Red Plumage of the Ice

Lisunov Transports in Arctic Service

Perhaps the most widely flown aircraft in the hundred years of powered aviation, the Douglas DC-3 is perhaps the classic aeronautical design. The beloved 'Dakota' has been a stalwart and trusty servant of nations worldwide for more than half of the entire epoch of modern flight; a record which has known--and probably never will--any equal, anywhere.

Perhaps it is the DC-3's widespread service that is even more impressive. In every corner of the world the aircraft has served in myriad roles, in the very worst of all meteorological and operating conditions, and surely in ways never envisioned at the time of its inspired design. This fact is highlighted, indeed, by the remarkable history of license manufacture of the DC-3, spanning 20 years and a dozen countries.

At the time of this writing, Airwaves has just annonced the imminent release of a series of resin conversion sets in 1:48 scale to make a Soviet Li-2 and PS-84 from the Monogram DC-3 kit. We understand that the first release will be a set of corrected engine cowlings for the PS-84 airliner (this should be followed by an MV-3 turret and various doors and windows for the Li-2 bomber and transport versions). To celebrate this fine release, we here present an article on colourful PS-84 aircraft in Soviet service; hopefully it will whet the appetites of modelers and we'll see some wonderful conversions soon.

Soviet Manufacture

In the USSR, great interest was shown in the Douglas DC airliners, and an example of the DC-2 was purchased in 1936. Following examinations by both of the major testing fraternities (the LII and NII VVS), Aeroflot, and by some of the design staff at Zavod 84, the decision was taken by GUAP to pursue a license for series manufacture in the Soviet Union. By this time, numbers of the Douglas DST, or DC-3, began to operate in airlines worldwide, and negotiations shifted to permission to manufacture this newer model.

An extensive and somewhat complicated license production agreement was signed on 15 July 1936. The contract included not only the purchase of several pattern aircraft (21 in all later being supplied), but also made provision for Soviet designers to study the aircraft's construction techniques at the Douglas factory in Santa Monica, California. One of the Senior Engineers from Zavod 84, B. Lisunov, arrived at once in America and began a survey of the advanced techniques employed in the DC-3 programme. Despite the rather asinine and farcical comments made by certain Western authors on the matter, a full payment for the production license was indeed made by the Soviet Government in 1936 (the amount is unknown, and has never been disclosed), in addition to several later payments made for consultation and assistance during early manufacture.

Deliveries of the pattern aircraft were quite slow (not completed until 1939), and the American government sought numerous times to block, annul, and cancel the production license and contract. After much political battling, a USA export license and permission to sell the manufacturing rights to the Soviet AMTORG holding was at last granted on 4 April 1938. By this time, Lisunov had been in California for nearly two years, and was, therefore, well prepared to head the license manufacturing program upon his return to the Soviet Union.

Back at Zavod 84, Lisunov was placed in charge of the license DC-3 programme and the aircraft designated the PS-84 (essentially, 'passenger aircraft from Factory 84'). Later military versions were designated Li-2, in keeping with the revised naming system (noting the Head Designer, not the aircraft type) which followed in 1940. The civil passenger version, however, was not renamed, and remained the PS-84 (at least officially) throughout its operational life.

Northern Service

Of the many areas in the vast Soviet Union, service in the frozen North was amongst the most demanding of all operational regions. However, the PS-84 and Li-2 were favourites in this difficult environment, and served very well under these trying conditions.

There were several services in Soviet aviation operating the PS-84 and Li-2 in the Arctic zone. The most prominent service was the Polyarnaya Aviatsiya (Polar Aviation), or Aviaarktika, as it was commonly known. Aviaarktika was a civil airfleet and service, and had very close (and sometime indistinguishable) connections to Aeroflot and other branches of scientific and medical aviation. Aeroflot, the State Airlines, also operated a regular service in the Arctic, flying to many destinations, and including the famous Northern Sea Route (also served by Aviaarktika). Sanaviatsiya (Sanitary Aviation) was the medical branch of civil aviation directly associated with the Committee of the Red Cross/Crescent in the USSR. Sanaviatsiya also operated specialized Arctic flights, these often in conjunction with Aviaarktika and others. In addition, there were independent scientific flights; meteorological flights; an Arctic testing flight from the LII; and other sundry organizations with Arctic aviation experience.

The following are aircraft serving in various aviation organizations in the Far North. [Ed Note: All of the details were taken from issues of Modelist Konstuktur and Krilya Rodinu magazines, and alas do not constitute any original research by ourselves.]

PS-84 c/r (Civil Registration) SSSR-N328
Aviaartika service, Krasnoyarsk - Dudinka route, 1947?

SSSR-N328 served with the Aviaarktika service on one of the primary Arctic routes during the 1940s. The exact date of the photograph has not been established, but other authors have given the year as 1947, which is certainly plausible.

