The Failed Soviet Plan to Build a Flying Tank

Imagine that you are a soldier in World War II. In the heat of battle, your attention is focused on the advancing enemy. With no sounds to suggest any hostile aircraft are in the vicinity, you have no reason to glance upward. Then, to your utter astonishment, the impossible takes place before your eyes. A massive armored tank on huge wings glides silently through the skies before unleashing its awesome firepower upon its unsuspecting targets.

That was the vision that drove the creation of the Antonov A-40 Flying Tank — one of the most creative weapons of World War II.

Mobile armored weapons were game-changers in the Second World War. Unlike the slow, weak, awkward tanks of World War I, the second generation of armored weapons was fast, powerful, and formidable. Getting them to where they were needed was the biggest logistical challenge.

Other than driving the tanks into battle, the only other option had been to strap them to the bottom of bombers and drop them at low altitudes where they were needed. There were several drawbacks to this approach. For one thing, crews had to be parachuted separately in different planes. This left the tanks and crew members vulnerable while they were separated from each other. Secondly, only small, lightweight tanks could be airlifted in this manner, severely limiting their effectiveness.

If only a tank could be made to fly. If anyone could make that happen, it would be Oleg Konstantinovich Antonov, the father of the Soviet aviation industry.

Antonov was tasked with designing a tank that could be fitted with wings and towed behind a plane to within 20-26 km (12-16 miles) of the battlefield. There, it would detach from the plane and glide silently to the point where it would engage the enemy. Once on the ground, it would eject its wings and operate as a fully-functional and deadly instrument of war.

Design concept for the Antonov A-40.

Antonov immediately settled on the T-60 tank for this project. It was one of the lightest available in the Soviet arsenal, required only two men to operate it, and could be mass-produced in automobile factories. There was also no shortage of them, with 6,045 T-60s produced during the war.

Antonov designed detachable bi-wings and tail. The wings were 18 meters (59 feet) long and were made out of lightweight wood. The prototype was produced, and famed test pilot Sergei Anokhin was chosen to take the A-40 to the skies.

The test flight took place on September 2, 1942. Expectations were high. The Soviet Union was in the midst of some of the heaviest combat of the entire war. If the A-40 worked, it would save lives and hasten the end of the conflict.

A TB-3 bomber pulled the A-40 on a tow rope and took off. Anokhin immediately observed that the A-40 was not the most aerodynamic craft he had ever flown. Even so, he was able to handle the controls well enough, provided the towing aircraft kept their speed above 160 kph (100 mph).

When released from the bomber, Anokhin took sole control of what was now an unpowered glider. Without a powered aircraft to pull it, the A-40 had difficulty keeping its speed up. The pilot was forced to jettison the wings while still in the air to avoid crashing. Instead of landing as planned, the A-40 dropped the remaining distance to the ground. Anokhin was shaken and slightly injured but survived the fall.

The Soviet T-60 tank.

He landed not far from a detachment of the Soviet Army that had not been advised of the test flight. They immediately surrounded and captured the test pilot and tank. Although they quickly determined he was not an enemy, they concluded that the test was interfering with combat operations and removed Anokhin and the A-40 from the area.

In reviewing the results of the test flight, engineers concluded that the A-40 was not viable for use in combat for the following reasons:

  • Despite its lightness, the tank was still too heavy for most of the aircraft available to the Soviets. The TB-3 bomber used in the test overheated and nearly failed immediately after takeoff.
  • The PE-8 strategic bomber was powerful enough, but there were only 80 in the entire fleet. Using the PE-8 would pull needed bombers out of use for bombing purposes and would also expose the bombers to attack during slow, low flights.
  • The A-40’s wings were too big and not strong enough since they were made out of wood.
  • Although the T-60 was light, it had to be stripped of ammunition, fuel, and its turret to make it light enough for flight. This rather defeated the whole purpose of sending a battle-ready weapon into combat.
  • Even when fueled, assembled, and fully armed, the T-60 was armed with only a 20 mm cannon and had 10-25 mm armor. This made it far too weak to be used meaningfully against the heavy German tanks.

The first test flight of the A-40 would prove to be its last. No other prototypes were attempted, and the project was tanked scrapped.

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