The Osoaviakhim-1 Disaster

Mar 13, 2024 0 comments

Between 1930 and 1932, Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard made more than two dozen trips to the upper atmosphere using a balloon of his design. These flights to the stratosphere ignited a renewed interest in ballooning, which had been overshadowed by the emergence of a newer form of exploration—airplanes. Piccard’s accomplishment garnered international attention, prompting both the United States and the Soviet Union to prepare their own balloons and crews for similar high-altitude ventures.

The Soviet Air Force mobilized various experts from diverse fields, including designers, rubber technologists, and professors from the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, as well as personnel from the Air Forces Institute and the Zhukovsky Airforce Academy. The consolidation of practically all available expertise and military project management eventually resulted in a robust and safe design—the USSR-1. Similar projects were also afoot elsewhere.

Osoaviakhim-1 by Russian painter Georgy Bibikov.

Andrey Vasenko, an engineer from the Institute of Aerial Photography in Leningrad, was leading a team of designers and engineers for another balloon program sponsored by Osoaviakhim, the Soviet paramilitary training organization. The national Meteorology Committee was preparing a third balloon. However, progress of these civilian projects was hindered by lack of funding, allowing the military stratospheric program to gain a significant lead over time. Eventually, the Meteorology Committee dropped out of the race, leaving only the Osoaviakhim’s and the Air Forces’ program.

On September 30, 1933, the USSR-1 lifted off and the crew attained an altitude of 60,698 feet. Although this altitude record wasn't officially recognized by the FAI, it gained widespread publicity when Joseph Stalin credited the success of the flight to the Proletarian Revolution and the Communist Party. The Osoaviakhim-1 was supposed to follow next with a launch in late 1933, but the date slipped into January 1934. As this coincided with the 17th Congress of the Communist Party, the launch became the focus of communist propaganda.

Osoaviakhim-1 measured 24,940 cubic meters in volume and weighed 2,460 kilograms fully loaded. The maximum altitude was initially set at 20,000 meters but on the day of launch, January 30, 1934, Osoaviakhim-1 was fitted with 180 kilograms of additional ballast so that it could reach even greater altitude. The goal was to beat the record set by the Americans two months previously with their “Century of Progress” balloon which reached 61,237 feet (18,665 meters).

Osoaviakhim-1 was designed differently than the USSR-1, and while the latter was based on a sound and safe blueprint, the former suffered from numerous glaring defects. For instance, the crew's supposed contingency plan involved bailing out using personal parachutes in case of emergency. However, the airtight hatch intended for their exit was secured with twelve wing nuts, making opening it, even under stable conditions, a cumbersome and time-consuming task. Additionally, the absence of pressure suits and individual breathing apparatus rendered bailing out at high altitudes impractical.

The gondola itself was constructed by welding thin sheet metal without the reinforcement of a structural frame. Alongside the crew, instruments, and life support systems, it carried a ton of lead ballast within its airtight confines. Although the ballast release chute was adequately sealed, the discharge rate was laughably sluggish—releasing a ton of ballast required a full hour. In the event of an emergency, the crew would be unable to expel ballast swiftly to decelerate descent.

Moreover, the absence of a quick-release mechanism meant that the delicate gondola structure remained tethered to the suspending cables without a means of rapid disconnection. Consequently, any tension from the cables would immediately be transferred to the gondola's thin shell, exacerbating the precariousness of its design.

Osoaviakhim-1 was manned by a three-member crew led by commander Pavel Fedoseenko, a veteran balloonist who had over one hundred flights under his belt on tethered observation balloons in World War I and the Russian Civil War. In 1925 Fedoseenko and Alexander Friedmann set a national altitude record of 7,400 m (24,300 feet), and in 1927 Fedoseenko set a national solo endurance record of nearly 24 hours on a balloon.

Andrey Vasenko himself was on the flight in the capacity of flight engineer. The third crew member was instrument operator Ilya Usyskin who designed many portable, lightweight scientific instruments for stratospheric balloons, and was thus a natural choice for the Osoaviakhim-1 crew.

Osoaviakhim-1 prepares to ascend.

