The Petlyakov Pe-2: The backbone of the Soviet light bomber force

From the US P-38, B-25, and A-20 to the British de Havilland Mosquito and the German Ju-88, many twin-engine aircraft of World War II are widely discussed among aviation enthusiasts in the West, though more often than not, one key aircraft is absent in discussions and articles concerning twin-engine aircraft: the Petlyakov Pe-2. Indeed, while aviation publications in the US and the UK often address the Soviet Union’s illustrious Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik and the nimble Yak-3/7/9 series of fighters, the Pe-2, a highly capable and versatile aircraft that was one of the main components of the Soviet military’s arsenal, is seldom mentioned. Designed by a team of aviation engineers led by Vladimir Petlyakov in a special NKVD prison camp, the Pe-2 was developed under strenuous circumstances to say the least. Nevertheless, by the end of the war, nearly 11,500 examples were built, and for the majority of the war, the Pe-2 was the backbone of the Soviet light bomber force.

In the late 1930s, Vladimir Petlyakov, Andrei Tupolev, and dozens of other prominent aircraft designers were accused of being “enemies of the people” and were consequently imprisoned in a special NKVD camp for aviation engineers. Known as Experimental Design Bureau 29 (TsKB-29), the NKVD camp was effectively a research and design bureau within the Gulag prison system. TsKB-29, a former camp for the homeless located northeast of Moscow, was comprised of three buildings: the first was the prisoners’ barracks, the second a kitchen, and the third was a work area equipped with desks and drawing boards. The small camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and miles of thick forests on all sides. Nevertheless, conditions in the special camp were significantly better than those in other parts of the Gulag prison system, and though the engineers worked long hours, they were given sufficient food and heat, and the living quarters were acceptable. The NKVD proceeded to split the prisoners into four teams in charge of four separate development projects. The first, officially designated Project 100, was led by Vladimir Petlyakov, and was tasked with developing a high-altitude interceptor.  Project 101, headed by Dmitry Tomasevich, was tasked with designing a modern single-engine fighter. Project 102, led by Vladimir Myasischev, was to design a twin-engine high-altitude bomber. The final team, Project 103 and led by Andrei Tupolev, was told to design a four-engine heavy dive bomber.

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TsKB-29. Photo source

Petlyakov and his team of 50 engineers were ordered to develop a high-altitude interceptor that could reach 630 km/h (391 mph) and fly at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet), very ambitious specifications for 1938. The resulting aircraft, known as the VI-100, was an all-metal, twin-tailed monoplane powered by two Klimov M-105 liquid-cooled piston engines with TK-3 turbochargers. Featuring a pressurized cockpit that carried a crew of two (pilot and rear gunner), the VI-100 was an innovative design, despite its traditional layout scheme. It was armed with a single 20mm ShVAK cannon and two 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns in the nose, as well as an additional 7.62mm ShKAS on a flexible mount in the rear cockpit. The first prototype made its inaugural flight in December of 1939, and test pilot P.M. Stefanofskiy provided Petlyakov’s design team with a long list of defects, the most significant being oil cooling system’s tendency to overheat at high altitudes. Despite this glaring deficiency, the first flight did highlight the VI-100’s potential as a high-altitude interceptor, achieving a top speed of 538 km/h (334 mph) at an altitude of 6,600 meters (21,600 feet), though these figures fell far short of the specifications put forth by the Special Technical Department of the NKVD (STO).

In April of 1940, using a second and upgraded prototype that had addressed many Stefanofskiy’s complaints, the VI-100 underwent state acceptance trials at the State Research Institute of the Red Army Army Force (NII VVS). During its eleventh flight, the second VI-100 prototype caught fire and made an emergency landing, injuring the crew and nearly destroying the aircraft. The remaining flights during acceptance trials were conducted using the first prototype, and the VI-100 made its first public appearance during the May Day parade in 1940. The aircraft was approved for production on June 1, 1940. The NII VVS concluded that, “the ‘100’ aircraft represents the most successful solution to the problem of developing an armed aircraft with a pressurized cabin,” and it was recommended for serial production.

 

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VI-100. Source: S.V. Ivanov

However, by the time the VI-100 had passed state trials, enthusiasm among the Soviet brass for a high-altitude interceptor had waned. In September of 1939, Germany began its Blitzkrieg campaign, first in Poland and then in Western Europe, which involved well-coordinated close air support attacks by Luftwaffe Ju-87 dive-bombers in support of Wehrmacht troops. The German military had shown the world the power of modern mechanized warfare combined with tactical bombing, and the VVS reassessed its aviation design programs, making the decision to focus its efforts on aircraft that could provide effective support for the Red Army infantry. What is more, the Soviet dive bomber project that had shown the most promise at the time, the Polikarpov SPB, crashed twice and experienced several other major malfunctions within a short period of time, which effectively cancelled the project. Similarly, the VVS leadership had lost confidence in Alexander Arkhangelsky’s project to convert the SB bomber into a dive bomber. Consequently, the commander of the Soviet Air Force at the time, Yakov Smushkevich, ordered that the VI-100 design be converted into a dive-bomber, thus scrapping Petlyakov’s promising high-altitude interceptor program.

