Central Air Force Museum – The Open Secret Museum
The Central Air Force Museum of Moscow is one of Russia’s largest aircraft museums and its origins date back to the Second World War era when the site was used as the Monino airfield for the Soviet Air Force.
Today, it boasts one of the largest collections of Soviet-made aircraft and also includes displays of American Cold War-era equipment. Unlike other museums, particularly aviation museums in the West, the Central Air Force Museum had somewhat of a fascinating and secretive nature to outsiders. Its close proximity to the Gagarin Air Force Academy and display of experimental aircraft designs meant that access was often restricted to foreign and outside visitors before the end of the Cold War.
Despite this, the museum continued to grow its collection and is now one of the largest aviation museums in the world. Today, the museum has expanded considerably since its founding and is home to some of the most unique aircraft designs created during the Soviet period.
The site of the museum stands near the village of Monino which had been chosen in 1940 to become the site of the Monino airbase for the Soviet air force.
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The base itself became known as the Air Force Academy in 1946 and was used as a military finishing school to train elite Soviet pilots and officers. However, its use was somewhat limited compared to other air force bases in the area and it was slowly decommissioned.
The surrounding air force installations were later renamed the Gagarin Air Force Academy in 1968. Much of the original Monino airfield structure and buildings were closed down by 1956 while the Gagarin Air Force Academy’s presence grew around it and eventually superseded it with its bigger facilities.
The Monino runway itself continued to be used for some technical research and contained a ramp for large transport aircraft, but its operations were mostly wound down and the site became unused. However, its disuse opened up the possibility for the site to be used for a different purpose and two years after its closure the decision was made to use the area to build a new museum to showcase both historical and new research.
The next two years were spent converting the airfield space into what would become the Central Air Force Museum.
The Museum first opened its doors in 1958 but its first days were modest: it had six aircraft on display, mostly Second World War-era planes, and twenty detached aircraft guns.
However, the inventory continued to grow and expand with successive closures and re-openings. In 1960 it was opened to permit some members of the public inside and now had fourteen aircraft on display. A year later, the museum’s collection had now expanded to around 40 aircraft.
However, the Central Air Force Museum was not like a regular air force museum open to all members of the public. During the Cold War period, it was mostly off-limits to foreign visitors, in part due to its close proximity to the Gagarin Air Force Academy. Internally its collection grew to accommodate up to 170 aircraft from both the Second World War and contemporary eras.
The somewhat secretive nature of the museum was also due to the fact some of the aircraft on display were Cold War-era prototypes and experimental aircraft.
During the period of the museum’s growth, it came to contain aircraft that had been built by the Soviets to keep up with the United States in both military and commercial aviation. Some of these designs were lifted from or mimicked from Western aircraft but still went through a secretive or clandestine development process.
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In the commercial area, one of the most notable displays is of the supersonic passenger jet the Tupolev Tu-144 also nicknamed “Concordski” due to its resemblance to the British and French-made Concorde supersonic jet airliner. The Tu-144 completed its maiden flight and saw service before Concorde, but was involved in a series of accidents, including one hull loss and turned out to be not as commercially successful.
Another civilian aircraft on display was the Ilyushin Il-62 which bore a strong resemblance to the British-built Vickers VC10.
In terms of military aircraft, the museum also put on display the advanced MiG 29 which shared similarities with the American F15 fighter.
As the museum grew and evolved over time, the displays became more organised into hangers and placed in chronological order in 1990. The first enclosed hanger was dedicated to aircraft of the Second World War, with aircraft ranging from the Polikarpov I-16, the Ilyushin Il-2 and its successor the Il-10 which saw extensive action on the Eastern front during the war.
The remainder of the aircraft displays has mostly been left outside.
Also publicly displayed is the Tupolev Tu-4 which was reverse-engineered from the Boeing B-29 which sits on display alongside other Tupolev examples. One of the most striking according to Western visitors is the Tu-22M supersonic bomber which featured the swing-wing configuration.
The museum’s somewhat secretive atmosphere during the Cold War was in part due to the presence of prototype and experimental aircraft that are now displayed for the public to see. One documented example in the museum is the Myasishchev M-50 supersonic bomber prototype.
This was an unusual design with four jet engines placed on top of a delta wing design, and although advanced, it never developed into the production and active service stage. However, it did become a source of concern in the United States when intelligence reports and media speculation believed it to be a nuclear-powered aircraft. The speculation was ultimately not true, and the Soviets shelved the design as it was not capable of successfully carrying a nuclear bomb and ICMBs rendered many longer-range bomber designs obsolete.
Despite this, aircraft like the M-50 gave the museum its secretive nature and inspired interest from outsider visitors.
Next to the M-50 was displayed the Sukhoi T-4 prototype. This had been developed as a high-speed, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and was known for its distinctive nose droop feature. The T-4 was conceived in the early 1960s before completing its maiden flight in 1972. The project was ultimately shelved in 1974 and the unique-looking prototype was donated to the museum.
More modern examples of aircraft have since been added to the collection, such as the Sukhoi Su-24 fighter and strike aircraft.
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Helicopters have also come to feature in the museum’s open-air displays. Perhaps the most notable example is the experimental Mil V-12 helicopter which featured two separate rotor blades mounted on small wings and its total size and length was bigger than that of a Boeing 737.
The Mil V-12 on display is notably painted in Aeroflot colours, perhaps indicating it was intended for civilian as well as military use.
Also visible in the museum is an example of the Yakovlev Yak-24 helicopter. This was developed in the 1950s as Russia’s first tandem-rotor helicopter. The exact length of its service is not widely known, due to a lack of conclusive data or evidence, but an intact example was given to the museum where aviation historians have at least been able to look at it up close.
One of the most unusual and distinct displays is the Bartini Beriev VVA-14. This was designed as a Ground Effect Vehicle that would use the ground effect principle to fly just above the surface of the ground, often water. Two prototypes were built before the project came to an end in 1987. Unfortunately, the VVA-14 on display is in a dilapidated state.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the museum underwent a number of changes and moved away from its previous image of having a shroud of secrecy.
In 1999, the museum began to open its doors to all visitors both domestically and from abroad without the need for a special pass, although visitors will still have to pass through the security gate surrounding the working Gagarin Air Force Academy. According to Western visitors, most of the displays are still signposted in Russian only.
The museum was also passed from state to private ownership in 2001 and expanded further.
In 2005, the Central Air Force Museum suffered a major setback when a fire tore through the original main hall of the building, sadly destroying many of the displays which included cases containing medals, uniforms, personal documents and letters written by Soviet pilots.
The museum chose to rebuild the hall, despite losing many of the displays, and continued to expand by constructing a new hall to display the Second World War era planes in 2013.
Despite being one of the world’s largest aviation museums, stories surfaced between 2016 and 2017 that the Central Air Force Museum would close and the aircraft on display would be moved elsewhere.
The stories coincided with the development of the new Patriot Park museum which houses multiple examples of Russian and Soviet-made military hardware for public display. Speculation arose that the Central Air Force Museum’s aircraft would be transferred to Patriot Park.
However, doubt was cast on the safety and effectiveness of moving many of the aircraft to a new location due to the size and the fact that many of the museum’s planes were in a delicate state as a result of being exposed to the elements outside.
The Russian Ministry of Culture reportedly vetoed moving the aircraft and the plans were stopped.
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In February 2020, the museum expanded further with the opening of a new exhibit hall and visitors have reported that everything seems to be in working order.
Its proximity to a working air force base allows visitors to also see Russian air force aircraft fly overhead.
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