Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, more information has come available on Russian-built aircraft. Both in the Soviet Union as well as in Poland, Hungary and most of the other former Eastern block countries books and magazines were filled with stories on the history and use of aircraft. Some of these were published for propaganda reasons, others were more interesting for historians.
My special interest went to the Lisunov Li-2, the Russian variant of the Douglas DC-3. Before the 1990s only some details were known, but an accurate estimate of its production was unknown in ten Western world until 1994. Most reliable estimates were some 2,000 Li-2s built. Some photos and publications were available on the use of the aircraft in the various former satellites of the Soviet Union. We know a lot of Douglas DC-3s in all its variants, the histories of most of the individual aircraft is known. We miss, however, the information of the Russian and Japanese built versions. Some of the Russian Li-2s still exist and one is airworthy. This article gives some background information. It was written, using documents and publications of the former East bloc countries and stories told by the crew of the last airworthy Lisunov Li-2.
The first part of the Li-2 story gives details of the history and the development, explains the setup of the system of construction numbers and has details on flying in an Li-2. The second part will contain stories on the use of the aircraft by many civil and military operators during the years 1939 up to the early 1980s.
Development of Aviation in Russia
in the 1930s was stepping forward. Many aircraft were designed and built in the USSR. By the end of the decade most of the aircraft were becoming obsolete and no longer economical to operate. The Soviet airline Aeroflot began to suffer from a lack of modern passenger aircraft, v\capable to satisfy the needs of the newly-opened air routes. Soviet industry had practically no capacity to fulfill this requirement because it concentrated on the production of fighter aircraft. Aeroflot itself did not have the facilities to solve the problem of air transport. As a temporary solution, bombers were adapted for the transport role. This provided unsatisfactory however and, in the face of this, it was decided to purchase suitable aircraft from abroad. The choice fell on the excellent American-build Douglas DC-3, an aircraft that already served several US and European airlines. By the way, there was another choice!!!!!
The Russian government imported some twenty-one DC-3s direct from Douglas through some trading companies. These airliners were delivered between November 1936 and March 1939. The first DC-3-196 bound for
Russia was the Santa Monica built aircraft with c/n 1589, registered as NC14995, ordered via Amtorg and delivered via Cherbourg (France) on 30 November 1936. It is interesting to know that this DC-3 was built standing next to c/n 1590, the well known KLM PH-ALI "Ibis" that was shot down over the bay of Biscay by German Ju-88s on June 1, 1943. All passengers and crew of that flight were killed, one of the most famous passengers on board this DC-3 was screen actor Lesley Howard.
Other DC-3s were delivered via Fokker and the Mongolian Transport Co. After conducting tests with a DC-3 at the CAGI (or TsAGI, the Central Aerodynamic and Hydrodynamic Institute) and obtaining positive results, it was decided to obtain a license from the Douglas Company to built the aircraft in the
USSR. The S. Ilyushin bureau worked out the technical plans for series production. The preparatory work on adapting the aircraft to Soviet requirements and manufacturing techniques was lead by engineer Boris P. Lisunov. He spent a considerable amount of time with Douglas in the Santa Monica plant for training and studies during the years 1938 up to 1940.
By the way, the Dc-3 was not the first contract between Russia and Douglas. Back in 1937 a Douglas DC-2 was brought via Amtorg, one of the companies acting as agent for Aeroflot. It is highly likely that this DC-2 was registered as USSR-M25, there is photo, evidence of a DC-2 with this registration. This particular DC-2 crashed in August 1937.
The production in Russia started in State Aviation Factory No. 84 in Khimki, nowadays a suburb of Moscow. Being the first passenger aircraft built in this plant, the license built DC-3s received the designation PS-84 (Passazhirski Samolot). The aircraft had two Shvetsov M-62 engines of 900 hp, licensed built Wright SRG-1820F engines. The first of these aircraft were introduced on the routes Moscow-Stockholm and Moscow-Berlin in 1940. In Autumn 1941, the production of the aircraft moved to Factory 18 in Tashkent near the Afghanistan border. The reason for this was the German invasion of Russia and the attack of Moscow. Many of the workers were involved in the defense of Moscow. In the new location in Tashkent the only work force available comprised mainly women and children. Very soon afterwards (on September 17, 1942) the aircraft received the well-known designation Li-2.
