Before he gained fame in America as an airplane designer and air power advocate, Alexander de Seversky made a name for himself as Russia’s leading World War I naval ace.
Alexander P. de Seversky is best remembered today for building the P-35 fighter, and for his books and many articles on air power. An aviation visionary and a technical innovator, he would eventually hold 100 U.S. patents—and also serve as a longtime adviser to America’s military, beginning soon after the conclusion of World War I.
How did a Russian-born designer gain entree with the U.S. Army Air Service in 1918? Seversky had achieved a legendary reputation by the end of the Great War. Despite having lost a leg in his very first combat mission, at 23 he was an Imperial Russian Navy ace and a squadron commander in the Baltic theater.
Seversky had literally grown up with airplanes. His father, Nicholas, was a leader— along with Igor I. Sikorsky—of the Imperial All-Russian Aero Club, which sponsored Russia’s first airshow. Alexander reportedly learned to fly from his father when he was in his teens. After graduating from the Russian Naval Academy in 1914, just in time for the start of WWI, he opted to become a naval aviator. Nicholas had joined the army as a pilot, resulting in a rare father-son combination of combat airmen—like none other in the war except for Italy’s d’Annunzio family.
Once the younger Seversky finished his training, he was assigned to the Baltic Sea region. When he arrived at the Imperial Russian Navy air station at Revel early in July 1915, he was one of only a handful of qualified pilots available to the Baltic Fleet. Seversky spent his first few days at Revel becoming acquainted with his new mount, a Franco-British Aviation Company FBA flying boat, license-built in Russia by Vladimir A. Lebedev’s Petersburg Aviation Company. The wooden-hull biplane had a shorter-span lower wing that mounted a balancing float at each tip. Carrying a crew of two and payload of small bombs, the FBA—powered by a 130-hp Clerget rotary engine swinging a backward-facing propeller— could barely push through the air faster than a mile per minute.
Seversky’s flights at Revel earned him his military pilot rating, after which the naval air arm transferred him to the 2nd Bombing-Reconnaissance Squadron, headquartered at Kilkond Naval Air Station on Ösel Island. With three smaller islands, Ösel served as a gateway to the Gulf of Riga. The islands represented the last line of defense to protect Riga, among the empire’s most important cities, against attack from the sea. Squadron Leader Vladimir Litvinov assigned the freshly minted naval aviator to his billet, showed him his FBA and introduced him to his mechanic-observer, Quartermaster Anatoly Blinov.
The pilot and mechanic-observer sat in tandem in the noisy open cockpit in front of the engine. In addition to maintaining the aircraft, Blinov was responsible for arming it. Before each mission he installed four bombs on racks located on either side of the cockpit, after first removing the detonation cap guards. The bombs were positioned upright, with the business end of each one on top, to prevent an enemy bullet from striking the exposed detonator.
The FBA had a maximum range of approximately 180 miles and a practical combat range of 80 miles. Kilkond was about 175 miles from Memel, the closest German city. Despite the distances, Seversky’s squadron bombed and reconnoitered German forces on a regular basis, one of many indicators that the war had gone horribly wrong for Russia by the summer of 1915.
Lieutenant Seversky arrived at Kilkond as the Germans had nearly completed their conquest of Courland (modern-day Latvia). German ships and aircraft were probing Russian defenses near the Irben Straits. Russian navy forces at Zerel and Kilkond had been on nearly continuous alert, reconnoitering and bombing targets of opportunity.
Litvinov came to the officer’s club on the evening of July 15 to brief his pilots about a new target: a couple of German gunboats that had been spotted in a nearby cove. Since all Russian destroyers but one were then in the Irben Straits or off the coast of Courland, he asked for a volunteer to join him in bombing the boats. The Russians realized that their small bombs, which weighed only about 20 pounds apiece, could do minimal damage, but they hoped an unexpected attack would encourage the gunboats to leave the area. “I was a tough-muscled youngster with a daredevil streak,” Seversky later recalled of that evening, “…[and] jumped to my feet faster than anyone else.” Litvinov had his volunteer, and Seversky had his first combat mission.
