«Landing an aircraft on a ship is considered one of the most difficult elements of flight training, due to the limited dimensions of the flight deck, as well as high landing speeds. Naval pilots are considered elite in all countries. Landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, which, according to pilots, may seem a little more than a postage stamp at an altitude, requires the utmost concentration and pinpoint precision inherent only in the ace pilots.
November 1, 1989 was a significant date in the history of Russian ship-based aviation. On that day in the Black Sea, three planes that took off from the NITKA test facility in the town of Saki in the Crimea landed for the first time on the deck of the newly built cruiser Tbilisi (today this ship is named Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov and is Russia’s only aircraft carrier).
Viktor Pugachev, the Hero of the Soviet Union, Sukhoi Design Bureau’s test pilot was the first to land. He took off on a Su-27K fighter and headed for the cruiser to fly over the deck at a minimum altitude. Suddenly, the flying control officer allowed him to land on the ship. After several passes over the deck with a touchdown, Pugachev landed on the aircraft carrier. Here is how he recalls it himself: «The cruiser went to sea on October 1, 1989 and immediately headed for the Yevpatoria Bay. Already in the air, the command came: «Work to the full!» I just had to release the hook and make a landing with engagement, which was done.»
A MiG-29K, flown by Toktar Aubakirov, a Honored test pilot, Hero of the Soviet Union, the future first cosmonaut of Kazakhstan, was the next to land on the deck. Then it was the turn of a Su-25 flown by Mikoyan Design Bureau’s test pilots Igor Votintsev and Alexander Krutov, the future heroes of the Russian Federation.
These events marked the beginning of mastering the new aircraft carrier and aircraft, its main weapon. The painstaking work of hundreds of thousands of specialists from the Soviet Union’s design bureaus, major associations and enterprises supplying the ship with weapons, facilities, equipment, and thousands of ship builders was needed to make it happen. The ship’s crew was also preparing for this event – all those who went to sea to conduct flight development tests. The developers of the aircraft arresting gear, a new product unique for our country, were waiting for this moment with particular excitement.
The beginning of the road
This bright page in the history of Russian shipbuilding is closely associated with the name of A. A. Bulgakov, Honored Designer and Candidate of Technical Sciences, who led many promising development projects. However, his major achievement was the development of a landing system for domestic aircraft carriers.
His labor biography at Proletarsky Zavod began in 1960. The enterprise had just started building the TG-102 diesel locomotives and was called then the Leningrad Diesel Locomotive Plant. Bulgakov’s specialization in locomotives and electric locomotives after graduation turned out to be very useful. In addition, he had already worked at the Bryansk Machine-building Plant. It’s not surprising that the thirty-year-old talented specialist soon became the chief designer, and then the chief engineer and head of the Central Design Bureau at the plant, which was transformed into the Central Research Institute of Marine Engineering (CRI ME) and in 1970 became part of the Proletarsky Zavod Research and Production Association (the first name is NPO Compass). It was this organization that was commissioned to develop a take-off and landing system consisting of a catapult, arresting gears and an emergency barrier for the first Soviet aircraft carrier. This was the biggest order. The scope of the contract included the research and development work on take-off and landing mechanisms and manufacture of two steam catapults with blast shields (deflectors), eight arresting gears and two emergency barriers with catching nets. The products were code-named Svetlana-Mayak.
Work was carried out simultaneously on the whole takeoff and landing system. To this end, a new design department was set up at CRI ME, where talented designers and engineers, young specialists, many of whom had recently graduated from institutes, were engaged. After completion of all the stages of development, including testing on scaled models, an operational production group was set up to control and monitor the progress of manufacture.
There was more than enough to do. A. A. Bulgakov in his memoirs gives a number of names of designers who took the most active part in the installation and development of the landing system at the NITKA test facility. These were head of department 42 Arseny Ushakov, heads of sections Alexander Denisov, Arkady Lebedev, Yuri Martynov, Oleg Blinov, designers Vladimir Vershinin, Vladimir Kozodoy, Sergey Kozodoy, Boris Skvortsov, Viktor Novichikhin, Alexander Oreshkin and many others.
A high labor content associated with translating the results of development into real products required improving the entire organization of production at the enterprise. In the head shop for the manufacture of the landing system, headed by Boris Mokrinsky, the equipment was rearranged and spaces were allocated for an arresting gear assembly area and an area for internal pressure test at 1000 atm with remote technical examination of products. The latter was set up for the first time in the industry.
The chief process engineer and chief metallurgist departments, headed by Gennady Tikhomirov and Kirill Golubev respectively, together with the shops’ process bureaus, made great efforts to reduce the labor content. Special attention was paid to developing a process for manufacturing unique parts and components. Hundreds of processes were developed, including a unique method for machining split cylinders. Proletarsky Zavod’s specialists proposed an original process for manufacturing a welded version of a pipe from two toroidal parts welded along the axis. A prototype pipe was tested at the plant, after which the drawings were put into operation.
Milling and planing turned out to be a bottleneck. Fifty cylinder covers alone were required to be milled with a total labor input of 40,000 man-hours. As a result, we had to develop a special cutter, which reduced the time of machining the inner surface of the covers several times.
Heads of workshops, designers, heads of technical services, and customer representatives were invited to weekly operational meetings conducted by General Director of the Association I. A. Pashkevich. There, a report on the work done was heard, measures to eliminate bottlenecks were considered, and targets and deadlines were outlined. Valentin Kozlov, Deputy General Director for Production, was to supervise the implementation of the schedule.
Only certain components could be developed and tested under factory conditions. The main tests were to take place at a special test facility in the Crimea, called NITKA (a Russian acronym for a ground test facility), which was primarily intended for pilots to practice taking off and landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
As certain mechanisms were manufactured, they were sent to the Crimea, where an assembly area led by reserve Captain First Rank N. N. Larkin was set up. To provide measurements directly at the airfield, the head of section, Candidate of Technical Sciences Vyacheslav Ivanov, senior researcher, Candidate of Technical Sciences Yevgeny Sholkov, and other specialists were sent from CRI ME and Proletarsky Zavod.
On combat duty
In 1990 the heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser Tbilisi successfully completed the builder’s trials and official tests and in October 1991, after commissioning by the fleet under the name Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov, went from the Black Sea to the north. In the same year, following the test pilots, Major General Timur Apakidze, the commander of the deck aircraft division, was the first fighter pilot to land an aircraft on deck of the Admiral Kuznetsov. Assessing the operation of the landing unit, he said: «I’m ready to kiss every meter of the deck just for the fact that the ship has not taken a single pilot from me in so many years.»
All the following years, the developers of the landing system, CRI ME and Proletarsky Zavod employees, took an active part in the life of both the test facility and the aircraft carrier. They improved the equipment developed by them, carried out installation work, performed author’s supervision, helped carry out maintenance of arresting gears, trained the ever-changing personnel in the rules of operation. Few emergencies on the aircraft carrier in recent years have merely substantiated the reliability of the arresting gears. Today, the geography of deliveries of Proletarsky Zavod’s products has expanded and they are in demand.
According to some periodicals, the aircraft cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov is to undergo a global modernization. We do hope that in our days, when the domestic shipbuilding industry is looking for new promising ways of development, the huge work done by CRI ME and Proletarsky Zavod employees, sailors and pilots, will not remain just a romantic episode in our history.
Landing an aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier requires the utmost concentration and pinpoint precision inherent only in ace pilots
The heavy aircraft carrier Tbilisi successfully passed official tests in 1990