Throughout the war, the Li-2/PS-84 provided the front lines with troops, munitions, supplies and medicines while transporting back wounded casualties and strategic materials and equipment for the factories in the rear. The standard silver aircraft were repainted in #006600 and brown camouflage. On the top of the fuselage a turret was mounted, carrying a 12.7 mm calibre machine gun. In order to maintain the structural integrity of the fuselage, the area was additionally strengthened, supervised under the management of engineer M.M. Kulika. The rotating top turret, a VUS-1, was operated by the wireless operator. Additionally ShKAS 7.62 mm machine guns were mounted in the rear baggage compartment, being manned by the flight engineer. Often the aircraft were adapted to carry bombs. Initially these bombs were dropped by hand from the interior of the aircraft. Later special racks holding four bombs were built underneath the center section.
The development of the aircraft is almost similar to that of the DC-3. There was the need for a paratroop and cargo version. The cargo version appeared in 1942, built in Tashkent. It had a strengthened floor and undercarriage and a large freight-loading door on the left side of the fuselage. The MTOW was increased to 11,500 kgs but it was not vitrified for single-engine operation. The standard cabin heating was replaced by a simple wood-burning stove! Navigation lights were inset into the wing tips with an internal divider to separate the lights on top and under the wing. This gave the crew the possibility to extinguish the lower portion of the lights, reducing the visibility from the ground. For the same reason the exhaust pipes were lengthened by about one meter, to prevent excessive exhaust flames becoming visible.
Total production was estimated at between 2,000 and 2,800 aircraft. Recently more accurate production figures have indicated that some 7,000 aircraft were built. Douglas never received any payment for the license built aircraft!
In a forthcoming issue we'll describe details of the many versions of the Li-2, including the Chinese aircraft with Chinese engines and four-bladed propellers. We'll end this part explaining the Russian system of construction numbers for the Li-2. There is a chance to fly the Li-2 in the US very soon: Our Russian friends plan a trip to Oshkosh in July 1995.
The interpretation of the construction numbers has been a puzzle for many years. It might have been possible, that the system was made complex in order to avoid anyone detecting the actual number of aircraft built. This would have resulted in invoices from the Douglas Aircraft Company and the Russians would not have been too happy with that. There is no hard evidence for this theory, however. It is highly likely that the system of construction numbers is the standard CCCP system.
As mentioned earlier, the aircraft were produced in several factories. The Khimki factory (GAZ 84) gave birth to the PS-84 until the production moved to Tashkent (GAZ 18). Apart from that 505 aircraft were built in Komsomolsk (GAZ 126) between 1946 and 1950. This ended when the plant switched to the MiG 15 production in 1950.
The explanation of the c/n is a s follows:
SP-LAA c/n 184 227 02, the second aircraft of the 227th batch in plant 184 (Tashkent). In 1952 the factory codes change and a new type of c/n was introduced. The GAZ-code of Tashkent (184) changed to code 34. This resulted in the following c/ns: YR-TAW c/n 3 34 445 06, the 6th aircraft of batch 445 in plant 24 (new code for Tashkent) in 1953.
Flying a Li-2
My first chance to fly aboard of a Lisunov Li-2 was in March 1994 in Moscow. We had traveled there to meet the friends of FLA Russia, who restored a 2 to Liairworthy condition, the last one flying. It was quite a puzzle to get in touch with them. Telephone contacts with
Russia are rather difficult frequently and I don't speak their language (apart from basic words as "da", "njet" and "wodka"). Very soon we found out that Alexander, the navigator in the crew, was an interpreter. He worked for the UN in Washington, DC in the early eighties and acted as spokesman of FLA Russia. We wanted the Li-2 to come over to Holland and took a regular KLM flight to Moscow in order to discuss details of their planned trip with our Russian friends. Having bottomed up many glasses of wodka, we found the way to bring them to the Netherlands in order to have them flying in one of the formations of the commemorative flights for the 50th anniversary of Operation Market Garden. This operation in September 1944 gave freedom to the southern part of the Netherlands. It would be a strange experience to see US and British WWII veteran paratroopers flying a Russian built DC-3! Of course we went to have a look at the Li-2, now registered as RA-01300, stored for the Winter at Moscow-Knodinka. It was a strange experience to climb aboard (on the RH-side) and see the aircraft from inside, sitting in the cockpit with metric instruments, almost everything on the same location as in the Douglas built Dakotas. The snow (and some bureaucracy) prevented us from flying the Li-2 in that particular weekend, instead we experienced a Yak18T flight from ice.
