, and Siberia is unique because there is no place where they are not starting from square 1. They are going across tundra with pilots and mechanics where it would cost sometimes as much as half a million dollars to build a mile of road, and these roads would have to be rebuilt extensively every spring after the snow and ice had melted.

It Costs Less to Fly

When you have to do these jobs and you have to supply these cities and you begin to develop other—and sometimes very impressive ways of doing it, and this brings in the helicopter. It is more cost efficient to do it by air than to build the roads.

One Russian told me that they’ve run cost-efficient studies that indicate to service a 1,000 kilometer road, to keep it open and repaired, and to channel over this road 1,000 tons per year from Point A to Point B requires about 2,000 maintenance people just to keep the road open. By air they could do the same job with about 25% less people. They’re run these estimates and realize that if they put a small airstrip ay Points A and B they can get by with about 1,500 people.

Adding to the unique problems of Siberia are some of these nutty places where, for example, in the Central Siberian lowlands, swamps do not freeze, and are not even in the bitterest Siberian cold. Saturated with peat which is decomposing, they generate so much heat that the ground and the water remain unfrozen all year. Radio navigation aids, as a result are very, very marginal off the runways. There are certain airways that go generally east-west, and the Russians are just starting to develop north-south chains. They usually locate radio aids at the intersection points, but there a very, very large areas—and some of them of tremendous importance geologically and technologically—that are not covered by radio aids.

Telephone Pole Navigation

To overcome this, they are developing all kinds of interesting techniques. I’ve heard fascinating rumors about helicopter airways that are marked in the same way we used to run the airmail in the States. They put telephone poles every 3-4 miles apart that are high enough to stay clear of the winter snow. They require no maintenance. Their cross arms have chaff (radar tinsel) on them. These poles are used by Russian pilots visually or by onboard radar. Maintenance is by a tractor or dogsled team that goes down the line and repairs the tinsel. And there you have a passive but very effective radio aid.

Consequently, eyeball navigation is important in this area of Russia, and this is the reason why most of the helicopters are very, very well equipped as far as windows go. The Mil-8 cockpit is typical—plenty of windows. On the larger helicopters, such as the Mil-6, and you’ll notice that there is a navigator station in the nose of the machine. The Russians always grin when someone accuses them of putting a bombardier station in the nose of the Mil-6 because they say that this helicopter as a bomber is an awfully expendable piece of hardware. But a navigator in marginal weather in Siberia is a must, and consequently they do it by putting him up in the nose to give him the visibility.

Bump on Top

On the much larger aircraft, such as the Mil-12, they have right on top—on the floor above the pilot’s cabin—a bump that is a fairly well-equipped navigator station. He has his own cabin, his own ground-mapping radar, and very adequate visibility to look downwards and forwards.

Medical services in Siberia are expanding as the population grows and they’re using the Mil-4’s and Mil-6’s, and I’ve already heard that they’re equipping the interiors of helicopters with a complete dentist’s office. Including a dentist’s chair, and flying out to isolated communities and furnishing medical and dental services inside of the helicopter.

I’ve reviewed all of this to give you some feel for the in depth strength of the Soviet military operations, because Aeroflot is a part and parcel of the total overall military potential that the Soviet Government has. All of these pilots and all of these aircraft, in case of an emergency, can be diverted to back up actual front line military operations and, was done during World War II, actually do become a part of the Soviet Air Force as soon as the balloon goes up.

Increasing numbers of helicopters are being used not only here in the industrial applications, but the same aircraft are being used, such as the Mil-6, in military operations. For instance, in recent military maneuvers on which we’ve been given some information, they’ve been used in coordination with Soviet armor. They carry the troops and by carrying troops by air you keep the roads open for armor and do not clutter them up with APCs and with other troop-carrying trucks. The helicopters stay behind the front-moving tanks but remain close enough to be called in to provide heavy troop support, when and if needed.

New families of weapons are being developed. They are, to a large degree, self-propelled weapons because the Russians know when they move into a beachhead or into an airhead they may not have enough manpower to lug this stuff around. But these light anti-tank and possibly anti-aircraft cannon can be moved under their own power and can ride around for about 5-6 kilometers on their own fuel before they finally get into the position they want to reach.