The two FBAs took off from Kilkond Bay that same evening. Despite the late hour, it was the season of white nights, which meant there was still a glimmer of light that gave the crews some visibility. Once they were airborne, however, flying proved as challenging as seeing. Winds and cloudy conditions soon forced the flying boats apart. In the dim light Seversky failed to see Litvinov’s frantic hand signals, indicating that he was heading back to Kilkond. As a result, Seversky and Blinov continued on, approaching the target alone.
Well before the Russians got close enough to drop any bombs, the German sailors heard the clatter of the approaching FBA’s Clerget engine. The Russians managed to release all but one of their bombs, while the Germans peppered the sky with anti-aircraft and small-arms fire. A bright flash from the deck of a gunboat marked at least one successful strike. But the fliers knew that any hope of a massive, ship-sinking explosion was unlikely, dependent as it was on one of their small bombs striking mines or other ordnance stored on the ship’s deck.
Bullets notched and splintered the FBA’s wooden hull, and when a shell fragment from a larger gun tore a hole in one of its control surfaces, Seversky broke off his attack and headed back toward base, counting himself lucky that the plane was still flyable. But the FBA soon proved hard to handle, and the Russians were losing altitude with each passing kilometer. They were just above the water as they entered Kilkond Bay, within sight of the naval base. As they splashed down with a jolt, Seversky caught sight of Blinov desperately trying to replace the detonation cap guard on the last bomb. Suddenly it exploded, killing Blinov, pulverizing the plane’s starboard side and hurling Seversky into the water. He sank briefly, but the cold water quickly revived him. He struggled to the surface, coughing and gasping for air, then managed to reach the plane’s portside lower wing, which he clung to while he awaited rescue. Fortunately for him, the crew of a patrolling Russian destroyer had seen the flash from the explosion, and quickly arrived on the scene.
Seversky remained conscious, though in agony. Nearly 30 years later he recalled that when he reached down to feel his lower right leg, he “found warm and mushy nothingness.” Through excruciating pain, images flashed through his mind of his earlier life, when he had fenced, skated, skied, flew, played soccer and danced in St. Petersburg/Petrograd: “And above it all, pounding through every aching nerve, was the incredible, the impossible thought that I was crippled forever and ever; that I could never fly again; that even if I were saved, life was ended now that my physique was broken.”
The destroyer rushed him back to the new base clinic. Seversky later learned that he was the clinic’s first combat casualty. Given his dazed condition, the doctors chose not to anesthetize him. Instead they injected him with morphine, then made him sit on the operating table and sip brandy as he watched a surgeon amputate his lower leg.
Later another warship transferred Seversky to a hospital at the main destroyer base at Revel, where his father visited him. Nicholas was then serving as a pilot with the Squadron of Flying Ships, or EVK, which flew Igor Sikorsky’s four-engine Il’ya Muromets reconnaissance bomber. Together father and son rejected the doctors’ recommendations that Alexander have further surgery to amputate his leg at the hip. Young Seversky, who had briefly contemplated suicide just after his accident, was now determined to preserve every remaining centimeter of flesh and bone. He reasoned that more leg meant a better chance he could fly again. Anything less than that, in his opinion, would be death regardless.
He was soon transferred to a hospital at Kronstadt, completing his recuperation at a luxurious clinic. As he gained strength, Seversky became obsessed with returning to a combat squadron. But everyone around him, from doctors to commanding officers, assumed he would never fly again—and made it clear that it was a closed issue.
In March 1916, after Seversky had fully recovered but before he had been fitted with a prosthesis, the Imperial Navy named him the chief naval aircraft inspector for the Petrograd District. The title was a bit more glorious than the actual job. Seversky examined aircraft and reviewed flight tests of planes destined for war service. Considering the number of aircraft factories in the capital, the assignment might have been overwhelming—except that the navy’s immediate, though not exclusive, concern was flying boats. Early on, the aircraft had been built by Vladimir Lebedev’s factory, but increasingly the Imperial Navy turned to the Shchetinin Aircraft Company, Russia’s first airplane manufacturer, which built the “M” (for morskoi, or naval) series of flying boats conceived by Dimitry Pavlovich Grigorovich.
Seversky worked with Grigorovich on what turned out to be the first Russian-designed naval aircraft to go into major production during the war, the M-9. The young pilot’s brief combat experience led him to encourage the designer to include a forward rotating machine gun and some metal protection for the crew. Grigorovich incorporated thicker planking and extra frames for the hull to provide a sturdy flying boat, impervious to small-arms fire and strong enough to carry heavier bombs or weapons. The M-9 would eventually be tested with a 20mm Oerlikon and even a 37mm Puteaux cannon.
