The Molotov Flights

Petlyakov Pe-8 c/n 42066, the 28th production example of 93 built, was relatively new when called upon to transport the Soviet Foreign Minister on his travels. The radiators for the cooling of all four liquid-cooled V12 engines were installed in the two inner nacelles.Artwork by Juanita Franzi/ © 2019

The mighty four-engined Pe-8 at Tealing on May 20, 1942. The Pe-8/TB-7 prototype made its first flight on December 27, 1936, the type becoming the only four-engined bomber built by the Russians during the Great Patriotic War. The Pe-8 that brought Molotov was a standard production example, fitted with four 1,340 h. p. Mikulin AM-35A V12 liquid-cooled engines.

Molotov, in heavy flying suit and boots, is welcomed to the UK by RAF officers after climbing out of the Pe-8 at Tealing on May 20, 1942.

This map shows the flights made by the Pe-8 in support of Molotov’s meetings with Churchill and Roosevelt during May–June 1942.

The Soviet Union’s need for a large, modern, four-engined bomber was known to all the industry’s designers, and in July 1934 Vladimir Petliakov’s design team at TsAGI, under the overall leadership of Tupolev, began to research the problem of developing a suitable aircraft. He determined that speed and high altitude cruising levels were essential requirements, and that this meant a low drag profile and supercharged engines offering as much power as possible.  There were no suitable powerplants available in the Soviet Union at that time.

Petliakov began by designing a smooth-skinned, semi-monocoque fuselage of oval section with large bomb doors under the central fuselage. This was more easily conceived than done, as the metal industry was still producing duralumin in corrugated sheets, and Tupolev had to use his considerable skills in arguing that it was time for the producers to adapt to new needs.

All this took time, so the prototype ANT-42, by now designated TB-7 by the Air Force, was not completed until December 1936. Its engines were four M-34FRNs of 930hp, but without the benefit of superchargers.  Petliakov and Tupolev had given a lot of thought to the problem and had come up with an answer – to install a fifth engine in the rear fuselage which would act as a compressor/supercharger for the other four engines and which could provide pressurisation. But this was not fitted on the first ANT-42.  Petliakov located the nineteen fuel tanks in the wings. They were welded tanks, covered by a thin layer of rubber to reduce leakages. Five were mounted in the centre section, five in each of the outer wing panels between the double spars, and two in each wing’s leading edge.

TB-7/Pe-8s, with their long range and high speed, were used for several VIP flights during the war. On 28 April 1942, the Soviet deputy people’s commissar for foreign affairs (deputy foreign minister) flew to England as head of a delegation preparing for a visit by Viacheslav Molotov, the commissar. They landed at Tilling, where deputy commissar Pavlov remained while his pilot Aziamov and three members of the delegation left for London on a de Havilland DH95 Flamingo. Unfortunately, the DH95 caught fire en route and exploded, killing all on board. The following day, 1 May, the remainder of the Soviet delegation flew back to Moscow, with Aziamov’s co-pilot, Endel Pusep, now in command.

Nevertheless, on 19 May Pusep returned to Tilling with Molotov and a delegation of nine. Josef Stalin, the Soviet leader, had instructed Molotov to conduct talks with Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the opening of a second front against the Germans. For the mission, the Pe-8 was fitted with oxygen equipment. The flight to England, some 2,700km/l,678 miles, took fifteen hours and was flown at altitudes of 3,000 to 6,000m/9,843 to 19,686 feet.  Pusep noted that the outside air temperatures fell to -45°C/-49°F en route.

On 24 May they were off again, this time en route to Washington, which they reached via Prestwick, Reykjavik and Goose Bay, landing in the US capital on 30 May. In the landing, several of the aircraft’s tyres burst; fortunately for Molotov and his team, the American tyre manufacturer B. F. Goodrich measured the wheel size and made up a new set in just two days.  Roosevelt took the trouble of meeting the aircrew and welcoming them to America. On 4 June they headed east, routing through Gander, Reykjavik and Prestwick, and from there direct to Moscow’s Kratovo Aerodrome which they reached on the thirteenth. Most of the ocean crossing was flown at 8,000m/26,248 feet, and they had successfully flown through German-occupied airspace without hindrance. They had covered some 17,800km/11,061 miles.

