The fall of the Soviet UNI0N had a dramatic impact on the Ukrainian aircraft industry. However, the great potential she showed in the years leading up to the crisis proved that Ukraine would indeed rise again. With a mere 20 years behind her now, this country has one of the most developed full cycle aircraft industries in the world, not just developing but exporting aircraft and hardware to all four corners of the world.
From Seconds to Years
The first piloted flight in the history of the human race took place in 1903. The Wright Brothers were the boys that built the first vehicle thrusting those brave enough into the great beyond. This was not just any passive ride in the sky, however. This was the first flight that allowed the pilot to operate the direction and speed with which he flew. The event lasted just 12 seconds, but it proved that such a thing could in fact happen.
Thus began a new era in the history of flight which opened up possibilities for intercontinental aircraft and supersonic fighters. It was even due to this short 12 seconds in the air that man made it into space, and it’s all thanks to the talented Wright Brothers.
Scientists in Ukraine at the turn of the century were not wasting any time either. In fact, the first Ukrainian science laboratory, the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute (KPI), opened in 1899, four years prior to this first man-made flight, where young enthusiastic students gathered to study the mechanics of flying. The desire to conquer the sky was more than they could bear! It would, however, take the students and professors 11 years to construct anything remotely close to being able to sustain prolonged time in the air. The date was 5 June, 1910 when they finally did it, masterminded, designed and built right here on home soil. Oleksandr Kudashov was the man to pilot the first fully functional airplane in all of the Russian Empire.
Turning Dreams into Reality
Rich not only in soil and agriculture, intelligent and creative minds were also a hot commodity here in Ukraine during this era. Aviation and aeronautical science kept hundreds of citizens busy at the turn of the 20th century, paving the way for innovation and discoveries of all sorts. One such individual who was truly instrumental in this area was Igor Sikorsky. Having graduated from KPI in 1911, those first designs generated at university would later revolutionise the entire world. Moving to St Petersburg, France and finally the United States, the most popular helicopter configurations would soon be attributed to this man from Kyiv.
While Sikorsky was busy trying to get his first helicopter off the ground, war was taking over the country. This was a time of constant evolution from which the aircraft industry benefitted more than most. Recruitment from the military helped speed up the process, and following close on the heels and traditions set forth by Sikorsky, Konstyantyn Kalinin was designing the world’s first serial heavy airliner, K-1, taking his first successful flight in 1922. His colleague Serhiy Korolev, the future founder of the Soviet Space Programme, was also in the process of finding a way to ensure his engine would later make the first ever flight over the North Pole. His wish came true in 1936 with Valeriy Chkalov at the helm.
The Second World War too gave Ukrainian pilots and engineers an opportunity to apply their knowledge. But keeping aircraft in the air was not their only goal: Awarded Hero of the Soviet UNI0N on three separate occasions, Ukrainian pilot Ivan Kozhedub is recognised as the most effective Soviet fighter to date, taking down 62 enemy aircraft.
Here and Now
With the end of WWII, other battles ensued, but Ukraine always continued along its path of aeronautical excellence. Proclaiming independence in 1991, the new country quickly became a powerful aviation competitor at an international level, and as of 2011, boasts 40 high-tech organisations with five universities all preparing future experts in aviation and aerospace.
Designing and manufacturing over 20 types of civil, military and cargo aircraft, used all over the world, the Antonov Company is now at the centre of the Ukrainian aviation community. Their engineers have patented over 100 modifications/innovations, out of which two in particular directly affect the world today. The first came about because of the Soviet dream to be “Faster, Bigger, Stronger”. In 1982 they achieved this with the introduction of the Antonov An-124 Ruslan – a strategic airlift jet aircraft, the world’s largest ever serially-manufactured cargo airplane and second largest operating cargo aircraft.
The second came about six years later when the company introduced the world’s heaviest ever aircraft, the Antonov An-225 Mriya. Mriya, which means dream, was designed to transport the Buran orbiter (shuttle carrier aircraft). When the Soviet Space Programme faced its fall, the aircraft found its place in the heavy weight transportation category as it is capable of carrying up to an incredible 250 tonnes of weight!
The country is still quite young, but there is no doubt that Ukraine’s heritage of aviation and aeronautics will continue to rival that of even the top aerodynamic companies all over the world. To all those who have contributed to this country’s success in the air, we salute you!