Aviation of World War II

Aviation of World War II

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Soviet Aviation at the Beginning of the War

Dmitry Leipnik

<…> The fact is that even when drawing up an unprecedented in history and completely unrealizable, from the point of view of any competent economist, a plan for the industrialization of a predominantly agrarian country, a mistake was made. In the production of metal, the main emphasis was placed on the smelting of iron and steel. The great leader needed a great and invincible army and navy. And the production capacity for the production of aluminum and duralumin turned out to be quite small. By most indicators, this unrealizable plan was nevertheless carried out at the cost of the lives of millions of repressed citizens of the USSR. In the remaining time before the implementation of the grandiose plan of a combined arms offensive, it was not possible to create the capacities necessary for the production of duralumin. And then, oddly enough, the Germans came to the rescue. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forbidden to have an air force. The government of Soviet Russia gave the Germans the opportunity to build combat aircraft. In Fili, near Moscow, a Junkers plant was built, where highly qualified German specialists worked. They worked and shared their experience with us, just like in the good old days, when up to 50% of the engineers who worked in Russia were Germans by origin. What did this plant have to do with Yakovlev's fighters? The production of pipes, from which the power frame of civil and military Junker aircraft was made, was organized in the USSR in the 1920s. It is these pipes that will be received by Plant No. 82, the head plant of the Yakovlev company.

By the beginning of the 1940s, Nilolai Polikarpov was the leading and most talented fighter designer in the USSR. And if his first I-5 fighter, created jointly with Grigorovich, resembled the Boeing R-12E biplane in concept, then the I-15 was already distinguished by its progressive design. But the greatest success fell to the lot of the Polikarpov I-16 monoplane fighter. It was not only the first domestic large-scale monoplane fighter, but also a more effective device in terms of combat effectiveness in comparison with the Yak-9 and any other domestic aircraft. By combat effectiveness is meant, in this case, the ratio of the number of victories won to the number of fighters built. Unfortunately, the percentage of non-combat losses that were considered sabotage is extremely difficult to calculate. After all, this indicator was diligently and quite reasonably hushed up by both manufacturers and operators, since under the article “sabotage” they were not only imprisoned, but also shot ... In Spain, the Polikarpov monoplane with an air-cooled engine showed a noticeable superiority over biplane fighters, both domestic and foreign. The I-16 at that time was a very modern design, with landing gear retractable in flight and a very peculiar aerodynamic concept: a slightly elongated wing, a carefully cowled engine and a closed cockpit canopy. However, due to the hot climate and the rapid clouding of domestic plexiglass, the internationalist pilots immediately abandoned the latter, replacing it with a more familiar visor. Even then, this machine was armed with two or four ShKAS machine guns of 7.62 mm caliber.

Special mention should be made of weapons. After the cessation of production of the PV-1 (an aviation analogue of the famous Maxim), the Soviet industry began to produce ShKAS, caliber 7.62 mm, and then ultra ShKAS - a super-rapid weapon, which was not equal in this indicator in any country in the world. But the combat effectiveness of rifle-caliber machine guns against the new generation of all-metal machines will be ridiculously low. In order to defeat the very tenacious German bombers, the British, for example, will be forced to place 8 machine guns in the wings of their fighters. For the I-16, there was no such possibility, and Polikarpov places cannons in the wings of his apparatus. It was these I-16Ps that would prove effective at the beginning of World War II, bringing well-deserved fame to the first Soviet aces pilots. On such a cannon fighter, B Safonov won most of his twenty victories. The ShVAK aircraft gun was created by converting a large-caliber machine gun into a 20-mm projectile of reduced power. The modification was made by expanding the case mouth to a maximum size of 20 mm, which increased the destructive power of the projectile, but not the ballistic data. So, by European standards, ShVAK was a very mediocre "cannon". But it was a much more formidable weapon. However, much earlier, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, a new generation of aircraft appeared in the sky - Messerschmitt Bf-109B fighters armed with a standard pair of rifle-caliber machine guns. The Germans did not immediately succeed in installing a third firing point between the cylinders of an in-line engine, especially since it was also upside down on the Messerschmitts. One of these aircraft, albeit a two-machine-gun one, will be captured during the fighting, transferred to the USSR, comprehensively described, tested and safely forgotten ...

