The People’s Plane

PrintPrintEmailEmail

During the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet Union was putting all its energy and money in a frantic effort to convert from an agricultural to an industrial economy, so that it could compete with the nations of the Western world. To help in this momentous conversion, the Soviets relied heavily on foreign engineers, offering them attractive contracts to work in the U.S.S.R. for varying periods of time.

My father signed a contract with Amtorg, the Soviet Union’s trade commission, to design and manage a factory to build radiators for Russia’s expanding truck industry. We lived in Moscow between 1930 and 1935, a period bridging the first and second Five-Year Plans and a time of political unrest.

As they raced toward industrialization, the Soviets developed an immense, omnipresent propaganda machine to publicize their accomplishments. They always believed that bigger was better, and they were eager to be first with technological achievements.

In the early thirties the Central Aerodynamic Institute designed and built several large aircraft. One was the Maxim Gorky , a huge eight-engine airplane with a 210-foot wingspan that was capable of extended flights at the impressive speed of 150 miles per hour. Outfitted with printing presses, radio transmitters, and a photographic laboratory, the Maxim Gorky was designed to be a propaganda vehicle. This behemoth, which flew with a crew of twenty-three and could hold forty passengers, was built entirely by Soviet engineers, technicians, and labor and was financed by public subscription.

Among its functions, and one of considerable propaganda value, was the offer of rides to outstandingly productive people—farmers, miners, artists, musicians, writers, or even students—who were held up as heroes of the revolution.

Because my father continued to meet his production goals in the radiator factory, he was invited to fly on the Maxim Gorky on May 18, 1935. He was able to secure additional passenger permits for my brother, Sidney, aged ten, and me, aged fifteen. How excited I was! I had never been in a plane, and now I would fly on this one.

Finally the great day arrived. A company car was to pick us up and take us to Moscow’s Central Aerodrome for the 12:30 P.M. flight. But our driver arrived late, we were further delayed in traffic, and we somehow made a wrong turn. When we reached the airport, we found the gates closed and bolted. The Maxim Gorky had departed on schedule. We had missed the flight. Bitterly disappointed, we returned home.

The following morning we were horrified to hear that the flight we had missed had crashed, killing everyone aboard. The New York Times’s late edition of May 19, 1935, reported the crash on page one, calling it the worst aviation disaster in history.

The Maxim Gorky had gone aloft escorted by two smaller planes. One was there to take pictures of the giant in flight. The other, a smaller single-engine plane, was to fly alongside the Maxim Gorky to emphasize its extraordinary size. “The pilot of the small plane, Nikolai Blagin, had been specifically told not to stunt,” the Times reported, “but he engaged in acrobatics near the Maxim Gorky to entertain a young guest aboard the latter.” While he was executing a forbidden loop, a gust of wind blew his plane into the wing of the Maxim Gorky . He and the passenger he wanted to impress were among those killed. “The only crumb of comfort,” concluded the Times , “was that the accident was due to no fault either of structure or operation of the Maxim Gorky plane, of which the Russians had been so proud.”

My father’s contract was to end in September, and there had been much discussion between my parents about whether he should renew it. My mother lived in constant fear that my father, who was outspoken politically, would get into serious trouble with the authorities. This was the time of the Kirov trials and purges, and he did not hesitate to speak in defense of his associates and even on behalf of the principal of my school. The Maxim Gorky disaster was the final straw. My mother insisted that we return home, and at the end of September we set sail for America.