Imperial Russian Airships

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2022

Russian interest in lighter-than-air flight began very early, with studies of the military applications of balloons beginning in 1869, and a special detachment to operate airships forming in 1884. The first actual airship experiment in Russia took place in 1883, when Austro-Hungarian inventor David Schwartz built a metal-clad ship outside St. Petersburg.

Schwarz had at this point designed several airships, but never actually built one. His ship had an aluminum skin, filled with hydrogen as its lifting gas, with no ballonets (gasbags) inside the frame. It apparently wasn’t airtight, which didn’t matter since the frame collapsed anyway. Schwartz fled the country, and would finally build a working airship in 1896, though it quickly crashed during its one test flight in Berlin.

The Imperial Russian Navy remained interested in balloon flight, and established land-based balloon detachments in the Baltic and Black Sea fleets. In 1904 the Navy commissioned a balloon ship for service in the Russo-Japanese War, but in the wild, corrupt spending spree the war engendered they selected an aged and decrepit merchant ship for the conversion that could not make it to the Far East. The Army had its own balloon program, its effectiveness hampered by Russian methods of gas generation, which did not use metal cylinders to store the gas but rather created hydrogen from a chemical reaction (hydrogen sulfide and a metal catalyst) when needed.

After the war, interest moved on to the flying ships taking to the air in Germany and France. The Army bought airships from Zodiac in France and Parseval in Germany. The first airship built in Russia, Krechet, was a copy of the French Patrie, a semi-rigid airship (she had a rigid keel, but not a full frame) considered very successful despite the escape and disappearance of the first ship built in France. Work began in February 1907 under the Army’s guidance, but proceeded very slowly as components needed constant testing and Russian designers kept offering improvements. Finally in July 1910 the ship made its first flight.

The airship Uchebnyi made better altitude than this, but not by much.

Before Krechet flew, Navy Capt. A.I. Shabsky designed, built and flew the smaller airship Uchebnyi, constructed of parts salvaged from discarded Parseval airships. The Navy also bought a French copy of Patrie, named Lebed, which managed to arrive and fly before the Russian-built Krechet had been completed. Following up on Krechet’s eventual flight, other Russian designers built and flew small dirigibles; Shabsky built Yastreb in 1910 and Mikst in 1911.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the renowned pioneer of rocketry and visionary of Man’s cosmic future, produced a design for a metal-clad airship in 1911, informing the Army that he was willing to design further craft at no charge, though he would glad accept payment if offered. The Army did not answer his proposal.

Russian airship Albatros, the first edition.

Instead, designers B.V. Golubov and D.S. Suhazhevsky built a much larger semi-rigid ship they christened Albatros. Shabsky, by now Russia’s most experienced airship pilot, tested Albatros. While the flight was successful, the ground crew over-filled the envelope when preparing the ship for its second test flight and it burst. Albatros was re-built in 1913 as a non-rigid airship.

When the First World War broke out Golubov flew Albatros on reconnaissance and bombing missions, mostly without reaching the target. Even reaching the front proved difficult, and Golubov ended up flying along the rail line from St. Petersburg to Pskov and on to Warsaw. Albatros could carry only a tiny payload, and the Germans do not seem to have noticed that they were bombed by an airship. Ordered to assist the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg, Albatros operated from Bialystok but had difficulties in heavy winds and could not reach the front. Sent to bomb Germans attacking the Osowiec fortress on 30 August, she finally reached her target only to encounter Russian infantry who opened fire with rifles and machine guns. Russian troops had shot down the German zeppelin Z.V two days earlier and eagerly looked to bag a second airship. Albatros escaped with a dozen holes in her envelope.

Albatros, second edition. Watch out for that tree!

After repairs, Shabsky took over as commander, operating out of Brest-Litovsk. Albatros still had troubles in any sort of wind, and navigation gave Shabsky problems as it had Golubov. Adding to the troubles, Russian troops including the Dvisnk fortress artillery fired on the airship whenever it appeared. On 13 October 1914, in a heavy fog, Shabsky was flying Albatros slowly at very low altitude when she ran into a tree and was destroyed. None of the six-man crew were injured.

The German-built Parseval airship PL-14, named Burvestnik (“Storm Bird”) in Russian service, arrived in February 1913 and undertook several test flights. Sent to the airship base at Bialystok for operations over East Prussia, she could not make an altitude better than 3,500 feet, well within range of enemy rifles, machine guns and possibly thrown objects. She was damaged while exiting her hangar and scrapped, having flown no combat missions.

Airship Berkut, as the French Clement-Bayard No. 1.

Likewise, the French-built Berkut (“Golden Eagle”) proved unable to make any combat flights. She had originally been built for the French Army, which had rejected her when on her first test flight she crashed into the River Seine and sank. The Russian Army bought the wreckage and rebuilt her, but ended up stripping her of her engines and converting her envelope into gas storage for artillery-spotting balloons.

In 1912, Shabsky and a team of designers began work on a new airship to be built by Baltic Shipyard and named Gigant, or Giant. She would be a semi-rigid ship, with twice the gas volume of Albatros, until then the largest Russian airship. Gigant outwardly resembled the Italian semi-rigid ships with a long keel, but appears to have been purely a native Russian design. She was 105 meters long and sixteen meters in diameter, with a gas capacity of 635,600 cubic feet (the contemporary German L3, for comparison, had a capacity of 794,500 cubic feet). With four engines, she was supposed to make 40 miles per hour, with a ceiling of 11,000 feet and an endurance of 20 hours.

Gigant before her first flight.

Work went very slowly, and Gigant remained unfinished when the war began. With Shabsky off tossing bombs from Albatros, Baltic Shipyard’s engineers decided to modify the design and move the forward engines back to the middle of the craft (see picture above). When Gigant finally took flight in February 1915, the added weight of the engines bent the frame in the middle. One of the propellers dug into the envelope, snapping cables and freeing the lifting gas.  She slowly sagged to the ground in some nearby woods, allowing her crew to escape uninjured.

Repairs and redesign took the remainder of 1915, but when the ship was finally ready tofly again the Army refused to provide hydrogen to re-fill the envelope, retaining all of its gas supplies for artillery-spotting kite balloons. The head of the Military Technical Directorate, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, opposed the project and was content to let it die. By early 1916 Gigant was at least a generation behind German and British airship design, while Russian heavier-than-air flight design had made enormous technical advances. Gigant never flew again.

Gigant after her first flight.

In June 1916, the Russian Navy ordered four British Coastal-class blimps for use with the Black Sea Fleet, paid for with funds raised by Sevastopol businessmen. The “Black Sea” airships had poor engines that failed frequently, and with no hope of obtaining replacements Black Sea Airships No. 1 and No. 2 were dismantled. No. 3 burned in a ground accident, and given the failures of the first two ships No. 4 was never unpacked from its shipping crates for assembly.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children.

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