At this time, Yakovlev was just beginning his aircraft building career. He probably admired the success of his older colleague. At least the influence of Polikarpov's machines in the early developments of the Yakovlevsky Design Bureau is noticeable. Sports and training UT-1 and UT-2 are Yakovlev's first large-scale machines. They were intended for the retraining of fighter pilots on the I-16 and allowed the young designer to take a prominent place among the numerous pre-war design teams and experimental design teams of the USSR. But the main reason why Yakovlev took a leading position in the Soviet fighter aircraft industry was that Stalin doubted the objectivity of his new aviation generals, although the best pilots were promoted to the highest command positions of the Air Force, who more than once had to fight with a real enemy, sitting in the cockpit fighter: both Rychagov and his boss Smushkevich unanimously claimed that Soviet aircraft were inferior to foreign ones. From the Soviet volunteers who fought in China (the information was transmitted by a Soviet military adviser, the source is unknown to the author), information came that the Japanese were also beginning to massively use a new generation of fighters - devices, later very well-known - A6M2 "Zero", all-metal monoplanes developed by the company Mitsubishi. Stalin was finally convinced of the backwardness of the Soviet aircraft industry by the results of visits by our military engineers to German aircraft factories. Hitler allowed to show everything. Soviet specialists were convinced that all-metal monoplanes with a smooth working skin were being produced as the main Luftwaffe fighters. Yakovlev undoubtedly reported this fact to the "owner" - this is exactly what his colleagues in the government and the Central Committee called Stalin behind his back, but, probably, with a slight shift in emphasis. If Stalin had received objective information and found out that, together with the large-scale production of the Bf-109 fighter with a water-cooled engine, Germany was preparing an equally large-scale production of an all-metal monoplane with an air-cooled engine, he would by no means have authorized the refusal to launch the I- 180 with a similar power plant. However, there were subjective reasons for not knowing the essence of the issue. The fact is that during a visit to the factories of Kurt Tank (namely, this wonderful engineer and excellent pilot led the Focke-Wulf concern at the time of the events described) an incident happened. Having personally shown in the air the latest fighter of his own design, which traditionally bore the name of the former owner of the FW-190 company, the “smug German” offered to test his car to the head of the Soviet delegation. General Gusev accepted the offer, but failed to take off, shamefully putting the plane "on the butt" when trying to get off the ground. The Germans hushed up the incident. The Soviet delegation received a particularly liked Storch as a gift, and Soviet specialists also purchased samples of the latest German aviation weapons. In the reports to the leader, the members of the delegation, of course, did not mention this. As a result, one of the two main types of German fighters in a future war remained in the shadows. However, Stalin's ignorance was beneficial to Yakovlev and other aircraft designers who designed aircraft with liquid-cooled engines. Just at that time, the production of the new M-105 engine was launched in the USSR, which was actually a Soviet version of the French-made Hispano-Suiza 12-Y BRS. It was a fairly modern engine, but it was inferior to its German counterpart Damler-Benz-601, installed on Messerschmitt fighters, not only in terms of power, but also in terms of the possibility of further modernization, and its low survivability when receiving combat damage would be obvious already when the Wehrmacht invaded the territory of France, since two types of French Air Force fighters - "Moran-Saulnier-406" and "Devuaten 520" - will already be equipped with a Hispano-Suiza 12-Y BRS engine.