As Seversky worked with Grigorovich and other designers, he gained an appreciation for how a design is translated from the drawing board to finished product. He would later put those lessons to good use when he produced aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Corps. By his own admission, Seversky had originally viewed flying as sport. Now his time in factories gave him insight into the problems of aerodynamics and, in the case of flying boats, hydrodynamics.
Seversky was soon fitted with a wooden prosthesis from the knee down. At first he was afraid that he would “never be able to manage” his new leg. He later admitted, “I seemed to be dragging a thousand tons through life; it was hopelessly painful.” But over time his artificial limb became an accepted extension to his body. The muscles around his lower abdomen, pelvis, hips and thighs adjusted to his new gait, and he shifted from dragging the prosthesis to using it. Meanwhile his job took him to air stations and aerodromes where sympathetic pilots allowed him to fly as an observer. And on the pretext of ground testing aircraft, he spent hours in the cockpit. In reality he was also exploring his own ability to manipulate the floor-located rudder bar.
In May 1916, Seversky and a team of mechanics and pilots traveled by train to Sevastopol with several dismantled M-9s that were slated to make demonstration flights for the military brass of the Baltic and Black Sea fleets. Once there, Seversky supervised the reassembly process. Describing the demo, he recalled, “On the morning of the big show, one of the airplanes gave the damnedest exhibition of stunting that the gold-braided dignitaries down below had ever seen.” The M-9 climbed, dived, rolled, looped and performed a chandelle. The thrilling display was capped by absolute shock when the observers discovered its pilot was actually the one-legged Seversky. Captain M. Shcherbachov, his superior, was furious and vowed to punish him. But many of the high-ranking officers were more amazed than annoyed, and some were downright pleased by his skill and spirit.
Rear Admiral Adrian I. Nepenin, then in command of naval aviation for the Baltic Fleet, sent a report of the incident to General Headquarters, or Stavka. Focusing on Seversky’s courage and talent, he raised the question of whether the one-legged pilot should be allowed to return to combat flight duty. The admiral’s report eventually ended up in the hands of Tsar Nicholas II. The Autocrat of all the Russias returned the report with a simple handwritten note: “Read. Admire. Let Fly. Nikolai.”
Not only did Seversky not have to face a court-martial, he was seen as something of a folk hero by the time he returned to the Baltic. He participated in the Imperial Navy’s first experiment to fly the M-9 directly from the Petrograd factory to Revel. Powered by a Salmson liquid-cooled radial engine, Seversky’s M-9 took 3½ hours to cover the 225 miles. The ferrying process saved enormous amounts of time and labor. (Previously the aircraft had to be disassembled in Petro grad, trucked to trains that carried them to Revel, trucked to the naval air station and reassembled before being distributed to naval outposts.)
Seversky ferried a second M-9 from Petrograd to Revel before mid-July 1916, when he received orders to rejoin the 2nd Bombing Reconnaissance Squadron at Zerel on Ösel Island. The naval air station was located at the tip of Sworbe Peninsula. The squadron had recently developed an auxiliary base on tiny Runo Island, about 45 miles east-southeast of Zerel, near the middle of the Gulf of Riga, which was perfectly situated to launch flying boats searching for German submarines that slipped into the gulf.
During one of Seversky’s first reconnaissance flights from Runo, he shot down a German Albatros C.Ia that had been converted from a landplane to a seaplane. The Russians rightly regarded the improvised Albatros floatplane, which they dubbed the Zhuk (Beetle), as a bastardized contraption. Its appearance over the Gulf of Riga confirmed the nearby presence of a fully equipped seaplane base, but where? While German infantry occupied the gulf’s western shore, the gulf itself technically remained in Russian control. Finally an M-9 crew spotted a C.Ia taking off from Lake Angern, which parallels the western shore of the gulf for 10 miles.
On August 12, 1916, three M-9s headed from Runo to the Lake Angern base. Selected for duty on that raid were Lieutenants Didericks, Steklov and Seversky, each of whom was accompanied by a mechanic-observer who manned the single machine gun mounted on a rotating arm on the right side of the cockpit. Similar to the FBA, the M-9 also carried several bombs on either side of the hull.
