The Dawn of Aeronautics
The first occasion when balloons were used for military purposes was in 1793, in revolutionary France. A year later the Committee of Public Safety founded an Academic Commission whose members included Carnot, Berthollet and Lavoisier. Two companies of “military aeronauts” were also formed, and in Meudon, near Paris, a College of Military Aeronautics was opened.
Attempts to attain mastery of the skies have been preserved by history in Russia too. In November 1783, at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, a small, gas-filled balloon was sent aloft, and five months later there took place a public demonstration of the ascent of a medium-sized air-balloon. In the spring of 1803, two Italians, Terzi and Bassi, appeared in Moscow with an extensive programme of entertainments which included aeronautical attractions. And on 20 June of that year, the French parachutist Jacques Garnerin and his wife ascended to a height of two thousand metres above St. Petersburg and landed at Malaya Okhta. Four weeks later they repeated their flight.
In 1884 the General Administration of Engineering established a “Commission for the employment of aeronautics, pigeon post and watch-towers for military purposes”, whose chairman was Major-General M. M. Boreskov and whose secretary was Lieutenant A. M. Kovanko, a graduate of the College of Military Engineering. By a decision of this commission, an “Aeronautical Division” was formed in February 1885 – the first regular unit of its kind in the Russian army – under Kovanko’s command; while on the Volkov field in Petersburg an “Aeronautical Park” was constructed. Experiments in aerial reconnaissance, photography and telegraph messaging from a captive balloon were carried out successfully. From 1885 aeronauts in balloons were taking part in almost all large-scale manoeuvres in the various military districts.
Kovanko is well known to the people of Gatchina. He was active for many years in their town; the training aerodrome of the aviation department of the Officers’ Aeronautical College was situated four kilometres from Gatchina, in the village of Salizi – a training ground with balloons and hangars to house them.
It was in the Russian-Japanese war that the Russian aeronauts received their “baptism of fire”. By this time seven aeronautical divisions had already been formed. For the valour he displayed in battle Colonel A. M. Kovanko was awarded a gold St George’s Weapon, and in 1906 he was promoted to the rank of general.
Having studied foreign experiments, the Russian inventor Aleksandr Fedorovich Mozhaisky turned his attention to the problem of flight at the beginning of the 1860s. His profession – he was a sailor – gave him the opportunity for making extensive observations of sails and of the flight of the birds that followed his ship, and for flying kites, which were used in stormy weather conditions to carry a line to the shore. He made painstaking studies of the movements of birds’ wings. He made exact calculations of the lifting power exerted by a pigeon’s wings and tail to raise its mass of 78 zolotniks (332 grams) with a lifting surface of 95 square inches (613 square centimetres).
In September 1876 Mozhaisky arrived in Petersburg hoping to attract financial support for the continuation of his experiments and his work towards the construction of a flying machine. By this time he had completed a successful model “flier” with spring propulsion, superior to the famous model built by Peno; not only did it fly splendidly, but it also bore a payload. On one autumn day, a crowd of the capital’s citizens assembled on the parade ground now occupied by the Winter Stadium. A long table was set up on the sandy ground, and on it Mozhaisky carefully placed his “flier”, which had the appearance of a small boat with a square wing. On its nose was fixed a four-bladed propeller. Mozhaisky wound the spring and asked the spectators to move away from the table. The model started moving, raced along the table – and took off. On the parade ground there was complete silence. The miniature aircraft flew swiftly and steadily.
Mozhaisky applied for funds for the construction of a large machine, “of which the estimated cost is attached hereto”. From the estimate it was apparent that the sum needed for its construction came to 18,895 roubles. In the summer of 1882 the machine was assembled, but in such haste that the first attempt at flight was made in an untested aircraft. In the Central Military-Historical Archive is the original of a secret despatch from 23 July 1882: “On the inspection of the aircraft … 24 July, at three o’clock in the afternoon…”
Historians and specialists note that Mozhaisky succeeded in carrying a whole programme of tests for his aircraft. His flying machine was built and tried out, and on it a short flight of some seconds’ duration was accomplished: this is attested by the Military Encyclopaedia of 1914 as well as by “lectures given by Colonel V. F. Naidenov at the Officers’ Aeronautical School”.
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