An attempt by N. Polikarpov to create a fighter with this engine, which seemed very promising, failed. His TsKB 17 (I-17), which was a slightly enlarged I-16 with a new engine, was not a very successful machine. And then the designer returned to air-cooled radial engines, which have not only more power, but also better survivability. Despite the large area, and hence the high drag, only these engines could provide acceptable flight data for vehicles of a mixed design. It is difficult to say what was the reason for such a position of the designer - prejudice to "weak" in-line engines or talent and intuition. But time has shown Polikarpov to be right. Although he was destined to die in disgrace, nevertheless, the groundwork for fighters with this power plant, transferred to the Lavochkin Design Bureau, made it possible in the shortest possible time to create the most successful domestic serial-built fighter - the famous La-5FN. The official motive for the leader’s distrust of the new Polikarpov fighter was considered to be that during his tests, an almost national hero, V. Chkalov, allegedly loved by the leader, would die. This death seemed to most contemporaries the result of sabotage or the intrigues of enemies, but in fact it could also be the result of ordinary negligence. During the tests of the Yakovlevsky I-26 (Yak-1) in April 1940, a test pilot also died, but this tragedy would not affect the fate of the machine. Due to the significant backlog of Soviet fighter equipment, the wrath of the leader fell upon the heads of the guilty. Part of the responsibility was transferred to the shoulders of aviation generals, who, together with Y. Smushkevich and P. Rychagov, would be arrested just on the eve of the war, and later, after severe interrogations and brutal beatings, they would be executed. This fate will not escape the young wife of Rychagov, the beautiful pilot M. Nesterenko, who was also shot with her husband after horrific torture. * At a crucial moment, Soviet aviation was beheaded. In general, I. Stalin, like V. Lenin, did not like generals. It was the elite of the officer corps that for the longest time resisted the imposition of a new, monstrous order in Russia by a semi-literate leader and was exterminated almost without exception**. However, Stalin will need a consultant on the development of aviation. And the leader will turn his attention to the very young designer A. Yakovlev. Appointed to the post of assistant secretary for aviation, he will be able to make such an impression on the leader that in January 1940 he will become deputy people's commissar for experimental aircraft construction. And this at 33! Alexander Sergeyevich will turn out to be one of the most successful and prudent favorites. He will retain the leadership of the design bureau, although both the Yak-7 and Yak-3 will be developed by enterprising young designers, and after Stalin's death he will easily change the Kremlin's office to the office of the General ... Probably, his extensive experience of communicating with the leader-teacher allowed him to for many years, in memoirs and publications in popular and technical literature, underestimate the performance characteristics of enemy aircraft and exaggerate the achievements of their own developments. Thus, the data of the German Bf-109 cited in the memoirs "The Purpose of Life" speak either of the author's incompetence (which is hardly possible), or of deliberate misleading of the reader. By greatly underestimating the performance of German aircraft, attributing to his aircraft data that were absolutely unattainable for any of his serial products, this respected person casts a shadow on the memory of Soviet, French, Polish and Bulgarian pilots who fought and died in battles against more advanced German technology and won a peaceful sky for all of us. And then, in the distant thirties, after the I-21 aircraft with an in-line Renault "Bengali" (22 hp) of French production and after the I-25 fighter armed with two machine guns, the Yakovlev Design Bureau began accelerated design of the I-26. The design bureau received an official order in the summer of 1939, and on January 13, 1940, the chief pilot of the company, Y. Piontkovsky, took the experimental I-26 into the air. In April, the second copy was submitted for state testing. The aircraft was arranged according to the principle of sports and aerobatic machines. All heavy units were brought as close as possible to the center of mass. Therefore, the fighter received very small moments of inertia and had excellent maneuverability. In addition, it was made of wood. Only the fuselage frame was made of steel pipes, like the French MS 406. Only the engine cowlings, folding fuselage panels, and wing and stabilizer fairings, radiator shrouds and nacelles, and even landing gear shields and four panels below the gas tanks were aluminum. No armor was not and was not expected. There was no protector in the gas tanks. It remains a mystery, due to which survivability should have been ensured. No one really thought about the speed with which a wooden structure collapses under the impact of bullets and shells, how quickly such an aircraft can burn out, especially if the flame is fanned by an oncoming stream. But the task of creating a structure from non-deficient materials was completed.

But there was a point in creating the I-30! No less than in the sports and combat Yak-1, which was submitted for state tests on June 10, 1940. He flew well, as befits the aerobatics, under which he was painted (bright red with a white-red keel) and polished. Of course he didn't have any weapons... In the summer of 1940, dozens of aircraft from the USSR design teams were presented to the People's Commissariat for the Aviation Industry (NKAP). But only four of them passed the competition and were recommended for mass production. The I-180 Polikarpov had the fewest comments and defects (81). However, it never became a production aircraft***.

The fastest at the second height limit, i.e. at an altitude of 5000 m, will become the I-200 (with 112 defects). In the series, this aircraft will go as the MiG-1, and then as the MiG-3, becoming the ancestor of the fighter dynasty. It was the production of this machine that was given priority. At that time, Stalin considered the main enemy not Germany, but England. It was this country that, having won the First World War, did not lose world domination, which rested on the power of the fleet. Her government did not recognize the Soviet Union for the longest time in developed countries and financed the fight against the Bolshevik regime. England was the first to declare war on Nazi Germany, true to its allied treaty with Poland, which was dying under the terrible onslaught of the aggressor. During air operations over Britain, the battles took place at altitudes of 5000-6000 m. This experience was carefully studied in the USSR.

