Soviet air power was characterised by powerful, fast, rugged, heavily armed combat aircraft but technologically and maneuverability wise they were generally regarded as inferior to western designs. Then in the 1980’s two true “Beasts from the East” appeared and changed this opinion all together in the form of the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker fighters – fast, powerful, maneuverable and equipped with advanced avionics and weapons systems these were potentially superior to many western fighters and a true match in the right hands, to aircraft like the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.
Regardless of the role and type of combat aircraft I have always been fascinated by Soviet era aviation and in Moscow the Central Museum of the Armed Forces is a great place to see many Cold War era “Beasts from the East” from the early Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-17 Fresco to the mighty Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker along with various helicopters and training aircraft.
The following are photos taken during my visit to the Central Museum of the Armed Forces on a grey old Moscow day in November 2007. The aircraft are all on display outside and there is plenty to see. You will quickly not that space was somewhat limited, so in some areas aircraft are pretty tightly placed together and difficult to photograph, plus there are tanks, artillery, missiles and even a patrol boat on display!
Francis Gary Powers U-2 Wreckage
Something very unique from the Cold War pages of history is on display within the main museum building. This is the wreckage of an American Lockheed U-2 Dragonlady which came to fame during the Cold War on May 1st, 1960 when being flown by Francis Gary Powers (a former USAF Captain flying for the Central Intelligence Agency). The U-2 was on a secret joint CIA/USAF spy mission over the USSR when it was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 Surface to Air Missile. An earlier mission in May 1960 over the USSR had been detected by the Soviets but their fighter aircraft failed to intercept the U-2 which had taken off from Pakistan and landed in Iran. As such by May 1960 Soviet air defences were on high alert and unfortunately for Francis Gary Powers they were on the lookout for more U-2 flights.
Following the disappearance of the U-2 flown by Powers the US government denied the purpose of the aircrafts mission. A press release on May 6th, 1960 stated it was a NASA aircraft used for scientific weather research purposes that had gone off course and was now missing (they even had photos of a U-2 painted up to back up the story!) but they were embarrassed by the Soviets when they not only produced the wreckage of the aircraft but also the pilot and photos taken of Soviet bases (Powers was unable to activate the aircraft self-destruct mechanism before bailing out)!
Powers was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in the USSR for espionage but was released in 1962 in a spy swap and returned to the United States. Despite extreme interrogation over those 2 years in the USSR he did not reveal any US secrets and was awarded the CIA Intelligence Star in 1963.
Powers later became a test pilot for Lockheed between 1963-1970, then a airborne traffic reporter. He died at just 47 in a helicopter crash in 1977. Posthumously Powers was awarded a number of medals that were presented to his family including the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 2000, the CIA Directors Medal in 2000 for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty; and the Silver Star in 2012 for demonstrating exceptional loyalty whilst enduring 2 years of harsh interrogation.
The Central Museum of the Armed Forces is just one of numerous museums in Moscow where you can see many historic aircraft from World War Two through to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the USSR in 1991. I will feature more of these museums in future posts. From an aviation point of view Moscow is a great destination to see many different types of Soviet era aircraft and well worth a visit.