First Soviet Supersonic Pilot

Soviet research into supersonic flight began with the capture of large amounts of advanced German technology towards the end of World War II. One of the vehicles brought back to the Soviet Union was a unique rocket-powered aircraft called the DFS 346. This plane had been designed by the German DFS Institute for Sailplane Flight and was under construction at the Siebel factory where it was captured by the Red Army.

The DFS 346 was designed as a reconnaissance plane carried aloft by a larger aircraft and launched at high altitude. The 11,000 lb (5,230 kg) vehicle would then ignite its two Walter HWK 109 liquid rocket engines and accelerate to supersonic speeds before the engines were disengaged. In combat, the plane would then glide over enemy territory to take reconnaissance photos before re-igniting the engines again to gain speed and altitude. After exhausting the fuel supply, the DFS 346 would have enough power to glide back to a friendly base in France or Germany.

Given Germany's advanced knowledge of high-speed flight, the DFS 346 design featured highly swept wings and tail surfaces, wing fences, and a very clean streamlined fuselage to reduce drag. The plane also carried a single pilot laying on his stomach in a prone position in the aircraft's nose. Although this position was uncomfortable, it allowed the plane to maintain a more aerodynamic profile to reduce drag and improve performance.

Cutaway drawing of the DFS 346 research plane
Cutaway drawing of the DFS 346 research plane

The sole DFS 346 prototype was about half-built at the time it was captured, so the plane and the German engineers working on it were moved to a location in the Soviet Union to complete development. The vehicle was renamed simply as Samolyot 346, or "aircraft 346," and finished in 1946. This prototype was used for various ground testing purposes including wind tunnel tests. In 1947, a second example was completed as an unpowered glider to conduct launch and slow-speed flight tests. This 346-P was successfully released from a captured American B-29 that had made an emergency landing in Siberia during the war, and the glider landed safely under the command of German pilot Wolfgang Ziese.

This success encouraged the Soviets to build three more examples called the 346-1, 346-2, and 346-3. The third prototype was the first fully functional plane with a working propulsion system. Testing of these aircraft continued from 1947 through 1951 when 346-3 was destroyed after a loss of control in flight.

346 research plane mounted beneath a captured B-29
346 research plane mounted beneath a captured B-29

Although engineers had specified a speed limit of Mach 0.9 in testing due to concerns over the plane's stability near Mach 1, there have been claims the DFS 346 reached the speed of sound sometime prior to the American X-1 in 1947. There is no conclusive evidence to support these claims, however, and it seems unlikely such an event could have occurred. Only the third aircraft, 346-3, was fitted with a complete propulsion system theoretically capable of achieving supersonic speeds, and it was not flown until 1951. As indicated above, this aircraft was lost shortly thereafter, so it is extremely doubtful that any example of the DFS 346 ever broke the sound barrier.

What is known for sure is that the Soviets were able to achieve supersonic flight in a more conventional jet-powered research aircraft. Though few recognize the name today, the Lavochkin design bureau was responsible for much of the Soviet's early research into jet engine technology. Lavochkin's expertise in this field began as early as February 1945 when the bureau started development of the La-150, the first Soviet jet aircraft. New prototypes building on advances in jet engine technology followed rapidly, including the La-152, La-154, La-156, and La-174TK. Swept wings first appeared in the La-160 of 1947, and this concept was also explored in future prototypes like the La-168, La-174D, and La-176.

La 176 jet-powered research plane
La 176 jet-powered research plane

The La-176 illustrated the rapid pace of jet fighter development during the late 1940s. The aircraft featured highly swept wing and tail surfaces mated to a relatively clean fuselage. The fuselage housed a single turbojet engine fed by a large nose intake similar to that of the F-86 Sabre, MiG-15, and many other early jets.

Flight testing of the La-176 began in September 1948, and the aircraft became the first Soviet plane to break the sound barrier on 26 December of that year. Flown by test pilot I. E. Fedorov, the La-176 reached Mach 1.0 during a shallow dive with its Rolls-Royce Nene engine at full throttle.
- answer by Molly Swanson, 17 October 2004

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