But Stalin did not take into account the reason why the Germans bombed from high altitudes. Armed with small-caliber artillery, the British anti-aircraft units, warned by radar stations, inflicted significant damage on German aircraft. And at altitudes of 5000-6000 m, the effectiveness of anti-aircraft fire dropped sharply.

The armament of the MiGs will turn out to be weak - three machine guns, even if one of them is a reliable and powerful UB, will not be enough to deal with tenacious German bombers. But the main thing is that the MiGs, with their forward centering and rather complex controls, will become difficult for the hastily trained pilots of the Red Army. Well, as for masters like Pokryshkin. then they will shoot down on MiGs both Messerschmitts, and Junkers, and Henschels ... Let us recall that Pokryshkin's regiment, retreating from July to October 1941 from the very border, suffered fewer losses in people on MiGs than Yakov regiment in one or two months of fighting, even in 1942 and 1943.

The best at altitudes up to 3500 m, where Yakovlev certainly did not expect competition, was I-301 (LaGG-1). Although he had 116 defects, he was not only faster than the Yak, but also outstripped him in terms of the sum of flight performance. The armament on it was planned to be almost twice as powerful. But the test pilots (you can’t fool anyone) reacted to this durable and seemingly promising aircraft with distrust and, not without irony, called it the “piano”. The experimental apparatus was polished no worse than the Yak, and to reduce the combustibility of wood, it was impregnated with scarce resins. Its creators took care to make the car more tenacious. But the fears of test pilots will be justified: it will become tight with resins, with polishing too, and there were problems with observing discipline regarding the weight of aircraft at Soviet aircraft factories. This aircraft will receive an insulting nickname in combat units - "Lacquered Guaranteed Coffin ...". But here's what's weird. With practically the same losses in materiel in 1942-1943, regiments flying LaGGs suffered noticeably lower losses in flight personnel than regiments flying light and maneuverable Yaks. And as for the fact that it was a heavy and poorly controlled aircraft, it’s who studied how, especially since in 1940-1941, and especially in 1942, our fighter pilots learned exceptionally quickly, five to six times faster than the German ones. They were thrown into battle like ducklings into the water - whoever emerges will live! By the way, Alelyukhin on his LaGG-3 at an altitude of 50 m in front of the entire airfield "unscrewed" the entire complex of aerobatic figures, and later, during reconnaissance on the Stalingrad front, he was forced to fight with six Messerschmitts and was able to break away from the pursuit with a steep dive. The fight was brutal! It is likely that G. Barkhorn, German ace No. 3, recalls him in his memoirs. He remembers him as one of the few unsuccessful ones! So the heavy weight of the aircraft is not always a disadvantage. In all countries of the world, fighters were getting heavier all the time, but not with us ...

Well, after replacing its in-line engine with a radial and more powerful M-82, the LaGG-3 will become the best, at least the most productive Soviet single-engine fighter of large-scale construction - the famous La-5.

When the competition ended, a peculiar verdict was issued about the I-26: "The I-26-2 aircraft did not complete state tests due to the insufficient strength of the wing and the lack of knowledge of the entire structure." For Yak, the exam will be postponed. However, the decision on its mass production will still be made, and all 123 defects will be corrected in the series. The first to start building new fighters was the Moscow Aircraft Plant No. 115. By June 22, 1941, 425 Yak-1 fighters were produced by the aviation industry.

But back in 1940, prudent Yakovlev prepared a project for a training aircraft simultaneously with the Yak-1. Apparently, the designer did not doubt the success. But the UTI-26 double proved to be much more difficult to fly than the single-seat version and was unsuitable for pilot training. The payload in the design of the fighter aircraft was used to carry weapons. There were few weapons on the Yak: a ShVAK motor cannon converted from a heavy machine gun and two ShKAS, which turned out to be ineffective against German bombers. The fuel supply was small, and to reduce the weight, but in order to have enough for the co-pilot and equipment, it was not possible without harm to aerodynamics and performance characteristics.