Petlyakov’s team was given 45 days to redesign the aircraft. Cabin pressurization was removed, the TK-3 superchargers were dropped, and modified Klimov M-105K engines were added. Dive brakes were also installed, as was a bombardier’s position and glazed nose, increasing the size of the crew to three. A dihedral was also added to the tail plane to increase stability. The new dive-bomber, designated PB-100, featured a bomb-bay in the fuselage as well as smaller bays in each engine nacelle, which gave the aircraft the ability to carry up to 1,600 kg (3,520 lb) of bombs. The VI-100’s transition to a dive-bomber went smoothly, and in mid 1940, Petlyakov was released from the TsKB-29 prison camp, and the decision was made to allow his name to be used for the serial production designation of the aircraft (Petlyakov Pe-2). The first production-quality aircraft made its inaugural flight in November of 1940, and deliveries of the new aircraft to combat units began the following spring.

 

Serial production Pe-2s were powered by twin Klimov M-105PF liquid-cooled V-12 piston engines that generated 1,100 horsepower each, which gave the aircraft a top speed of 580 km/h (360 mph) and a range of 1,160 km (721 miles). The dive-bomber was a fast and agile aircraft that outperformed all other Soviet bombers that been built up to this point. Galina Brok-Beltsova, a female pilot of the esteemed 125th Guards Bomber Regiment, recalled, “the first sensation of the Pe-2 is that of a beautiful bird of prey. The TB-3 [early 1930s four-engine heavy bomber] is a heavy machine; the speed is low, and its flight is constantly bumpy. And the Pe-2 is a predator, a very beautiful and fast machine, but also very difficult.” Anatoliy Lilin, a pilot with the 58th Bomber Regiment, also noted, “the maneuverability of the Pe-2 was very good. This machine could accelerate to 400-450 kilometers per hour, approximately the same speed as all fighters. And the bomber SB [twin-engine bomber introduced in 1936], on which I flew earlier, could not even get to 400. By the way, the Pe-2 performed all the forms of aerobatics that the fighters at that time could perform.”

Operation Frantic

Pe-2. Public Domain

However, like all aircraft of the era, the Pe-2 did suffer from numerous unpopular deficiencies. Soviet pilots generally agreed that the Pe-2 was a very complex aircraft, and was quite difficult to land. Yevgenia Gurulyeva-Smirnova, a pilot with the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment, explained, “the Pe-2 had one bad feature: its landing speed was quite fast, and that contributed to a number of crashes. We had fewer casualties in our regiment than the men did flying the same type of aircraft; I think we were more exact in our flying. Nevertheless, bomber pilots were typically willing to overlook such issues.” Another pilot, Mikhail Mabo, also noted recalled some the Pe-2’s drawbacks. “The Peshka [Pe-2] is an extremely complex machine… very difficult to land.” However, Mabo continued, “I was in love with the Peshka… I was very serious about flight work, and for me the Peshka was everything.” Anatoliy Linin also noted that, “of course, the Pe-2 was a strict airplane, it required skill, but it was also completely reliable.”

Pe-2 tail gunners, however, typically had stronger complaints than Peshka pilots, since the ventral 12.7 mm Berezin UB machine gun had a limited field of fire and was difficult to reload. Moreover, an additional 7.62 mm ShKAS machine gun that was added later that could be transferred between sockets on both sides of the fuselage and could be fired upwards caused additional problems. With the additional ShKAS, the gunner had to hold the machine gun in their arms. Anatonina Khokhlova Dubkova, one of the female tail gunners in the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment, explained, “at first I was the only woman machine gunner in the whole regiment. All the other gunners were men, because physically it was very difficult… the real effort was to recharge the machine gun, to pull the lever when it took sixty kilograms, and I had to do it with my left arm. I could never do it on the ground because it was very hard, but in the air it was one, two, and it was recharged! I squatted with the parachute behind my back, one machine gun behind me, another fixed machine gun that faced down and back. The latter gun was heavier, and it required the recharging. The lighter machine gun could be lifted out from one side and remounted on the other side, depending on where the attack was coming from.”

