1938 Russian ‘DragonFly’
The history of experimental aircraft before, during and just after the Second World War is fascinating. We often think of WW2 as only being fought with piston-engine aircraft but we know the Nazis introduced jet-powered fighters like the ME-262 late in the war and attacked Southern England with long-range ballistic missiles (the V-2 rockets). When the Third Reich fell, the Nazis left behind a treasure trove of advanced jet and rocket technology that was secretly acquired (with amnesty given to Nazi scientists) by both the Western Allies and the Soviets.
It was a great surprise to me to learn that in 1938 a concept for a flying submarine was developed by Soviet Russia. My fictional aircraft DragonFly was developed in collaboration with expert retrofuturistic aircraft designer, Jose ‘Cutangus’ Garcia. Nothing from DragonFly was based on any knowledge of this historical Russian prototype. So naturally I was intrigued to compare DragonFly with what the real aeronautical engineers of the pre-WW2 Soviet Union had schemed.
Prior to the outbreak of WW2, the problem Soviet military strategists were trying to solve was a pressing one for all major powers. They knew the next war was going to be worldwide and in those days, projection of power was through naval forces as piston-engine aircraft had limited range. Aircraft carriers would be pivotal in the coming conflict as would submarines. As early as 1934, Boris Ushakov, a student of the Soviet Naval Engineering School, developed a concept for an aircraft able to fly and swim under the water. From 1936 to 1938, the Soviet “Flying Submarine” project resulted in an amazing aeronautical design: a plane able to submerge underwater to attack enemy ships with its arsenal of torpedoes. The Soviet project was never brought to life because its underwater speed of three knots was deemed to be too slow for attack and as a result, once the flying sub was detected by the enemy, would be too slow to evade counterattack.
Here are visual comparisons of the 1938 Soviet Flying Submarine to my 1942 dieselpunk creation DragonFly:
Artists renderings of the ‘Flying Sub’ and the DragonFly Squadron in action in WW2:
Here is a clip, which appears to bear the History Channel logo, that shows a 3D recreation of how this unique Russian Flying Submarine would have operated:
The similarity between the Russian Flying Sub and DragonFly is primarily in its ability to convert from flight to underwater combat. There are many differences. The Russian aircraft has three aircraft diesel-powered piston engines with a top speed of 150 knots. DragonFly has two quadra-hydrogen fueled engines with a top speed in excess of 500 knots. The Russian aircraft is single-tailed with twin floats. DragonFly is twin-tailed with a single float. The Russian aircraft has two belly-mounted torpedoes. DragonFly has a front-mounted turret which dispenses multiple rounds of explosive quadra-torpedoes in addition to rear-facing and wing-mounted turrets.
In my dieselpunk novel DragonFly, RAF pilot Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Somerset unwittingly stumbles into the role of DragonFly’s test pilot. The DragonFly is pressed into a combat role as the invasion of Britain by the Nazis draws near. Early in her test flights, while chasing a Nazi ‘Wespen Nest Schiff’ or Wasp Nest submarine, Dragonfly’s designer, Dr. Nigel Pennbridge teaches Ronnie the nuances of his incredible invention. Here is a condensed except of Ronnie Somerset’s first realization that DragonFly is capable of more than just flight:
DragonFly hit the crest of a wave and bounced upwards. With our speed dropping fast, we were losing lift… I put my hand on the throttle hoping I still had time to abort the landing and get her back in the air. Just then a hand reached around the back of my seat and flipped the switch that made the float retract back inside the fuselage. The grinding of the gears sent a panic through me.
“Nigel, what are you doing? We’re going to crash!”
“That’s exactly what I plan to do.”
As the float retracted, DragonFly’s nose pitched forward and the pilots’ canopy slammed into the sea. I expected the plexiglass to fracture but it didn’t. As the plane’s wings entered the water, there was a slight moan from the airframe but we kept moving forward until we were completely submerged… the plane started to sink in the blackness of the sea… Underwater lights turned on, illuminating the darkness in front of us.
“An airplane isn’t supposed to do this, Nigel.”
“Sorry, Ronnie. But this one does.” I heard more clicks. “Sonar is active…”
“Sonar? DragonFly has sonar?… We’re a submarine now?”
“Technically, we’re an aircraft with submersible aero-foils.”
“Okay. I’ll take that as a yes.”
Imagination can take you many places. Often when you turn back the pages of history, you will also find the future.