In May 1994 we had the first visit of our Russian friends to our country. On a normal midweek Thursday the Li-2 landed at Texel International Airport, an airport on the largest of our North sea Islands. The crew had made a 9:21 hrs direct flight from Moscow-Sheremetjevo Airport and needed to stretch their legs! After refueling, they left for Paris-Le Bourget as guests of a war bird airshow. They returned a few days later on Sunday in order to give us the first chance to fly on board of the Lisunov, quite an experience. The aircraft has the basic bucket seats that we know very well from the Dakota. Oleg and his crew gave us a ride around the island and we all experienced the best three pointer landing ever.
The best still had to come, the Operation Market Garden 1944-1994 Memorial. The Li-2 was planned for parachute drops with US and English WWII veterans. The weather on Saturday 17th September 1994 was that bad, that most of the parachute drops had to be canceled. During the morning hours however, the Li-2 flew with several Dakotas over former WWII DZ's and glider landing sites, low cloud base and bad visibility made flying impossible for the rest of the day. The veterans would get a second chance in 1995! During Sunday 18th September we made many pleasure flights, especially over the Nijmegen area, where Lord Carrington was the leader of a Sherman tank convoy like he did in 1944 on the same place. Many people were very surprised to see a "Dakota", this time with a big red star flying over the former battlefields. We all regard it as an illustration of the new relations between former East and West, a new cooperation between former allies.
During the celebrations of May 1995 on the occasion of VE-Day and the liberation of the
Netherlands the Li-2 returned to our country. We flew on board the aircraft when dropping food over the former dropping zones, quite an experience. The veterans of US 101st ABD finally had their chance to jump over the former battlefields and they enjoyed it every time again. It gave an extra dimension to the peace process that they jumped this time out of a Russian built DC-3!
An interesting engine-modification is known from China, one of the largest users. In 1951, three aircraft engine repair factories were set up by the Chinese government. These were located in Harbin, Shenyang and Zhuzhou. During the Korean War, the factories received the rights to manufacture various Russian designed engines.
During that war, a total of 27,000 engines in 30 types have been repaired or overhauled for the Air Force. In 1956, the Zhuzhou Aeroengine Factory ZEF started the production of the HS5 engine for the Y-5, the Chinese version of the Antonov An-2. This largest biplane of the world had the same engine as the Li-2 and gradually the Chinese Li-2's received the Chinese engines as well. The production of the HS5 engine was rather successful. Up to 1986 (!), more than 2,600 HS5 engines were built, especially for the Y-5 and Li-2. Basically the engine is the same as the 9 cylinder air cooled Wright R.1820.
Another special modification of the Chinese aircraft engineers was to use four-blade propellers in stead of the standard three-blade props. Photos of these versions came available some years ago when the Chinese museums were opened to visitors from Western countries.
Lisunov Li-2's have flown in (ex-) Communist countries until very recently. The Chinese Government had Li-2's operational until the mid-eighties. In the early nineties, the Russian FLARF (Federation of Amateur Aviators in the Russian Federation) restored a Li-2 to airworthy condition. The aircraft was built with c/n 23441605, indicating that it was the fifth aircraft in batch 416, built in factory GAZ #34 (i.e. Tashkent) in the year 1952. The history of the aircraft is rather vague, a rather well known problem with most Russian aircraft. It flew as transport with the Soviet Air Force with registration "Red 03". The aircraft was off charge since a decade and stored at Moscow-Tushino. It was used in movies since then, keeping it more or less in condition. In 1993 the Lisunov was restored to airworthy condition by members of the FLARF. Driving force behind the restoration is Oleg Lyakishev, vice-president of the FLARF and captain of the Li-2. With civil registration RA-01300 the aircraft has visited Western Europe several times. The trip to EAA-Oshkosh in 1995 had to be canceled, because of some misunderstandings with US authorities. Another trip is planned for the future.
Special thanks to:
Oleg Lyakishev, Alexander Melikov and the rest of the crew of RA-01300, Maurice Wickstead for his superb translations of Hungarian and Polish texts, Maarten Brouwer and the late Evert Reydon (who flew in a Li-2 even before I could write the name!)