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early Soviet civil aviation

For all intents, the Soviet Union never had a commercial aviation industry in the sense that it is thought of in the West. In a country that, through most of its existence, did not allow private property, it may be more accurate to use the term "civil aviation" instead of "commercial aviation." The Soviet civil aviation authority, known as Aeroflot, was, however, one of the most well known airlines in the world. By 1981, Aeroflot was the world's largest airline in terms of passengers carried, serving 87 countries all over the world.

The history of civil aviation in the Soviet Union can be traced all the way back to the Russian Revolution in 1917 when the new Bolshevik government saw aviation as one of the main ways to modernize a backward country where most of the population still remained rural peasants. The new communist leaders believed that aviation would be the most efficient way to transport both people and supplies across the 12 time zones that made up the vast country.

In April 1918, the new government decided to study the problem of civilian air transport for the first time, but that effort faltered for two more years as a civil war raged across the country following the Revolution. Only in 1921 did the government's Main Administration of the Aerial Fleet begin several modest routes across the country. Like many other European countries, Soviet pilots used surplus military planes from World War I. Pilots flew aviation designer Igor Sikorsky's Ilya Muromets bombers that had been converted for civilian use. These planes carried passengers and mail between cities such as Kharkov in Ukraine to Moscow, stopping at least three times on each trip. Lack of money forced the government to end these flights, and it took help from Germany to jumpstart regularly scheduled passenger service.

In addition to British and German airplanes, early Soviet airline routes also used tri-motors such as the ANT-9, designed by the well known Andrei Tupolev.

In November 1921, a joint German-Russian company named Deruluft formally began service between Konigsberg in Germany and Moscow using Dutch Fokker F.III planes. Deruluft enjoyed remarkable success, boosted by the strong cooperation between the two countries through the 1920s. By 1932-1933, the company was flying more than 700 flights a year and carrying more than 5,000 passengers. The company used a mix of German and Soviet aircraft such as the Dornier Merkur, the Rohrbach Roland, the Junkers Ju-52, and the ANT-9. The latter was a nine-passenger, three-engine plane developed by perhaps the most famous of all Soviet aviation designers, Andrey Tupolev. A towering figure in Russian aviation history, Tupolev established one of the main traditions of Soviet aviation, that of designing aircraft suitable for both military and civil uses.

The joint German-Russian airline company, Deruluft, flew the Junkers Ju-52 in 1932-33

Dereluft was the first Soviet passenger service company, but it did not have a long history. As relations between Germany and Russia began to deteriorate when the Nazis came to power, Deruluft no longer proved economically viable. On March 31, 1937, the company was dissolved.

In this vacuum, it was another organization that left a much longer-lasting legacy in the history of Soviet civil aviation. In March 1923, the Soviet government created a joint stock company named the Volunteer Association of the Aerial Fleet, or Dobrolet. It was the nation's first major civil air organization. Four months later, Dobrolet opened a regular air service using German Junkers F-13s along a 250-mile route between the cities of Moscow and Nizhnii Novgorod (later known as Gorky). Services on these flights were poor, and the passengers had to suffer many indignities such as loud noise, late flights, cold temperatures, and poor in-flight service. Despite these problems, Dobrolet expanded through the decade, as it extended its service to far off places into Siberia and even Outer Mongolia. By the late 1920s, however, the Bolshevik government began to view corporations like Dobrolet with great suspicion. The communist leaders were intent on wiping out all private ownership. As a result, on October 29, 1930, the government combined Dobrolet with the government's Main Administration of the Civil Air Fleet into one state-owned organization. Later, on March 26, 1932, the Civil Air Fleet was renamed Aeroflot, a word created by combining "Aero" with "flot," the Russian word for fleet. By this time, Aeroflot had about 200 aircraft.

In order to reduce its reliance on foreign aircraft, the Soviet government decided in 1935 to use only domestically designed transport aircraft for air service. By the mid-1930s, such Soviet workhorses as Kalinin's K-5, Tupolev's ANT-9, and Bartini's Steel-7 began wide use as part of Aeroflot. One of the most spectacular Russian aircraft of the period was Tupolev's ANT-20, a giant six-engine airplane that could carry more than 70 passengers. One foreign aircraft that remained popular, despite the government order, was the American DC-3, which was license-built in Russia under the name Li-2.

The DC-3 was built and flown in the Soviet Union under the name Li-2

Aeroflot had three main goals: to operate an air transport system; to provide different types of services such as aerial surveying, forest-fire fighting, and agricultural spraying; and to promote educational, recreational, and athletic activities for the public. Aeroflot, in fact, represented all aviation activities in the country that were not military. Civil aviation in Russian in the 1930s remained, however, closely tied to the military. For example, Aeroflot was considered to be a reserve for the Air Force's Military Transport Aviation. Through most of its existence, a military officer was the chief of Aeroflot.

Who flew Aeroflot in the 1930s? Without doubt, its most important service was as a freight and mail carrier. In 1939, in fact, Aeroflot finally passed the United States in terms of its volume of air freight, which made up 85 percent of all Aeroflot services. For the most part, passengers were not paying "private" individuals, but rather government or military officials. In one sense, civil aviation in the USSR served a very different purpose than in almost all other countries in the world. In the Soviet Union, civil aviation was less a travel service than a way for the central government to economically develop the remote areas of the vast country. Aeroflot's service by the end of the 1930s spread to almost all of the Soviet Union, from Ukraine all the way to Siberia and desolate Central Asia.

Service throughout the 1930s continued to be poor. There were very few flights during the winter to remote places, mostly because of the poor weather. Although the country had as many as 150 airports, many were simply primitive fields with un-surfaced runways. The aircraft were often obsolete, and the Soviet government rarely showed any interest in improving service. Passenger fares were also rather steep for the average Soviet person. For example, a flight from Khabarovsk to Okha could cost as much as 350 roubles in the 1930s—half of an average worker's monthly salary. International routes were not a priority for Aeroflot, partly because of the xenophobia of the Stalinist regime. It was only in 1936 that the Soviets opened a Moscow-Prague route, and then eventually one to Stockholm in Sweden. These flights were only a small fraction of Aeroflot's overall service. By the beginning of World War II, Aeroflot was mainly a domestic freight career.

Aeroflot began the world's first sustained jet airline service using Tupolev Tu-104 jets on an extensive internal route network from the summer of 1955