The ANT-20 was designed by Andrei Tupolev and constructed between July 4, 1933 and April 3, 1934. It was one of two aircraft of its kind ever built by the Soviets. The aircraft was named after Maxim Gorky and dedicated to the 40th anniversary of his literary and public activities. It was intended for Stalinist propaganda purposes and, therefore, equipped with a powerful radio set called "Voice from the sky" ("Голос с неба", golos s neba), printing machinery, radiostations, photographic laboratory, film projector with sound for showing movies in flight, library etc. For the first time in aviation history, this aircraft was equipped with a ladder, which would fold itself and become a part of the floor. Also, for the first time in aviation history, the aircraft used not only direct current, but alternating current of 120 volts, as well. The aircraft could be disassembled and transported by railroad if needed. The giant aircraft set a number of carrying capacity world records.
Maxim Gorky crash
On May 18, 1935, the Maxim Gorky (pilots - I.V.Mikheyev and I.S.Zhurov) and three more planes (Tupolev ANT-14, R-5 and I-5) took off for a demonstration flight over Moscow. As a result of a poorly executed loop maneuver (a third such stunt on this flight) around the plane performed by an accompanying I-5 fighter (pilot - Nikolai Blagin), both planes collided and the Maxim Gorky crashed into a low-rise residential neighborhood west of present-day Sokol station. Forty-five people were killed in the crash, including crew members and 33 family members of some of those who had built the aircraft. (While authorities announced that the fatal maneuver was impromptu and reckless, it has been recently suggested that it might have been a planned part of the show.) Also killed was the fighter pilot, Blagin, who was made a scapegoat in the crash and subsequently had his name used eponymously (Blaginism) to mean, roughly, a "cocky disregard of authority." However, Blagin was given a state funeral at Novodevichy Cemetery together with ANT-20 victims. That same year, Warsaw newspapers published an alleged suicide letter by Blagin, with clear anti-communist messages, which modern authors consider to be a fake.
A replacement aircraft, designated ANT-20bis was begun the following year and first flew in 1938. It was largely identical in design but with only six, more powerful engines. This plane, renumbered PS-124, served with Aeroflot on transport routes in Russia and Uzbekistan. On December 14, 1942, it too crashed after the pilot allowed a passenger to take his seat momentarily and the passenger apparently disengaged the automatic pilot, sending the ship into a nosedive from an altitude of 500 m (1,500 ft) and killing all 36 on board.
Plans to build a fleet of ANT-20bis aircraft were abandoned in 1939 as Stalin's purges of the aviation industry had resulted in a shortage of qualified engineers.
The plane's wings were so large they were fitted with bunk beds.
The day before the crash, French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, visiting the Soviet Union for the French newspaper Paris-Soir, was the only foreign pilot authorized to board the plane. After the crash Saint-Exupéry mourned the loss of this giant with its 'gangways, the salon, the cabins, the on-board telephone'.
The crash was apparently the inspiration for the Symphony No. 16 by Nikolai Myaskovsky, sketched immediately after the disaster and premiered in Moscow on 24 October 1936. This symphony includes a big funeral march as its slow movement, and the finale is built on Myaskovsky's own song for the Red Air Force, 'The Aeroplanes are Flying'; the work was known during the Soviet era as the 'Aviation Symphony'.
Data from The Osprey Encyclopedia of Russian Aircraft 1875-1995
Published - July 2009
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