Tupolev ANT-20 Maxim Gorky – Once the Largest Aircraft in the World

The Joint Stock Company Tupolev, the creator of the ANT-20, is well known for making large and heavy aircraft. This was no different even before World War Two.

To show off the Soviet Union’s prowess to the rest of the world the ANT-20 Maxim Gorky was commissioned.

A design heavily based on the heavy bomber ANT-16, the Maxim Gorky was a transport aircraft second and a propaganda machine first. Let us take a deeper dive into this absolute behemoth.

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Background

To understand the ANT-20, we need to look back to 1933. This was the first flight of the ANT-16 heavy bomber. Only a single one was built and due to abysmal performance, it never saw production. 

Although it may have not lived up to expectations, the ANT-16 was an impressive beast with a 54 m (177 ft 2 in) wingspan and looked extremely imposing. An unusual element to the design was the five engines.

Photo of the ANT-16.
Even the smaller ANT-16 had a wingspan equivalent to a B-52.

Four of them were wing-mounted, however, the fifth was on struts above the fuselage of the aircraft. Regardless, their performance was poor. Giving a top speed of barely 120 mph (200 km/h). 

To the untrained eye, this aircraft looked futuristic – an incredible piece of design. In a well thought out move, the Soviets went bigger and better and introduced the ANT-20.

Design

Not even a year after the first flight of the ANT-16, the Maxim Gorky took to the skies for the first time. Upon its creation in the 1930s it was by far the largest aircraft in the world. She had a wingspan of 63 m (206ft 8in), almost 20% longer than the ANT-16’s. 

The Maxim Gorky.
The original ANT-20 Maxim Gorky flying over Moscow.

With the additional size brought even more weight. The ANT-16 was no speed record-setter and even with seven (yes, seven!) engines, the ANT-20 could barely manage a top speed of 140 mph. 

From the start, it was decided that the ANT-20 was going to be the flagship of the Maxim Gorky propaganda squadron. This meant that instead of being designed to carry bombs, she was actually able to accommodate passengers.

ANT-20
The ANT-20 remained the largest aircraft ever (by wingspan) until 1941.

She could carry a total of 80 people: eight crew and 72 passengers.

A powerful radio was also equipped for broadcasting, known as the “Voice from the sky”. This would play propaganda whenever the ANT-20 flew.

Much of the design elements were similar to the ANT-16, only scaled up. This included the odd over-fuselage engine design with an additional three in each wing.

ANT-20 three engines.
Despite having three engines on each wing and one on top, the ANT-20 topped out at a measly 140 mph.

This hulk was powered by Mikulin AM-34FRN V-12 liquid-cooled piston engines, each producing 900 hp (671 kW). These engines were utilized by a lot of different aircraft and were the most successful engines that the Soviets built in the 30s.

Only two aircraft were ever built. The second of these was the ANT-20bis.

1935 ANT-20 Crash

In May 1935, four aircraft took to the skies for a flight over Moscow. Flying together were the ANT-20, ANT-14, R-5 and I-5 to show off the sheer size of the Maxim Gorky. All four flew an extremely tight formation and the I-5 biplane was doing aerobatics around the ANT-20. 

Unfortunately, this did not go to plan, as the I-5 looped around the ANT-20 the two aircraft collided in the skies above Moscow. The ANT-20 crashed into a residential neighbourhood killing a total of 45 people.

The ANT-20 over Moscow.
Tupolev ANT-20 Maxim Gorky overflying Red Square, Moscow

All the crew of the ANT-20 and its 33 passengers, the I-5 pilot and nine people on the ground died in the incident.

The ANT-20bis also crashed in 1942 after the pilot momentarily handed the controls over to a passenger.

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Specifications

Crew: 8
Passengers: 72
Length: 32.9 m (107 ft 11 in)
Wingspan: 63 m (206 ft 8 in)
Height: 10.6 m (34 ft 9 in) on ground, tail down, over centre prop
Empty weight: 28,500 kg (62,832 lb)
Max takeoff weight: 53,000 kg (116,845 lb)
Powerplant: 8 × Mikulin AM-34FRN V-12 liquid-cooled piston engines 900 hp each
Propellers: 2-bladed variable-pitch propellers
Maximum speed: 140 mph (220 km/h)
Range: 750 mi (1,200 km)
Service ceiling: 4,500 m (14,800 ft)