Polikarpov G-61 Paratrooper Carrier

Have you ever flown on a plane and thought that you had short legroom, uncomfortable seats, or that the food was a little bland? If so, then thank your lucky stars that you did not have to fly on the G-61 – an aircraft that carried its passengers in little boxes under the wings.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, this was in the 1930s, in a biplane, over the Soviet Union. At least if things go wrong, you’re already in a coffin!



The development of G-61 dates back to 1931, when the Soviets were investigating ways of moving men and material across the battlefield. The first attempt came with a glider, which housed its passengers inside compartments buried in the leading edge of the wings. It was thought that the glider could be sent directly to where it was needed, and the troops would offload after arriving.

Following this came the G-61. The G-61 sought to improve on the glider by eliminating the need for a tug. It was fitted with pods slung under the wings, which could contain up to 14 soldiers lying prone inside.

G-61 loaded with passengers.
Passengers loaded into the compartments of the G-61.

The G-61 was based on the Polikarpov R-5, which was designed by the renowned Soviet aircraft designer Nikolai Polikarpov in the late 1920s. This period in Soviet Russia was characterized by a strong push towards modernization and industrialization, with aviation seen as a key area for development. The R-5 was intended to replace older models like the Polikarpov R-1, a re-imagined copy of the British Airco DH.9A, and to offer improvements in range, payload, and versatility.

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Like the R-1, the R-5 was designed as a reconnaissance aircraft and light bomber, so it needed good range, stable handling, and capable of carrying a payload of bombs.

The first prototype of the R-5 flew in 1928, demonstrating promising capabilities that led to its quick acceptance and mass production starting in 1930. Polikarpov’s design focused on creating a robust aircraft that could handle the vast and often harsh geographical conditions of the Soviet Union. The aircraft was made primarily from wood with fabric covering, a common practice at the time that provided a good balance of strength, weight, and cost.

Polikarpov R-5 in flight.
The Polikarpov R-5 was a single-engine biplane from the USSR.

During its development, several variations of the R-5 were conceived to enhance its utility in different roles. These included adaptations for use as an air ambulance, a floatplane, and even a version equipped with skis for winter operations.

It entered service in 1931 and remained in use until 1944 when it was retired after seeing much of the Second World War.

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By the time production ceased in 1937, nearly 7,000 units of the R-5 and its variants had been built. The R-5 not only played a crucial role in the military but also significantly contributed to the development of Soviet civil aviation, helping to connect the vast expanses of the country.

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The Polikarpov R-5

The Polikarpov R-5 was a typical example of early 20th-century biplane design, featuring the common structural and aerodynamic practices of its time while incorporating several innovations that enhanced its capabilities.

Structurally, the R-5 was primarily constructed from wood, with its wings and fuselage covered in fabric, a method that provided a good balance between strength and lightness. The aircraft featured a biplane wing arrangement, which was standard during the era for providing the necessary lift at lower speeds and with less powerful engines.

The wings were staggered, which means that the upper wing was slightly forward of the lower wing, improving the pilot’s visibility and the aircraft’s maneuverability.

R-5 on ice.
An R-5 fitted with skis.

The R-5’s propulsion came from a single Mikulin M-17 water-cooled V12 engine, situated in the nose of the aircraft. This was a Soviet version of the German BMW VI engine produced under license.

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The M-17 could generate approximately 680 horsepower, which was robust for the aircraft’s needs, facilitating a maximum speed of around 230 kilometers per hour (140 miles per hour). Such power output was quite significant, enabling the R-5 not only to perform routine reconnaissance and light bombing missions but also to endure longer flights required by the vast distances of the Soviet Union.

Aerodynamically, the R-5 incorporated features to improve its operational capabilities. It had a fixed undercarriage, which, while common at the time, added drag and thus slightly reduced performance. However, this allowed for operations from rough fields and makeshift airstrips, crucial for both military and civil operations in less developed areas.

PR-5 on the ground.
This is a PR-5, a transport and passenger version of the R-5 with an enclosed cockpit. Four passengers could be carried.

In military use, the R-5 was equipped with defensive armaments including rear-mounted machine guns. It also had the capacity to carry up to 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of bombs, stored externally under the lower wings. This capability allowed it to perform light bombing missions in addition to its primary reconnaissance duties. The aircraft also featured open cockpits for both the pilot and the observer, which was typical for the era but could be challenging in adverse weather conditions.

G-61 Passenger Pods

One of the strangest uses of the R-5 design was as a paratrooper transport. Hearing that, you may imagine a compartment in the fuselage where paratroopers could sit and jump from the aircraft – if that’s the case, then you’d be wrong.

That is because instead of placing the paratroopers in the aircraft, they were mounted underneath in pods. Throughout the interwar period, the Soviets were very interested in taking things up in aircraft and dropping them. Whether this was tanks, trucks or people, a lot of research was carried out in how aircraft could be used to transport men and equipment quickly.

