Since during WWII, and even more during the early Cold War period, the Soviet Union invested much in the creation of a world-class aviation industry, capable of competing against those in the US and Britain. The confrontation between the two sides of the Iron Curtain, lasting until the early Nineties, resulted in an unprecedented boost in aviation technology, which grew very quickly to a level of sophistication which could be hardly imagined just a few years earlier.
Both military and civil transportation benefited from this development, with a tangible result – a wide multiplicity of aircraft models, with different shapes, missions and performance. A such diversity is not any more typical to these days, when new aircraft designs are very rare and, at least at a glance, extremely similar in shape.
The Soviet Union based much of its propaganda actions on the show of technological achievements and military might. As aviation has been for long – and maybe still is – an immediate expression of a Nation’s technology and power, large aviation-themed exhibits flourished over the territory of the USSR (see also this and this post).
This post provides an insight into two such collections, found in the capital cities of two former Socialist Republics within the borders of the Soviet Union – Minsk, Belarus and Kiev, Ukraine. Photographs were taken in April 2018.
Museum of Aviation Technology – Main Branch – Minsk, Belarus
This classic Soviet collection showcases all the major models in service with the Air Force of the Soviet Red Army. Today Belarus, albeit enjoying a strong economical relationship with Russia, is an independent country, with a size and a geographical location making an immense air power not necessary, nor economically viable. Hence the non negligible size of this museum can be explained with the past (Soviet) history of Belarus, which used to be a key territory between Communist Russia and the European satellites of the USSR.
The first aircraft you are likely to meet are the earliest of the collection – a propeller-driven Yakovlev Yak-18 and Yak-52. Close by a small building is devoted to space explorations, and hosts memorabilia and a Soyuz reentry capsule.
The MiG design bureau, traditionally associated to high-performance fighter and attack aircraft, is well represented in this collection. Close to one another are a MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19, MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-27 and MiG-29, basically covering the major production items of this firm over the full span of the Cold War.
The MiG family is completed by a MiG-25 twin jet interceptor, capable of a Mach 2.8 speed. This is present in the collection in two exemplars, including a pretty rare training version – MiG-25PU -, with a distinctive ‘double cockpit’ similar to those of the training version of the Lockheed U-2.
Another well-represented manufacturer in the collection is the Sukhoi bureau, with a Su-7, Su-17, Su-24 and Su-25. The Su-24 is sitting besides the MiG-25, making for a fair size comparison – search for the cover of my wide lens in the pic of the main wheel of the MiG-25! These two aircraft are really massive compared to the earlier Su-7 and Su-17, and of course to the nearby Su-25 – an insidious and heavily armed aircraft, despite the clumsy appearance, as the many underwing pylons suggest!
A more recent Sukhoi design on site is the Su-27, put close to the MiG-29 and clearly outsizing it.
Yakovlev products, besides the already cited oldtimers, include a Yak-28 and a rare Yak-25, a pretty old-looking twin jet.
Among the few Soviet design in use today, the helicopters of the Mil and Kamov design bureaus are represented in the collection by a Mi-1, Mi-2, Mi-8, Mi-24 and Ka-26 placed side by side. Furthermore, there was some Mil helicopter activity over the airfield nearby when I visited.
The impressive Mi-24, a very aggressive-looking and highly successful attack helicopter with a peculiar rear compartments, was totally accessible when I visited. The mainly analog cockpit with a number of levers, gauges, switches and controls, suggests a conspicuous workload by the pilot! An interesting item on the cockpit is what appears to be an analog navigation system or tactical display, composed of a a paper map and a cruciform sight surfing over it, showing the current position of the helicopter.
The fat-looking rubber ventilation fan and the bulbous windscreen remember you this is a Soviet product – in case the labels in Cyrillic were not enough!
The back compartment may accommodate several troops, albeit not in a stand up position, or cargo/additional fuel. It is not totally separated from the cockpit.
Besides military aircraft, there is also a group of military/civil transports. These include an older yet still widespread Antonov An-2 single prop. A similarly old Ilyushin Il-14 twin props is on display nearby.
More recent aircraft include and Antonov An-26, not a rare sight in the former Communist countries of the world, and Il-18 and a larger An-12 four-props, and some jets – two Yak-40 including one formerly operated for state flights, and an ubiquitous Tupolev Tu-134 formerly of Aeroflot. A true icon of the Cold War, the equivalent of the MD-80 for the USSR, this fuel thirsty aircraft is likely to be retired by its last operator in Russia later this year.
Properly put among other transport aircraft, a huge Mi-26 transport helicopter is sitting between the An-12 and Tu-134. This is the heaviest single helicopter of traditional configuration ever built. By a rough comparison, the length of the fuselage is greater than that of the two transport aircraft! It is really hard to think this machine can be pushed into the sky… yet the immense, eight-bladed main rotor apparently can carry out the task! The Mi-26 is still today in service with several Countries, mostly in private hands.
Finally, an unusual circular box-wing experimental aircraft completes the collection. Not easy to design well, nor very nice to see in this case, the box-wing concept has surfaced more than once in history as an advantageous alternative to increase lift while reducing drag.
All in all, a very nice collection worth a quick detour from downtown Minsk.
