The aviation industry remains one of the core branches of Russia’s economy despite a considerable decline in production since the Soviet times. In 2011, aviation enterprises generated over 600 billion rubles (around U.S. $ 20 billion) in revenues, the military aircraft industry being the chief contributor, making Russia world’s second largest manufacturer of warplanes with more than 100 planes a year, and third largest manufacturer of military helicopters with around 300 helicopters a year.
The aviation industry employs over 400,000 skilled workers and creates hundreds of thousands of work places in related industries, such as metallurgy, chemicals, instrument engineering, manufacture of weapons, etc. It should also be noted that the aviation industry (mainly the military sector) provides significant export revenues valued at billions of dollars annually.
Russia has been building up its own aircraft production since the beginning of the XX century along with other developed countries. Although the process was quite slow. Before World War I, the Russian Empire had the world’s largest air force, although almost all the aircrafts were of foreign manufacture. The first major order for Russian planes (262 in total) was placed in May, 1914. Russia thus had few or none units and components of its own that seriously hampered the development of the aviation industry. However, by 1917, the Russian Empire already totalled 15 aircraft plants and six engine-building works, which supplied 5,600 aircrafts (mostly under licenses of European companies).
After the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet government put in a determined effort to develop the aviation industry, which was considered an important component of national defence. The Central Aero-Hydrodynamic Institute —the main Soviet aviation design centre for decades — was established as far back as 1918. In the 1920s-1930s, numerous facilities were built to lay a foundation for the aviation industry of the USSR, including assembly factories, engine-building works, instrument-making plants and nonferrous metallurgical production units. Production of aircrafts increased fivefold during only the period of 1933 through 1937.
In the 1930s, airlines connected most of the largest cities, although this type of transport had few devotees because planes of that time did not provide much comfort to passengers. The Soviet Union became one of the world military aviation leaders. The engineering bureaus of Tupolev, Petlyakov, Lavochkin, Polikarpov, Yakovlev and others designed aircrafts to meet international standards. As a result, by the time of World War II, the USSR possessed over 20,000 warplanes, and nearly 130,000 were assembled by the end of the war.
The post-war era has seen rapid development of civil aviation. The USSR was one of the world’s first to commence the large quantity manufacture of jet passenger liners. The legendary TU-104 marked the inception of commercial jet aviation. Two hundred planes of this type were supplied in five years, and, for a while, they were the only passenger jets in service after British Comet was suspended. Tu-144, one of the two supersonic versions in serial production, is also a legend. Sixteen planes of the kind were put in operation, which did not last long, though, but proved the potential of the Soviet aviation industry.
The helicopter sector was also rapidly advancing: the engineering bureaus headed by Mil and Kama satisfied the country’s demand for both civil and military helicopters. The first production helicopter Mi-1 entered the market in 1952, and the first heavy helicopter Mi-6 (its successor Mi-26 was the biggest serial helicopter in the world) got off the ground for the first time in 1957. The USSR became the world leader in the helicopter industry when presented a Mi-12 prototype with two side rotors and over 40 tons in carrying capacity, multipurpose Mi-8, which was the most popular helicopter (12,000 units in total), the ship borne antisubmarine helicopter Ka-25 and many others.