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Preparing to Restore the “Concrete Plane”

Posted on Tue, September 27, 2016
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The Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 is an iconic aircraft. Although it was the most produced combat aircraft in World War II, with more than 35,000 planes built, very few survived. To its many fans, the plane is known by its World War II names as Shturmovik (“Storm Bird”), “flying tank,” “hunchback,” or “flying infantryman.” Its postwar NATO reporting name was “Bark.” During the war, Soviet pilots endearingly called it “Ilyusha,” while German pilots, in amazement, called it “Betonflugzeug” (concrete plane), “Iron Gustav” (Eiserner Gustav), “Schlächter” (butcher), or even “Schwarzer Tod” (Black Death). On the wings of the Il-2 rested, to a large degree, the defense of the Soviet Union after the Nazi invasion in June 1941, and the subsequent Allied victory in Europe in World War II. Like the Russian T-34 tank, the Il-2 has become an iconic symbol of World War II.

The Museum is proud to have this unique aircraft in storage, as one of the few large artifacts in the Museum's possession associated with the Soviet Air Force in World War II. Once on exhibition, the plane will close a large void in the Museum’s presentation. But before the Shturmovik can enter the workshop, we have to learn as much as possible about the aircraft and its history. Here is what we know today: Although about a dozen Il-2s are displayed in Eastern Europe, only two are located in the United States. The Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, WA, has an Il-2 in flying condition, but like our Il-2, theirs is a composite plane, rebuilt many decades later from parts of four Shturmoviks that had been shot down or crashed in the war. Since no working original engine was available anymore, the Flying Heritage's Il-2 uses a 1475 hp Allison V-1710 engine that was originally intended for a P-38 Lightning.

In the world of historic aircraft restoration such “cobbling together” of parts from several aircraft to form a complete airplane is not unusual. But that leaves museum experts with the task of piecing together the history of the aircraft, which often is similarly fragmented as the aircraft itself. To know the operational history of an aircraft impacts many decisions in the restoration process – such as the choice of color schemes, patterns and insignia-like unit markings that will be applied to the restored aircraft and should match its operational history as closely as possible.

With more than 14-meter (47-feet) wingspan and a length of 11 meters (38 feet), the Il-2 is not a small aircraft. The Museum’s Il-2 is an early two-seater version: Originally, the Il-2 had been built as a single-seater aircraft. But soon a rear gunner was added to protect the plane’s vulnerable back — the only weak spot in the otherwise heavily armored aircraft. In fact, one Il-2 pilot had written to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, stating that “the aircraft is absolutely unprotected against enemy fighters attacking from behind. In most cases, the fighter approaches from behind ... trying to knock-out the engine or kill the pilot.” The additional weight for the rear-gunner required a redesign of the plane — distinctly sweptback wings now retained the center of gravity while accommodating the weight of the newly added gunner.

Shot of the aircraft's nose and cockpit while in storage.

The Museum’s Shturmovik at its current location at the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland. Image: The National Air and Space Museum

The Museum’s Il-2 is a composite aircraft as well, consisting primarily of parts of at least two separate Il-2 wrecks found in Russia. Significant portions of the Il-2 are from an aircraft that was built late in 1943 and went into combat at the end of 1943 or early 1944. Piloted by Lt. Ivan Maksimovich Andreyev, with rear gunner Sgt. Goncharov, it was shot down (or made an emergency landing) on March 15, 1944 at lake Vole-Stechno near St. Petersburg in northern Russia. The pilot was taken prisoner of war by the Germans, the rear gunner was probably killed in the attack. Sitting on top of the frozen lake, the aircraft slowly sank to the ground once the ice began to melt a few weeks later.

Other significant parts of the Museum’s Il-2 came from an aircraft that was shot down near Murmansk, more than 1,126 kilometers (700 miles) north of St. Petersburg. In the early 1990s, both aircraft were recovered and slowly restored at a facility in St. Petersburg. To make the plane complete, there was a need to seek out historic parts from other aircraft or to fabricate parts in instances where the originals were unavailable or unusable. And while this is not a unique process, it constitutes a problem for the Museum’s restoration. Usually, recovery teams for historic aircraft are not necessarily attuned to the critical issues and painstakingly exact standards that animate the restoration process in museums like the National Air and Space Museum. Thus, much research is needed to study the historical uncertainties associated with this particular Il-2, and to determine the degree of authenticity of the aircraft. In general, however, the Museum’s Shturmovik seems to be in a good shape: Equipped with an original AM-38F, liquid-cooled, 12-cylinder engine, capable of producing 1,700 horsepower, the Museum’s Il-2 can be considered as a generic example of this iconic aircraft. The Shturmovik also features its full armament: one 12.7 mm machine gun (operated by gunner in the rear of the cockpit), two 23 mm cannons mounted in the wings, and two 7.62 mm machine guns mounted in the wings as well, near the wing root.

Close up of the aircraft's machine gun.

Part of the Il-2’s impressive armament: the 12.7 mm machine gun in the rear of the cockpit. Image: The National Air and Space Museum

Once sufficient background information on the aircraft has been assembled, the actual restoration will happen in a close collaboration between curators, conservators, and restorers. The first decision to make is how much the restoration will intervene with the actual object. Should the aircraft just be preserved passively (with the least intervention) or restored to the exact condition it had when it came off the assembly line, shining and sparkling (the most intervention)? Obviously, the latter is not an option with a composite plane. But simple preservation won’t work either because some areas of the aircraft will require repairs or corrections. One major aspect of the restoration will be the choice of the final finish, since currently the Museum’s Il-2 is only covered with a primer coat. According to our current state of research, the plane will probably be restored to the appearance it had on the battlefield in late 1943/early 1944, including the typical three-color camouflage scheme of Shturmoviks: light blue for the undersides of the wing and fuselage, and black and green for the aircraft’s top surfaces, applied in an irregular pattern. Six 5-point red stars with white borders – the insignia of the then-Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – will be placed on the wings and fuselage.

While American warplanes frequently displayed pin-up girls or nicknames as painted decorations, Soviet aircraft often carried painted martial or political slogans on both sides of their fuselages. These propaganda slogans invoked Soviet patriotic or historic figures, honored outstanding citizens like famous pilots or acclaimed writers and poets, or exhorted Soviet citizens to greater efforts to defeat the Nazi invaders. Some slogans also referred to the “sponsorship” of an individual aircraft by patriotic groups or entities, like the world famous Bolshoi Ballet. To make the Museum’s Il-2 look authentic, we consider a slogan as well: Smert’ fashchismu! (“Death to Fascism!”) could be an appropriate option that would not only be authentic, but also convey the spirit of the Il-2s, and the Soviet propaganda at that time. Once the painting of the aircraft is finished, the slogan could be applied in the form of a removable vinyl decal that would be easily reversible and cause no damage to the aircraft surface.

View of the cockpit as if you were sitting in the pilot's seat.

A view inside the cockpit of the Museum’s Il-2 Shturmovik. Image: The National Air and Space Museum

As for now, it might take a few more years before the Shturmovik will be taken to the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, and the public will be able to watch the progress of the restoration. But behind the scenes, curators, conservators, and volunteers are already working quietly to prepare the restoration of this iconic aircraft.

Gene Eisman, volunteer with the National Air and Space Museum, contributed to this story along with Von Hardesty, former curator of Russian and Soviet aircraft and author of Red Phoenix Rising, and volunteer Larry DiRicco.