The place is open as a regular museum. The official website, all in the local idiom, is here. There is a nice resource site covering the history of all aircraft in the museum in detail – and much more about aircraft displays in Belarus – here. Some Google-translating will be necessary, but basic info like opening times and how to reach can be easily found this way.
The location is by the small local Borovaya Airfield, which is still active today with light GA traffic. Less than one mile from the junction between Minsk Beltway and the M3 going north. I would recommend a car for getting there, parking is available right in front of the ticket booth.
Visiting may take from 1.5 to 3 hours depending on your level of interest in Soviet aviation, and the number of pictures you want to take!
Museum of Aviation Technology – Airport Branch – Minsk Airport, Belarus
This open-air and unfenced collection is located right besides the passenger terminal of Minsk Airport. Here you can find a series of transport aircraft of Soviet make, conveniently parked side by side and easy to capture with a camera.
The two largest are a Tupolev Tu-154 three-engined commercial airliner, still in service in some countries of the world, and an Ilyushin Il-76 four-engined cargo. This is likely one of the most successful designs from the Soviet era, and is still a rather widespread aircraft today.
Smaller aircraft on display are a Tupolev Tu-134, an Antonov An-26, a Yakovlev Yak-40 and a colorful Antonov An-2.
The display is located to the north of the passenger terminal of the airport of Minsk. Missing it is basically impossible when leaving or accessing the terminal from the front. There is a small parking area to the back of the aircraft, accessible from a road taking north from the main access road going to the terminal, immediately out of the airport toll booths.
Visiting is free and always possible, for the area is unfenced. You can’t board the aircraft, which are in a relatively good shape and lighted at night. A nice stop before leaving the country by air, the sight may be visited in 45 minutes, including time for all pictures.
Ukraine State Aviation Museum – Kiev, Ukraine
Among the air museum of former Soviet countries this is probably one of the richest and most interesting. The collection boasts some pretty rare aircraft from the military and commercial fields as well, all purely and distinctively Soviet. Plus there is a local depot carrying out some preservation projects, acquiring aircraft and restoring them to a good, non-flying condition.
With an immense territory, a numerous population and a strategically relevant position – including an access to the Black Sea – Ukraine enjoyed a primary role in the realm of the USSR. It was also the home base of many aircraft – especially heavy bombers – in the strategic Air Force of the Red Army. Many of them were actually ‘trapped’ in Ukraine when this nation left the Union, in the years of turmoil leading to its final collapse. Many Tupolev Tu-160s, still today forming the backbone of the Russian strategic air force, were purchased back from Russia in a later time. Since then, the national interest to maintain an air force comparable in size to that of the Soviet era has dropped, and most Cold War era assets have been retired from active duty, eventually feeding air collections like the one in Kiev.
Furthermore, besides more recent military designs the collection features some transport aircraft otherwise hard to see these days.
[Note: on the day of my visit the museum grounds hosted a fancy classic-car-themed festival. I discovered this when on site. As you will easily notice, the pictures below are often very far from optimal, due to the need to exclude some unwanted item, like hot-dog booths, dinner tables and historical buses from the composition. However, I hope the pics give an idea of the size and quality of the exhibition.]
Transport aircraft from early Soviet times include an Ilyushin Il-14 twin prop, an Il-18 four-props, and a very rare and nicely restored Tupolev Tu-104 twin jet. This particular design was later used as a starting point for the highly successful Tu-134, which features a very similar fuselage and cabin layout. The engines partially engulfed in the wing are really elegant – a typical feature of the 1950s, they witness the age of the design.
The Tupolev bureau is represented also by the Tu-154 three-engined jet, and multiple exemplars of the ubiquitous Tu-134.
Even bigger aircraft from the commercial field include an Ilyushin Il-62, with a distinctive four-tail-engines configuration, similar to the Vickers VC-10 – this time, a typical 1960s feature! You can walk under the bigger aircraft of the collection, and to the back of the Il-62 you can notice the unusual support wheel added for increased stability during loading/unloading operations to avoid tipping. This was retracted before taxiing. Ukraine makes use of Il-62s to this day for state flights.
A rare Soviet four-engined long-hauler from the Eighties is the Ilyushin Il-86. This is still flying in scant numbers in the Russian Air Force and with a few commercial operators. Looking mostly like an early Airbus from the 1970s, the cockpit arrangement, the multi-purpose big access door and some details in the aerodynamic design add a Soviet twist.
Transport aircraft include a heavy Ilyushin Il-76 and plenty of lighter Antonovs, including An-24s, An-26s and an An-30 twin props, plus two single-engined An-2s.
A pretty unique sight you get in this museum is the An-71. This AWACS from the 1980s never entered production, and the one on display is the third and last prototype. The interesting solution with a radome on top of the tail promised to reduce overall drag, saving on a dedicated radome pylon. On the other hand the radome placed so far from the centerline clearly created some controllability issues and raised stress on the vertical tail. Antonov was an Ukrainian firm active till recently, so the only other An-71 still in existence is also in Ukraine.
Smaller transports include two executive Yakovlev Yak-40.
Going to the military part of the exhibition, lighter aircraft include a number from the MiG family, including MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19, MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25, MiG-27 and MiG-29.
Two Let trainers are on display, close by a rich array of Sukhois, which include Su-7, Su-15, Su-17, Su-20, Su-24 and Su-25.