Before proceeding to the description of the next modification, which gave birth to our Yak-9 fighter hero, let's make one last digression from the topic. After all, the Yaks, which suffered huge losses, were nevertheless built, manned and sent to the front, although in other countries they took care of the pilots, trying to make their cars as tenacious as possible. And if there were losses of one or two dozen aircraft, then they always tried to withdraw the backbone of masters from the battle. Let us try to understand the logic of the actions of our leader and his leadership.

Stalin, it seemed without hesitation, ordered the arrest of his military aviation generals. He did not plan to use their experience or tactical ideas in the upcoming campaign, since the Red Army Air Force, according to the leader's plan, had to finish off the enemy with one crushing blow. It was supposed to be a sudden attack on airfields. At first glance, it seems that Stalin misjudged the situation, but that was not the case. He was not a professional soldier, and from his office a bold strategic plan seemed easy to implement. Having a five-to-six-fold superiority in the total number of combat aircraft, but clearly lagging behind in production and especially development in parts of the newly developed new generation aircraft, Stalin was waiting for ... no, not a crushing counterattack from the Wehrmacht.

He was waiting for the German reserves, assigned to the Soviet-German border for regrouping, to complete it. The Fuhrer assured Stalin in his messages that this was done to avoid unnecessary losses from British air strikes, and that these reserves were about to move to the English Channel in order to start forcing the canal. It would be even better to wait until the Germans begin to land, fighting the mighty English fleet, losing their ships, aircraft and destroying the British. In this way, Hitler would have cleared the way for Stalin to world domination with his multimillion-strong, largest in Europe and the world, land army. This army was mobilized in peacetime.

Even the command of the military districts, by a secret decision of the Politburo, on February 19, 1941, was transformed into the command of the fronts and began to deploy. It was then that the terrible pincers of the elite divisions, concentrated on the flanks of the Soviet-German border, were supposed to destroy Germany, cutting off her much-needed Romanian oil on one flank, and swiftly dismembering and forcing surrender on the other.

Stalin trusted Hitler because he himself deceived him. Rather, he thought he was cheating. Therefore, Stalin did not believe either the numerous warnings of the British, or Sorge, or individual specialists from his own military intelligence. It seemed to him that all this was English disinformation. In the light of this war plan, all the seemingly strange measures and miscalculations for which the Soviet army, air force and navy paid with the colossal military catastrophe of 1941 become completely logical.

In order to be in time, Stalin accelerated the training of pilots to an unacceptable limit. And since the graduates were taking part in the program, he abolished the traditional officer ranks for them, as a result, clearly dropping the prestige of the elite profession. Most pilots, especially new ones, had no air combat experience (not even training). No one was developing tactics for using new high-speed monoplanes in battles for air superiority. It was believed that these fights simply should not have happened. The new planes were mainly sent to the air defense units. Why lose new modern vehicles in the first, most bloody battles? And they taught everyone carefully to destroy ground targets from airborne weapons. Therefore, there was no plan for the evacuation of airfields, no spare sites in the operational rear, no mobile repair aircraft workshops - there were not enough vehicles at all. No one had heard of radars, and the radio station was, at best, one per link, or even for the entire squadron. The target was found visually. The preparation was hasty, and for accidents severely punished. In peacetime, combat aircraft were not driven in vain. Scouts were ordered not to shoot down - not to succumb to provocations.

And the fact that scouts make maps of our airfields will become clear later.

With German aviation on the eve of the invasion, everything was completely different. The profession of a fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe was prestigious. The best pilots were selected for training.

Those who completed an internship as part of the Condor Legion, upon arrival at their homeland, were expected to be promoted, their combat experience was highly valued. The officers, who showed the ability to lead, and even more so to develop tactics, passed on their experience to young pilots, teaching them the technique and techniques of air combat in practice. The best of them, Werner Mölders, developed a new combat system. He painstakingly and carefully taught endurance and calmness in battle to those who had never seen an I-16 or a Spitfire in the sight. And most importantly, he taught strict observance of the rule: height-speed-maneuver-fire-maneuver-height! The formula is familiar, Pokryshkin's. Only he will invent it in three years, and before that, tens of thousands of pilots will lie under the wreckage of their aircraft in the vast expanses of Russia. During the air war over France, one German ace even managed to make a film about how to properly shoot down an enemy aircraft, and how wrong. And all for training, so that young German pilots could show the attack more clearly. The ace's name was Adolf Galland. He was one of the few junior pilot officers who rose to the rank of general. In Germany, earning the rank of general was not easy. For 100, 200 and even 300 victories in the air, only the rank of major was given. At the end of the war, when the German cities will die under the bombs of the allies, Galland will again change the corridors of the imperial office to the cockpit of a fighter. And then on another, already jet Me-262, Galland will shoot down again, but he will no longer be able to catch up with the number of victories of the lieutenants learned on his films.