Osoaviakhim-1 lifted off on the morning of January 30 from the Air Forces airfield in Kuntsevo. A little after an hour of ascent, the craft reached 17,700 meters at which the envelope of the balloon expanded into a nearly perfect sphere, and at 19,500 meters it became taught, unable to expand any further. At this critical juncture, the crew should have initiated the descent, returning safely to Earth. However, Fedoseenko, insisted on pushing upward. He dumped 310 kilograms of ballast, and the balloon, relieved of weight, shot up by another 1,000 meters. Now hovering at 20,500 meters, the crew reached a moment later marked as the point of no return. At 20,500 meters Osoaviakhim-1 carried just enough ballast to stabilize descent speed. Further ascent and inevitable loss of hydrogen made this ballast insufficient. Their only hope lay in bailing out using personal parachutes, provided they could open the awkward hatch. After nearly an hour at 20,600 meters, Osoaviakhim-1 climbed again, reaching 22,000 meters.

The air in the stratosphere is a thousand times thinner than it is at sea level. But it is rich in ozone, a greenhouse gas, that absorbs energy from ultraviolet radiation from the sun and heats up. As a result, temperature in the stratosphere rises as one moves upward. This is exactly the opposite of the behavior in the troposphere, the lower atmosphere, where temperatures drop with increasing altitude. The crew of Osoaviakhim-1 would have been familiar with the unique atmospheric conditions of the stratosphere. However, what they may not have anticipated was the rapid heating of the hydrogen gas inside their balloon. The heated gas expanded beyond the balloon's geometric capacity, causing excess gas to leak out through the safety valves.

After spending 12 minutes at the highest altitude, the crew opened the gas release valve to initiate descent. However, the heated gas, buoyed by its thermal expansion, defied gravity's pull, prolonging the descent to over two hours before reaching 18,000 meters. As the balloon cooled down on its descent, the remaining gas contracted with a catastrophic loss of buoyancy. By the time they descended to 13,000 meters, a significant amount of gas had been released, leaving the lifting force of the remaining hydrogen drastically reduced to 1300–1400 kilograms, while the balloon's weight exceeded 2,000 kilograms. At 12,000 meters, vertical acceleration went out of control and the balloon began to disintegrate. At about 2,000 meters the suspension cables snapped and the gondola crashed near Potizh-Ostrov village about 470 kilometers east from the launch site. All three occupants were killed by the high speed impact.

The crashed gondola of Osoaviakhim-1

Stalin turned the disaster into a propaganda campaign. The three victims were posthumously awarded the Order of Lenin and their ashes buried with state honors in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. Across the country, streets and squares were named in their honor and postage stamps were issued. While the government had been ready to take all credit for a successful flight, the official report released to the public blamed the disaster on the crew for recklessness in striving to set a new record.

After the crash of Osoaviakhim-1, Defence Commissar Kliment Voroshilov demanded that all stratospheric projects should be conducted by the Air Force alone. He also demanded an overhaul of safety procedures and features for all future balloon flights. Balloons of the late 1930s were fitted new suspension with a quick-release latch that enabled instant separation of the gondola from the envelope, and larger parachutes capable of stabilizing the fall at safe speeds. The crash also provided motivation to develop pressure suits for high-altitude flight. The first operational suits were designed by Evgeniy Chertovsky, co-designer of Osoaviakhim-1.

Postage stamp issued in 1934 featuring the three deceased pilots.

Despite the improvements, disasters and failures continued to plague the Soviet balloon program. In September 5, 1934, USSR-2 burnt down at the launch site when a static spark ignited the hydrogen. In June 26, 1935, USSR-1 Bis reached 16,000 meters and nearly ended in disaster when its envelope ripped open, releasing gas. Two of the crew members bailed out, but the third managed to land the crippled balloon safely. In September 18, 1937, USSR-3 was launched but at 700–800 meters altitude it began losing hydrogen and fell back near the launch site. In October 12, 1939 a static discharge at 9,000 meters ignited the hydrogen in SP-2 Komsomol. But the crew managed to escape by bailing out. In June 22, 1940, the last Soviet manned stratostat, Osoaviakhim-2, was launched. Immediately after launch, the gondola separated from the balloon and fell onto the airfield; the crew survived with minor injuries. After this failure, the military shut down the stratospheric program.


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