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Foundations of Russian Military Flight, 1885-1925

21 November 2020

Foundations of Russian Military Flight, 1885-1925, James K. Libbey, 2019, ISBN 9781682474235, 242 pp.

This academic, though entirely accurate title, makes a brilliant description of the Russian use of their aviation advancements from the beginning of flying through World War I and into the mid-1920s. Libbey wonderfully and clearly explains the tragically operatic history of the Russian Revolution from the abdication of the tsar, through Red and White Russia until the Socialist Republic it became. All necessary to understand the use and designs of Russian Army as well as Naval Aviation.

Familiar Russian aviation pioneers who got their starts (Sikorsky, Seversky, Tupelov, Il’yushin) are detailed as are those names which are less known but no less important in history—Zhukovskii, father of Russian aviation, as well as Grigorovich who was essential both in early flying boat design and manufacture.

The influence of the French is insightfully rewarding as is the confusingly repetitive changing of sides and alliances when Russian exited World War I (WW I). Czechs commanding the Siberian Railway giving the Whites an advantage over the Reds—until Czechoslovakia was carved out of the former Australian-Hungarian Empire and the Czechs went there. Poland‘s invasion of southern Russia thus providing breathing space for the Whites which aided in getting military assistance from the Allies—until the Reds prevailed. Germany and Russian forming an alliance immediately post WW I—former enemies now economically married due to the incredible debt burden of both countries, onerous conditions imposed on Germany to keep it essentially a non-competitor (and poor), as well as both countries having become international pariahs.

Libbey well coveys the history of air operations in both an easily understandable strategic overview as well as individual feats. His writing is not verbose—it is descriptive and lively as well as often insightful. He has an occasional patois—for example hydrocruiser for seaplane tender and overwhelming air superiority for air supremecy. These make for more interesting reading and better place the reader a century in the past, though.

Wonderfully and almost throughout Libbey’s book is Sikorsky’s renowned four engine bomber—the aircraft of many firsts, including a tail gun position—the Il’ia Muromet. Though no more than twenty-two of these behemoths existed at any single time they were highly effective, cherished and feared (depending on the side) as well as leagues ahead of the rest of the world’s aviation abilities. That Russia could only have a handful goes to their economic and logistical plans—which Libbey thankfully describes and in layman’s terms—otherwise, how else could the reader understand how a country could be so advanced yet not be advantaged at the same time?

This book is a valuable asset to fill in an often overlooked niche in aviation libraries though a niche important to understand for both aircraft design as well as air power usage, especially with the Russia’s territory spanning eleven time zones or nearly half a day of the Earth’s rotation period! James K. Libbey is Professor Emeritus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is expert in aviation history as well as Russian-American relations.

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