Tupolev Ant-20 "Maksim Gorki"
Built entirely for propaganda purposes at the behest of the Union of Soviet Writers and Editors to celebrate the career of the writer Maksim Gorkii (or Gorky), and paid for by public subscription, the giant ANT-20 toured the otherwise inaccessible areas of the USSR, bringing the communist message to the masses. To this end, the ANT-20 contained a small printing plant, a photographic studio, a cinema and a radio station. Of course, to show the wider world the superiority of Soviet aeronautics, the Maksim Gorkii had to be the largest aircraft in the world. Only a few subsequent aircraft (such as the B-36 and the An-124) have had greater wingspans. The six engines originally fitted were not enough and an extra pair were added on a pod above the fuselage. The Maxim Gorkii was lost when a Polikarpov I-5 fighter plane attempted a barrel roil around it. The fighter pilot, all 49 occupants of the ANT-20 and three people on the ground perished.
The only foreign pilot allowed to board the ANT-20 was the famous French aviator Antoine de Sainte-Exupery, who made a short flight in the aircraft on the day before the fatal crash. He later wrote about his experience in the French newspaper Paris-Soir. The maneuver that led to the crash of the Maksim Gorkii, although blamed on the over-exuberance of fighter pilot Nikolai Blagin, may well have been a planned aerobatic display that went badly wrong.
Built near Moscow in only nine months, the Tupolev Ant-20 Maksim Gorki was the largest airplane the world had ever seen when it was unveiled amid great fanfare in 1934. It had a wingspan of 206 feet 8 inches and was 108 feet long. The gross weight was 92,600 pounds. It was powered by six 900 hp M-34s in the wings and another two atop the fuselage. Inside it was like an ocean liner, very non-socialistic indeed. :)
The Maksim Gorki could carry 72 passengers, with a select dozen of them assigned to sleeper suites. There was a bar and a buffet and a 16-line telephone interchange. There was a film processing lab and a small movie theater. If such amenities were not enough, Tupolev had also thrown in a laundry, a pharmacy and a printing press!
It first flew on August 18, 1934, and became an object of pride for the Soviet proletariat as it made demonstration flights over Moscow and other cities using huge public address speakers to make propaganda promulgations. Given conditions within the Soviet Union at the time, the use of such a grandiose platform to exhort the blessings of Stalin's regime was reminiscent of the excesses of an egomaniacal medieval despot. The big ship might have done some good for Stalin's international image had it undertaken a world tour, but it was never flown abroad.
The Maksim Gorki had spent nearly a year of impressing the poor peasants when the end came on May 18, 1935. It was usually flown in the company of small single-engined aircraft to accentuate its size, and on this date, NP Blagin, in a Polikarpov I-5, attempted (on a whim) to loop the little biplane around the big aircraft. The maneuver failed as Blagin augured the I-5 into the Maksim Gorki's wing and the two went down, killing not only Blagin but the 10-person crew and 33 passengers aboard the big ship.
Public despair over the loss of the grand symbol was overwhelming and probably came a surprise even to Stalin. Millions of rubles were collected to build not one, but a whole fleet of replacements. Only one was built and it ultimately served not as a propaganda machine but as an Aeroflot liner on domestic routes. After the 1941 German invasion it was used as a rear area transport until being written off after a crash landing in December 1942.
Tupolev Ant-20 being constructed.
|Tupolev Ant-20 Scratchbuilt Model.|
Tupolev Ant-20 Maksim Gorki Cutaway.. Note: The little engineer cockpit over the upper nacelle.