In Response to Government

The helicopters developed in Russia are developed in response to a specific government requirement. This requirement is either to support military operations or to support massive construction projects in the Soviet Union. Once the requirement has been established, they enjoy a definite, given priority and can be manufactured in any one of a half a dozen factories. Even though helicopter manufacturing is specialized in one or two spots, these helicopters are purposely designed somewhat more simply and certainly more ruggedly than ours are.

The designs move into hardware very quickly. They do this by using a mixture of in-house knowhow and experience, which they have built up since their first machines in 1950, and a very, very professional and an almost overnight evaluations of American and European designs. This allows them to provide surprising jumps in technology at very, very quick speed.

These rugged, simple designs also allow much easier farming out of the design from the central design bureau to any one of a half dozen production plants. It also allows far quicker transfer of technology from the design office to any one of their satellite factories, once these are designated to build that particular type of helicopter. Obviously, all of this reduces maintenance requirements in the field.

General speaking, after five to ten prototypes are built, these aircraft are put into limited operational work and are flown and debugged. Once debugged, production starts and is committed to a definite Five-Year Plan, and therefore, they are able to commit three to five times as many numbers into production as we ever do.

We live with this annual review, Annual Budget: Quantities are increased and decreased; unfortunately, most of the time they seem to be decreased every year that a program keeps on going. In Russia, you do not have any of this. A definite plan is laid out and they work in blocks of 100, 500 or a thousand aircraft, depending on the quantity and the type of aircraft. One good example, the new Antonov crop-spraying biplane just developed by the Antonov group in Kiev. Fairly simple and rugged, it’s been given to the Czechs to build. Right off the bat, Aeroflot ordered 3,000 copies.

Now, obviously, when a factory gets an order laid down that says, “You deliver 3,000 copies,” it can run off forgings and heavy fittings and frames, and it can manufacture engines because it knows that it will be doing it for a production run of 3,000. Hence, you have a totally different economic picture.

These huge production runs result in significantly lower costs, and this further stimulates production by the fact that you can get a lot more of that hardware for a reasonably low price per unit.

Recent emphasis indicates the Russians want to go into an all-weather capability. They’ve already been operational with electrically-heated anti-icing of main and tail rotor blades for six to seven years. They’re already developing full IFR capability, and on the Mil-6 and Mil-8 they have a simple, rugged, and entirely workable autopilot. I’ve been told by good authority by the Russians that they now have a standard requirement that all aircraft that have been in production for the last five years have to be capable of IFR operations; all have anti-icing, and all must be capable of operating from Siberian to Mongolian temperatures, which means from -35 to-40 degrees up to +110 to +120 degrees.

Trade Anything for Survival

Their domestic and military requirements will continue to generate very, very large production runs. The (design) trend will continue to be, in my mind, devoted to fairly rugged, fairly unsophisticated helicopters. This will be done knowingly while accepting a penalty of perhaps 10% less payload per aircraft compared to our European and American designs, it’s going to be done knowing that they’ll cruise at 5 to 10 knots less airspeed, but it’s also going to be possible to maintain this aircraft in the field for 500 to 1,000 flying hours with a quarter of the manpower that our equivalent machines require. This advantage, both in their boondocks and in case of a military operation, is something that all of us should take a look at. What I’m trying to say, in concluding this very brief review of Soviet helicopter design philosophy, is that the Russians sometimes take a look at a problem and solve it, not with the maximum of expenditure, and they are willing to trade off performance, payload, cruise speeds and a number of other things in order to arrive at a machine with which they can live in this very, very difficult and demanding Siberian environment.

Editor’s Note

Sergei Sikorsky’s effort denotes a continuum of, not merely that of Soviet weaponry, but Russian. Or as George Kennan once observed, that in the end it does not matter if it is Czarist Russia, Stalin’s Russia, Khruschev’s Soviet Union, Brezhnev’s Soviet Union or Putin’s Russia, Russia is Russia. And that includes the production of weaponry. By Western standards, Russian equipment, overall, is of a simpler design. During 1941-1945, for instance, on the Eastern Front—the decisive land campaign of the war—the simplicity of Russian designs helped to dominate the battlefield in the end.

Sergei Sikorsky, son of Igor Sikorsky, addresses the 1973 AAAA National Convention in Washington, D.C.  Topic was the state of Soviet VTOL Technology.