Much has been written about what happened on June 22, 1941. But one more myth of the Soviet era, which has not been completely debunked, needs to be said. The assertion that Soviet aviation was destroyed in the first days of the war and mainly on the ground is a distortion of the truth, although many publications are full of photographs of airfields clogged with destroyed aircraft, which supposedly confirms the unprecedented success of this strike.

Although many aircraft were lost in the early days of the war, the Luftwaffe also suffered significant losses. ****

The main losses of the Soviet aviation suffered later. Firstly, because it did not have operational reserve airfields, and when it had to be relocated, there was no necessary vehicle to evacuate the airfield facilities. Often there was no timely order to evacuate, because. The army of 1941 had almost no radios. And those regiments and squadrons that managed to find reserve airfields and land (sometimes up to five regiments on one site) found themselves without fuel and ammunition, representing an excellent target. At these airfields, there was often not only small-caliber, but also no anti-aircraft artillery at all. Fighters and even long-range bombers were used in the role of attack aircraft with the aim of delaying the offensive at any cost.

In the hot and terrible sky of 1941, darkened by the smoke and soot of burning planes, those few who knew how to fight quickly found themselves in the minority, and the number of opponents doubled, or even tripled, because. ground guidance stations of the Luftwaffe quickly called for help, because in every Messerschmitt a reliable radio was working properly and clearly. And the words flew into the ether overflowing with business German speech: “I’m dying, but I don’t give up!”. And more and more often, burning or wrecked Soviet planes tried to ram their opponents, sometimes they succeeded ... Official propaganda supported rams, supposedly as the highest manifestation of heroism and patriotism. But, alas, a sober calculation was visible. After all, if every Soviet pilot rammed one "German", then the Luftwaffe would be left without a single combat vehicle.

Only in the Kiev Special Military District, there were about three thousand military aircraft. Well, those who were shot down behind the front line were supposed to put a bullet in their foreheads with their own hands.

By the winter of 1941, the sixfold numerical superiority of Soviet aviation will be reduced by the Germans to equality (the only time in the entire war!). But the Luftwaffe is no longer strong enough to destroy Moscow from the air. Attempts at massive strikes without fighter cover will prove ineffective, especially since one of the strongest air defense districts - Moscow - will be reinforced with everything that is left at the disposal of the Headquarters. Here, the Yaks will show the weakness of their weapons and insufficient survivability. Damaged by fire from the defensive weapons of German bombers (mostly rifle caliber) and having a one-piece wing, aircraft will very often go out of action forever.

Nevertheless, the decision to expand the production of Yak fighters in 1941-1942 will have good reasons. This device could be mastered by the flight crew faster than others and had a noticeable speed advantage over the I-16. And what burned faster, often pierced right through by bullets of 7.9 mm caliber, then two more long years of war would pass before realizing the value of the life of every professional pilot.


* When Hitler's first deputy for the party, Rudolf Hess, flew to England in a fighter jet stolen from the Messerschmitt factory, the Fuhrer did not arrest his family. The widow of the head of the conspirators, von Stauffenberg, who planted a bomb under Hitler's table, was not arrested, although the Fuhrer was wounded and shell-shocked during the explosion, and the conspirators were shot.

** Stalin left only one professional military man in the USSR General Staff. Before the revolution, only Shaposhnikov was a colonel, the rest of the Soviet marshals commanded only a company under the tsar!

*** Let's consider serial production (on the scale of war times) of at least 500 copies of a machine of one modification.

**** According to German sources from June 22 to July 19, 1941, the Luftwaffe lost 1284 aircraft of all types.


  • "Yak-9: Ordinary Skies." /Dmitry Leipnik/