The M-9s’ noisy Salmson engines gave the Germans some advance warning of their approach, but the Russians ignored the groundfire that erupted as they reached the target. By the time they completed their first pass over the base, all the M-9s had been hit at least once. The Germans, however, definitely got the worst of it. As Seversky later boasted, “The naval air base looked as if a cyclone had struck it.”
Steklov soon broke away from the other two M-9s, steam pouring from a holed radiator. Fortunately for him, his M-9 was equipped with two elongated radiators, one on each side of its liquid-cooled engine. The second radiator bought him a few minutes before the overheated engine seized, and Steklov used that time to gain altitude and return to the gulf. He managed to glide far enough from the German-controlled shoreline to be recovered by a Russian gunboat.
Meanwhile Seversky and Didericks were circling back to the lake— and several German seaplanes had taken off to confront the raiders. In all, seven Beetles came after the M-9s, the start of a battle that lasted an hour and 45 minutes. The Russians could aim at targets to the sides and front of the M-9, while the observers in the Beetles’ rear cockpits could target objects to the sides and rear of the Albatros. Seriously outgunned and flying slightly slower aircraft, the Russians did what they could to keep the Germans behind them. Seversky and Didericks weaved in and out together, with tight crossovers that created an imaginary chain. The pair’s evasive maneuvers were aided by the Germans’ failure to coordinate their attack. Seversky’s M-9 took 30 hits in the running gun battle, but it continued to function and its hull and armor protected its crew.
The wooden veneer that covered the Beetle’s fuselage left its crew far more vulnerable, resulting in the loss of two German planes as the battle ground on. Meanwhile the Russians were slowly moving the duel away from the German base into the gulf, toward Runo. But when Didericks’ gun jammed, an Albatros moved forward to finish off the defenseless M-9. Seeing his comrade’s predicament, Seversky put his aircraft on a collision course with the charging Beetle. His observer targeted its crew with deadly machine gun fire at close range, sending the aircraft nose-down into the gulf. That move, along with the sudden appearance of several M-9s from Runo—“the most beautiful sight I have ever seen,” said Seversky—sent the rest of the Beetles back to Lake Angern.
In October 1918, when American journalist Chloe Arnold interviewed Seversky for The (New York) Sun, the Russian aviator recalled what had happened when his father heard about the air battle: “My father was in a restaurant when the newspaper telling of our fight was brought in. He said to his friends when he learned that Didericks and I had been engaged by seven Germans: ‘Read it, I can’t; I know my son is killed.’ They told him that I hadn’t been killed, and he snatched the paper from them and read it aloud himself.”
Millions of Russians celebrated the one-legged pilot’s success. He was promoted to senior lieutenant, and the tsar personally awarded him the Gold Sword and Knighthood of Saint George. By war’s end Seversky would claim 13 kills (six confirmed) in the course of 57 missions. Within 13 months of the famous Gulf of Riga fight, the 23-yearold would hold the rank of lieutenant commander and be named chief of pursuit aviation for the Baltic.
During the early phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the provisional government appointed Seversky to the military mission of the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. By the time he settled into his new assignment in the U.S. in 1918, however, the Bolsheviks controlled Soviet Russia. As a nobleman’s son, Seversky discovered he was persona non grata in the country of his birth. Thus the U.S. became his home—and the beneficiary of his wide-ranging genius during the interwar years.
Seversky would serve as an able assistant to air power advocate Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, writing books and many articles promoting the use of America’s air forces. Arguably his most famous creation was the P-35, innovative in the mid- 1930s but soon overtaken by the rapid advances in fighter design. In 1939 Seversky was voted off the board of his own firm, which was reorganized as the Republic Aviation Company. There his P-35 concept evolved, under the direction of another expatriate Russian, Alexander Kartveli, into the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt.
In 1969 Seversky received the Exceptional Service Medal for his work as special consultant to the U.S. Air Force Chiefs of Staff. Besides designing aircraft, he had also developed and patented new aviation technology, including in-flight refueling equipment and gyroscopically stabilized bombsights. Alexander Seversky remained active in aviation until his death in 1974.
James K. Libbey is a professor emeritus at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He is currently working on a biography of Seversky. Further reading: Victory Through Air Power, by Alexander P. de Seversky; and The Imperial Russian Air Service, by Alan Durkota, et al.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.