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Work to transport paratroopers in aircraft began in 1931 by pilot and engineer Pavel Ignátievich Grojovski. Grojovski’s work resulted in the Grojovski G-31 (initially called the G-63), a powered glider with a wingspan of 28 meters.

Grojovski G-31 glider.
The G-31. Note the compartments visible along the leading edge of the wing.

Most curiously was the transport of paratroopers inside; they were located in small compartments in the leading edge of the wings. With this configuration, the G-31 was capable of carrying up to 16 soldiers, each lying prone in a 2,100 mm x 660 mm compartment. The G-31 would land and then the soldiers would disembark, rather than dropping them out like a conventional paratrooper drop.

The G-31 would first fly in 1932 with tests beginning quite successfully. It was towed into the air by a Polikarpov R-5 and piloted by Grojovski. However, the aircraft would eventually crash, and was grounded for a long time until repairs were made.

Still, the G-31 had shown that transporting troops in compartments was feasible, so Grojovski continued his work. His next idea was to use his prone compartments on a Polikarpov R-5. The logic behind this was that the R-5 was needed to tow the G-31, so why not ditch the G-31, and just use the R-5 to carry the troops?

The initial, smaller G-61 pods.
The initial, smaller G-61 pods.

By utilizing the R-5’s entire payload, this was achievable. Grojovski soon had another design ready, the G-61 (also known as Object 61). To turn the biplane into a troop transport, Grojovski designed small containers that would mount under each of the lower wings.

These would contain troops lying prone inside, as with the G-31. These cases were aerodynamically shaped and profiled like a wing, which was hoped would actually increase the aircraft’s lift as it increased the wing surface area.

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The front of each compartment would be covered by a curved piece of plexiglass, giving the soldier inside a view (I think I’d rather go without, to be honest). Doors were present on the underside to allow the occupants to exit the aircraft after landing and made it possible for paratroopers to leave in flight.

G-61 with passengers loaded.
The design eventually allowed for up to 14 passengers in eight compartments.

The first example only had room for two 80 kg occupants per container. After tests were conducted on the design, it was approved for state testing in 1935. The following year though, Grojovski created a larger version that now had the capacity for up to 14 people in the wing containers – seven per side.

But when it came time to test the G-61, Grojovski encountered a problem: no one wanted to fly it. Three test pilots refused, so Grojovski was forced to fly it himself. The aircraft was loaded up with sandbags and Grojovski trundled down the runway, eventually taking off and circling before coming down to land.

After the brief test, everyone was shocked when the compartments were opened and 14 people were inside! Apparently, there had been no sandbags, so 14 people had volunteered. During further tests, the G-61 was found to handle well and was comparable to a standard R-5.

G-61 pod side.
Side view of the pods.

Despite the successful tests, the G-61 would not be produced. Grojovski’s attention was shifted to fighter and interceptor aircraft in the lead-up to the Second World War.

Use of the G-61

The G-61 would not enter service, but it was involved in the chaos surrounding a high profile search for a missing Soviet crew in the Arctic Circle. In 1937, a crew flying a Boljovitinov DB-A attempted to fly from Russia to the US over the North Pole.

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The aircraft disappeared on the flight, and a huge search and rescue mission was launched. Hearing of this Grojovski wrote a letter to Stalin to inform him that he had an aircraft with the range to look for the crew, and the cargo capacity to drop supplies or even pick them up.

G-61 rescue aircraft.
The modified G-61 pod, with fuel tanks placed in the compartments.

He would do this with his G-61 system attached to an R-5. He was given permission to make the attempt, and two R-5s were transferred to him. With the utmost urgency, Grojovski and his team modified the two aircraft with under-wing casings.

Auxillary fuel tanks were placed inside six of the eight compartments, while the other two were filled with weapons, supplies, survival equipment, and a radio. When fully loaded, the modified R-5s were twice as heavy.

Tests were conducted to check how the changes had affected the aircraft’s handling. Incredibly, it was found that handling was, for the most part, the same. The take-off run was longer, and the top speed was reduced to about 185 kmh (compared to 230 kmh for a standard R-5), but the aircraft was usable.

G-61 rescue aircraft.
СССР-L1937, one of the two R-5s modified for the rescue mission.

The two R-5s were sent up to Arkhangelsk on the northern coast of Russia and were loaded onto a cargo ship that would transport them closer to the Arctic Circle for the search. Unfortunately, bad weather and several mishaps resulted in damage to one of the aircraft, and as a result, the flights were delayed. After this, it isn’t clear if they ever participated in the hunt for the missing crew.

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From here, all that is known is one of the aircraft was still in use in 1941. The fate of the pair is unknown today.