Following the Pe-2’s baptism of fire at the outbreak of the German invasion, Petlyakov’s team enacted a series of refinements based on suggestions given by frontline units, a process that would continue throughout the course of the war. In the summer of 1941, the most pressing issue with the Pe-2 was its relative lack of firepower. One of the forward firing 7.62 mm ShKAS machine guns was quickly replaced by a more powerful 12.7 mm BK, and a 12.7 mm UBT was mounted in the hatch installation in the navigator’s rear-facing position. At the end of 1941, an additional 7.62 mm ShKAS was added in the rear (mentioned above) that could be moved to either side of the fuselage and fired through the upper hatch. Pe-2 aircrews also made it clear at this time that the aircraft lacked sufficient armor, and consequently several changes were introduced to help the Peshka stand up to German aircraft and AA fire. For example, vulnerable service tanks were removed from the engine nacelles, and the armor plating around the navigator and tail-gunner was strengthened.

In January of 1942, Vladimir Petlyakov was killed in a plane crash, but work on improving the Pe-2 continued without delay. In early 1942, upgraded Klimov M-105PF and M-105RF passed state testing, and the Peshka was fitted with the new M-105PF, which gave the aircraft a slight increase in speed at low altitudes. Vladimir Myasischev took over the role of chief designer of the Pe-2, and made a number of changes to the Peshka’s bombsight, oxygen equipment, and cockpit instrumentation in 1943 and 1944, and also made several aerodynamical changes to the outer wing sections, which in addition to improving its handling characteristics, increased the aircraft’s speed by 10-15 km/h (6-9 mph).

The Pe-2’s airframe proved to be remarkably adaptable, and the Peshka was consequently used in a variety of roles by the Soviet military. Aside from its intended use as a dive-bomber, the Peshka also proved adept at daylight medium-altitude level bombing. Indeed, the highly-decorated and elite 6th Guards Bomber Aviation Division often alternated between dive-bombing and level-bombing during operational sorties in order to make it difficult for German anti-aircraft gunners to accurately fire at the Pe-2 formations. The Peshka was also widely used as a reconnaissance platform, which was given the designation Pe-2R. Stripped of its dive brakes, the Pe-2R featured additional fuel tanks in the bomb bay and was equipped with three cameras in the rear fuselage.

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Pe-3 in flight. Photo source

However, the most numerous and significant variant of the Peshka was the heavy fighter version, which was given the designation Pe-3. Having come full circle from the VI-100 fighter to the Pe-2 dive bomber and back to the Pe-3 heavy fighter, the latter was given additional fuel tanks, which was made possible by the removal of two of the Pe-2’s bomb racks and the elimination of its electric bomb release system. An additional Berezin UBK 12.7 mm machine gun was installed in the nose and a fixed 7.62 mm ShKAS machine gun was added in the tail cone. Armament was further increased in the upgraded Pe-3, the Pe-3bis, which featured a total of two UBK 12.7 mm machine guns and one ShVAK 20 mm cannon in the nose, though the 7.62 mm ShKAS in the tail cone was removed. A total of 360 Pe-3s were produced during the war.

Throughout the course of the Second World War, the Petlyakov Pe-2 proved to be a fast, maneuverable, and durable twin-engine aircraft. A total of 11,427 examples were built, making it the third most numerous twin-engine aircraft manufactured during the war, behind the German Junkers Ju-88 and the British Vickers Wellington. With its easily adapted airframe, production Pe-2s changed considerably between 1941 and 1945, from the obvious performance-enhancing changes to the Klimov engines and the addition of armament to minor modifications such as changes to the layout of the glazed nose and tweaking the wings and rudders to increase maneuverability. Although aviation enthusiasts in the West tend to focus more on the heavily-armored Ilyushin Il-2 ground attack aircraft and the quick and nimble Yak-3 and Yak-9 fighters, the Pe-2 was undoubtedly one of the greatest Soviet aircraft of the Second World War, and while its impact on the outcome of the war on the Eastern Front cannot be quantified, it is difficult to imagine a Soviet victory without the use of a highly-capable and versatile twin-engine aircraft such as the Pe-2. Peshkas continued to be flown by the VVS, Soviet satellite states, China and Yugoslavia in the immediate postwar years, and were used as testbeds for various new Soviet technology in the late 1940s. Four are currently on display in Bulgaria, Norway, Poland, and at the Russian Central Air Force Museum in Monino near Moscow.

 

Sources:

S.V. Ivanov, Pe-2, Voina v Vouzkukhe 113

Ya Pomnyu Project

Anne Noggle, Dance with Death, Soviet Airwomen in World War II

Aleksander Medved and Dmitriy Khazanov, Pe-2 Guard Units of World War II

Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Khazanov, Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War

 

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Pe-2s in flight. Source: S.V. Ivanov

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