The same Pe-8 was called into action again early in 1943 to bring groups of Soviet pilots to Britain. The RAF’s No 305 Ferry Training Unit (FTU) had been created at RAF Errol, Tayside (now Perth and Kinross), Scotland, in December 1942. It was an unusual unit in that, while other FTUs were busy training RAF pilots and crews to fly aircraft to the Middle East and India, No 305 FTU was tasked with training Russian aircrews to fly a total of 100 twin-engined Armstrong Whitworth Albemarles direct to Russia across the Baltic.

The little-loved Albemarle, which entered RAF service in January 1943, had originally been designed as a medium bomber, but never served in that role – it being clear from the start that existing aircraft like the Vickers Wellington were still superior. Instead it had been relegated to general and special transport duties.

The new FTU commenced operations on January 1, 1943. The Albemarles were prepared by No 2 Overseas Aircraft Preparation Unit (OAPU) at Filton, near Bristol, before being flown north to Errol. When despatched from the latter the aircraft were to have 15 flying hours available before the next inspection and to have evidence of fuel-consumption tests and a signed-off weight sheet. The aircraft would leave under the control of Prestwick and were to arrive, under the supervision of Moscow Master Control, at Kalyazin on the Volga, about 65 miles (100km) north of Moscow. Flying with three 210gal overload fuel tanks at 2,000ft (600m) at a speed of 160 m. p. h. (255km/h), the aircraft had a safe range of 1,900 miles (3,050km), equating to some 13¼ flying hours.

While plans were drawn up for a passenger version of the TB-7, intended to carry seventy, they were not put into production. But two of the last TB-7s were built as passenger aircraft. The ninetieth and ninety-first aircraft were fitted with a special cabin for twelve passengers which was mounted in the aircraft’s rear fuselage, aft of the bomb bays. As Petliakov had died in an air accident in 1942, this work was headed by losef Nezval, who succeeded him as chief designer of the aircraft, which had been redesignated Pe-8 as a belated and posthumous honour to its designer.  The passenger compartment had cabin walls featuring a layer of noise and heat insulation material; a buffet was installed, as was a toilet. A luggage compartment was fitted into one of the bomb bays, and was capable of carrying 1,200kg/2,6461b of baggage. The bomb doors were replaced by a conventional fuselage skin. Aft of the cockpit there was sleeping accommodation for three people. While the upper fuselage machine-gun fitting was omitted from these two aircraft, other defensive weapons were retained.

These aircraft were completed in 1944. They were followed by two more standard TB-7 bombers, then production was closed.


The northern route to Moscow had first been used in the autumn of 1941, by two US Army Air Corps B-24 Liberators carrying members of a mission to Moscow led by American special envoy W. Averell Harriman and Lord Beaverbrook, the British Minister for Aircraft Production. The two principals travelled by sea but others, including Constantine Oumansky, the Soviet Ambassador to Washington DC, used the two aircraft.

The flight represented an innovation in air transport, showing the potential for long-range aircraft to make possible frequent face-to-face meetings of decision- makers anywhere across the globe. The B-24s flew non-stop from Prestwick, far to the north beyond the North Cape, over Archangel and on to Moscow. At times the temperature inside the aircraft dropped to -20°C (-4°F) and heavy ice formed on the wings.

At the banquet for the delegation in the Kremlin a few days after its arrival, Stalin made a point of walking around the table to toast the two B-24 pilots to recognise their achievement. The main delegation returned to Britain by sea but the two B-24s again demonstrated the potential power of air transport for the Allies. One returned to the USA via Tehran, Cairo, Bathurst in West Africa and across the South Atlantic to Natal in Brazil. From there it flew on to Miami, gathering information about the route on the way. The other returned to the USA by flying the other way around the world via Tehran, India, the Philippines and across the Pacific, stopping at Wake Island, Hawaii and California.

Consolidated Liberator Mk I c/n 2 was originally given the RAF serial AM259, but official documents show that the aircraft flew with the civilian registration G-AGCD for its Festoon and Sealyham flights to the Soviet Union during 1942–44. Artwork by Juanita Franzi / © 2019