To start with, much of the population were peasants and workers. What do they know about Cadillacs and Dusenbergs. Vehicles and aircraft were developed along these lines. Take the T-34. Fit and finish might not be up to so-called Western standards, but unlike poorly designed British and American types, the T-34 boasted of sloped armor so as enemy shells could bounce off, a diesel power plant to cut down on the fire hazard, 19-inch tracks that enabled it to go through terrain other tanks could not traverse. It could take a punch and with a pair of pliers and a wrench set, you could keep it running for twenty years. And it was the most produced Allied tank of the war at 54,550 copies.[2]

The Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik,[3] is another example of ruggedness, simplicity, cheap to manufacture and which could be considered crude by Western standards. Built first in just piloted versions, a rear gunner was added for further protection. Extremely well armored, the Il-2 was a niche aircraft; that is, it was for ground support of troops as well as busting enemy armor. Arguably, it was the best of such type of aircraft produced by any of the combatants during the war; that is, in the opinion of Eddie Rickenbacker who witnessed demonstrations when in the Soviet Union.

The Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik, most produced combat plane in history at 36,163 copies.  The Il-2 is arguably the greatest ground support/tank busting aircraft of World War II.

What made the Il-2 so fearsome was its cocktail of armament such as, machine gun and cannon fire, plus bombs and/or rockets it could unleash upon enemy troops, trucks, tanks, pill boxes and other strong points. And it was built to operate at low levels, at altitudes of 30 feet to 2,000.

Such weaponry of simplicity and ruggedness, as well as being produced in massive numbers[4], helped to make the Soviet Army, by 1944, the world’s greatest killing machine on land.

Yet honorable mention, though, must go to a plane built by the United States. That being the L-4 Piper Cub. As a low-speed put-put, of simple design, rugged, easy to maintain, and cost efficient (about $2,000 per copy), the Cub was arguably the most powerful single-engine aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. For it could direct tons of ordnance onto a single target without hoisting same, by the expediency of the aerial direction of artillery fire. The L-4 served in most theaters of the war and, was the most produced U.S. Army co-operation aircraft of World War II at 5,671 copies.[5]


[1] See pages 16-18, 20, Army Aviation, Vol. 23, No. 1, Army Aviation Publications, Inc., Westport, Ct., January 7, 1974.

[2] When first encountered In 1941, the T-34, as did the KV-1 heavy tank, proved a shock to the Germans; that sub-human Slavs were capable of producing such first-rate armored fighting vehicles was an indication that the Wehrmacht would be engaging an enemy in 1941 who would prove to be a much more worthy antagonist as opposed to the hapless French the summer before.

{3] The term ‘Shturmovik’ “is a general application for all ground-attack types, and the its application to the IL-2 specifically is comparable to the use of the name Stuka for the Junkers Ju-87.” See page 2, “Ilyushin Il-2,” Aircraft Profile No. 88, by Witold Liss.

[4] The Il-2 is the most produced combat plane in aviation history at 36,163 copies. See pages 2418 and 2419, “Shturmovik, Ilyushin Il-2,” Illustrated Encyclopedia of 20th Century Weapons and Warfare, 1978.

[5] See page 43, “70th Anniversary of Army Aviation: Fixed Wing Aircraft of World War II,” Army Aviation, February 28, 2012, by Mark Albertson.


Albertson, Mark, “70th Anniversary of Army Aviation: Fixed Wing Aircraft in World War II,” Army Aviation, Vol. 61, No. 2, Army Aviation Publications, Inc., Monroe, Ct., February 29, 2012.

Illustrated Encyclopedia of 20th Century of Weapons and Warfare, Vol. 22, Skyray.T-34, .Phoebus Publishing Company, /BPC Publishing Ltd., 1978.

Liss, Witold, “The Ilyushin Il-2,” Aircraft Profile, No. 88, Profile Books Limitied, Berkshire, England, March 1982.

Munson, Kenneth, Aircraft of World War II, Doubleday & Company, Inc., printed by Crampton & Sons, Ltd., Sawston, Cambridge, UK., 1968.

Sikorsky, Sergei, “Insight: Soviet VTOL Technology,” Army Aviation, Vol. 23, No. 1, Army Aviation Publications, Inc., Westport, Ct., January 7, 1974.

Zalaga, Steven and Sarson, Peter, T-34/76 Medium Tank, 1941-1945, Osprey Military, London, UK., 1994.