N328 was fitted with ski type landing gear at the time it was photographed. The ski gear could be exchanged for normal tyres quite easily, and it is likely that this aircraft operated with both from time to time. There was also a type of main gear ski that could be attached to the tyre in the field. The windows aft of the main windscreen appear to have been omitted.

This aircraft wears a classic Aviaarktika finish consisting of a high-visibility red-orange colour on many of the upper surfaces over an unpainted metal base. The ailerons on the wing lower surface were striped with this colour, as well. The Civil Registration was rendered in black over the dural (unpainted) areas, and as 'exposed' metal surface colour over red-orange. The cowlings were nicely trimmed in red-orange, and the machine looked to have been in impeccable condition and free from grime. The inscription on the nose in white (both sides) reads, "Aviaartika".

PS-84 c/r SSSR-N359
Aviaartika service, Anadir - Kamenskoe - Ust-Kamchatsk route, 1952

N359 was another classic Aviaarktika machine serving in the northern Kamchatka Peninsula region. The aircraft was photographed in 1952 while delivering fishing supplies to a small collection of Chukchi (Inuits).

SSSR-N359 is thought to wear the usual Aviaartika finish of red-orange over unpainted metal. However, in an older issue of Modelist Konstruktur magazine, the colouration is suggested to be a "light red colour similar to that of Imperial Russia". Early issues of MK are notorious for their inappropriate and spurious colour suggestions, but, to be fair, such an interpretation might look like this drawing.

However, it must be said that such colouration is highly unlikely. The cowlings on this aircraft looked to have been unusually well polished, and generate considerable light reflection.

N359 carried the "Aviaarktika" inscription on the nose (probably both sides) in red-orange, and all Civil Registration markings were in black. The aircraft was fitted with removable ski gear at the time it was photographed, and many Aviaarktika PS-84s carried such strap-on skis in the rear of the fuselage.

PS-84 c/r SSSR-K602
Sanaviatsiya service, based at Kacha, 1949

SSSR-K602 was photographed at the large northern Kacha airbase, which served both military and civilian flights. K602 appears to have had a long and substantial career, and appeared on the IRC's Foreign Registration as late as 1960.

K602 was largely finished in the usual civilian manner for PS-84s with unpainted metal surfaces. However, the rear of the fuselage and upper stabilizers were painted an over-all red colour, this probably a concession to working in the Arctic zone. Red crosses were carried on the wing undersurfaces and nose, and in the IRC-proscribed white disc on the fuselage. The Civil Registrations were rendered in black.

The aircraft sports an usual letter 'K' on the rudder. The meaning of this marking is unknown, but it might merely suggest Sanaviatsiya service (K--- was the usual registration of these types). The 'K' marking looks to have been in white.

PS-84 c/r SSSR-Zh
Aeroflot (?) service, route unknown, 1950

SSSR-Zh was photographed at the main airfield in Okhostk in 1950. The photograph caption states that the aircraft was in Aviaarktika service on "Polar routes". However, I do not believe that this aircraft was an Aviaarktika machine. The registration SSSR-Zh is unusual, and so far as I know the only service with similar markings was Aeroflot. Furthermore, only Aeroflot airliners seemed to have omitted the registrations on the wing undersurfaces at times, which is how this aircraft seemed to have appeared. It is possible the this machine belonged to a scientific flight or other service, but to me Aeroflot seems the most likely.

SSSR-Zh was finished it what seems to have been the red-orange Arctic colouration over unpainted dural surfaces. The cowlings are expertly trimmed in the same colour, and there was a similar wonderful stripe along the fuselage. The Civil Registrations look to have been black, and applied to the upper wing surface only. The upper surface wing tips were also painted in red-orange.

The inscription on the nose clearly states, "Arktika II", and not "Aviaarktika" as it would usually do in that service. To my mind this is yet more evidence that the machine did not belong to Aviaarktika; as well, Aeroflot also was known to have operated a machine titled "Arktika III". The inscription seems to have been in white, and probably on both sides.

PS-84 c/r SSSR-M201
Aeroflot service, Yakutsk - Kharbovsk - Vladivostok route, 1954

SSSR-M201 was a spectacular Aeroflot airliner of some considerable pedigree. The machine was photographed in its Arctic appearance in 1954 at Yakutsk. M201 started its known service life on the prestigious Rostov - Tehran route, where it remained until at least 1952. It was later transferred to Arctic service along the equally important Far East Northern Route.

M201 wore a typical civilian unpainted dural finish. The beautiful red trim seems to have adorned the machine throughout its life, but the tail was originally painted with a red 'flash'. The entire rear fuselage was later repainted in red altogether, this probably for Arctic operation. The red finish was very bright, and described in Russian literature as the colour aliy (scarlet).

The Civil Registrations were painted on the wing upper surfaces in red, and elsewhere in black. The aircraft was immaculately turned out in the photo (as might be expected), and looked to be in factory-fresh condition, despite its long history.