Aviation History

There Can Be Only One! How the Sukhoi OKB took over the Russian Aircraft Industry.

During negotiations with Post Soviet Russian President Yeltsin, the head of the then Sukhoi OKB managed to convince the Russian Federation’s President to choose his firm’s designs as the primary fighter aircraft of the Russian Federation.


Having grown up a military brat during the waning days of the First Cold War, naturally I followed Aircraft development on both sides of the Iron Curtain from an early age. My fascination with flying machines was stoked by associating with Veteran Aviators from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Grandpa served in WW1 and 2, Dad in Vietnam, and my first Stepfather Jay LaRue served there at the same time my Dad was “in country.” As a son of an Army Reserve Officer Dad, and a Marine Aviator Stepfather, I was steeped in Military tradition, and the Soviets were the Bad Guys, as films like Red Dawn clearly showed us all. In the early 80s, the Cold War was in full swing, with a Korean Airlines 747 flight shot down off Sakhalin Island by a Soviet PVO Su-15 and the next Generation of Soviet Aircraft were just coming into service.

These new Soviet Fighter Types were known as the RAM series of Jets, as their test area at (Ram)anskpye, at Akhtubinsk on Zhukovsky Field outside Moscow was the Soviet Equivalent of Edwards Air Force Base. There various Soviet types were put through their paces, and State Acceptance Trials meant a production contract for the Design Bureau whose product was chosen. Unlike the West, the Soviets relied on Design Bureaus. (known as OKB опытное конструкторское бюро or meaning ‘experimental design bureau from wiki) An OKB was not a manufacturer per se, it was a collection of design engineers who would develop a prototype which would then subsequently be produced by the State Owned Factories of the Soviet Military Industrial Complex. Thus MiG wasn’t a specific factory in the Soviet Union, nor were its initials an amalgation of (Mi)koyan and (G)uryuvech. Rather MiG could be directly translated to M&G, much as Pratt&Whitney is referred to here in the States. The Sukhoi OKB was the same.

[A list of Soviet/Russian OKBs can be found HERE.]

After the Berlin Wall Fell it came to pass that I was able to have the opportunity to live in Moscow only a few months after the fall of the Soviet Union. Having watched the mass protests against the Communist Party Hardliner Coup against Gorbachev, I was certainly inspired to live in Russia while such historic changes were happening. By the end of December 1991, the Soviet Union was No More, as all 15 former Soviet Republics voted to dissolve what was once the most formidable military power on Earth.

While I was there I was able to experience glimpses from behind the Iron Curtain few Westerners were yet able to see. Though I didn’t get to ride in a MiG, I did see MiG Prices drop to ridiculous lows. MiG-21s were available for a couple thousand dollars apiece, while MiG-23s were listed on the Minsk Stock Exchange for around $20,000 per airframe. At that time EVERY former Soviet Republic Scrambled in order to acquire military Hardware. What was once a Mighty Air Force was reduced to units stationed on or in various now Independent Republics becoming the newly independent Air Forces of each new nation. Given that Soviet personnel were stationed in territory now controlled by these new governments, it was natural that said personnel would swear allegiance to these new entities. Thus, an Empire Fell, and 15 new Air Forces arose out of its ashes.

Naturally the development of ALL new Soviet Fighter Projects was put on hold, as without funding, even the mightiest Industrial Empire was doomed to failure. While I was there the Russian Mafia hoovered up everything of value, and turf wars between such oligarchs made Moscow a Dangerous Place in the 1990s.

The former Soviet People suffered hyperinflation which saw the dollar trade from 220 to the Ruble when I arrived to more than 1500 by the time I left, and 4500 when I returned for a brief visit in the mid-90s.

During negotiations with Post Soviet Russian President Yeltsin, the head of the then Sukhoi OKB managed to convince the Russian Federation’s President to choose his firm’s designs as the primary fighter aircraft of the Russian Federation. The mass of earlier MiGs and Sukhois were relegated to the dustbin of history, hence such fire sale prices for items no longer necessary in time of peace. Strange anomalies occurred during this period, at one point Lithuania became the world’s largest exporter of Aluminum, despite having NO aluminum deposits or mines anywhere on its soil.

As the Chaos of the 90s gave way to the “Stability” of Putin’s Russia, the survivors of the economic carnage of the 90s coalesced into what is now known as the United Aircraft Corporation, which encompasses the entire Soviet Aircraft Industry. Export sales of Sukhoi 27 series fighter aircraft kept both the Sukhoi OKB and relevant factories solvent, and enabled the firm to establish itself as THE Dominant Russian Design Bureau. Ironically, this capitalist free enterprise success enabled Sukhoi to have the funding to develop the Su-57, latest series of Sukhoi Fighter Aircraft. Meanwhile the MiG OKB is but a subsidiary division in the Russian Aerospace Industry beast dominated by Sukhoi.

Thus, much like the Kurgan in the classic 80s Film Highlander said, THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE! In this case, the dominant force in the Russian Aerospace Industrial Complex is a firm which was once known only as OKB-51, and is still remembered by the name of Pavel Sukhoi.

Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.

Photo credit: Andrew Thomas from Shrewsbury, UK, Sukhoi and By English: Aleksandr Markin; Русский: Александр Маркин (Su-27 and Mig-29), via Wikipedia

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William Cobb

Mr. William Cobb is a licensed Instrument Flight Instructor in Single and Multi Engine Airplanes who is the founder and director of the Pensacola Aerospace Museum. Mr. Cobb spent from 2008 to 2015 instructing for the U.S. Navy's Initial Flight Screening program. After 8 years of full time Flight Instruction, Mr. Cobb started his own Commercial Drone Business, obtaining the first FAA Part 107 certification in his FAA region. Subsequent Drone work led to his becoming involved in Film Production work, and his establishing the Pensacola Aerospace Museum, an entity dedicated to honoring the memory of all those who ever gave their lives to flight.

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