First Gliders SK-4 Plane

1921 — 1931
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How Korolev Wanted to Become a Pilot

In Odessa

In 1911, having seen the first aeroplane in his life, four-year-old Sergey Korolev was so stunned that he actually fell ill and was down for several weeks with fever.

In 1916 the family settled in Odessa, as Korolev’s stepfather became head of the power plant at the Odessa seaport. A few years later, a detachment of seaplanes was stationed in Bread Harbour near the port. Korolev, who was barely 14, used to spend all his spare time there, assisting mechanics to repair planes. Pilots would sometimes take him flying with them.

M-9 Seaplanes on the Black Sea. 1920s
Seaplane takeoff. Early 1920s

They knew how to do everything themselves…

Vladimir Lositsky, historian of Russian aviation and cosmonautics, director of the Cosmonaut Serebrov Foundation

In 1924 by the end of high school, Korolev designed his first aircraft, the
K-5 glider

He brought 12 sheets of drawings with designer notes to the Society of Aviation and Aeronautics which he had joined a year earlier.

Korolev read each and every aviation book he could get hold of, he even took care to learn German for this reason, as there was a lot of aviation literature published in Germany. At 16, he was already a true aviation expert, so the Aeronautics Society began assigning him to shipyards to lecture workers on aeroplanes and gliders and how to fly them. His lectures were very interesting, and workers enjoyed attending them. The young lecturer even succeeded in occasionally getting paid by the Society.

Workers at a factory. Late 1910s — early 1920s

After school, Korolev wanted to enrol at the Moscow Air Fleet Academy, but only the military were accepted. Having studied for two years at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute, he transferred to the Moscow State Technical University (MVTU) where many of the leading Soviet aircraft designers were teaching at the time.

Aviation festival at Khodynka field in Moscow. Mid 1920s

Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

What Aviation Used To Be in the 1920s (everything)


The interest in aviation was very high in the USSR, and the prefix aero- got to become extremely widespread. Various clubs, courses, circles, and hobby groups sprang up all over the country — all with aero. Motivation posters and slogans could be seen everywhere, calling for help to the Soviet aviation industry and encouraging to donate money to the construction of airplanes, gliders, and dirigibles.

All Soviet leaders, including Trotsky and Stalin, were members of the Society of Friends of the Air Force. In 1924 alone, the number of «friends» grew from 16 thousand to a million. Another 2 million were to join the Society by the summer of 1925.

A rally and demonstration in Moscow. Mid 1920s

Aviation enjoyed worldwide popularity at the time. New and ever more powerful aircraft were built; pilots made fantastic flights, for instance, across the Atlantic Ocean; new aviation records were constantly set.

The aviation mania became part of state policy in the USSR and reached unprecedented proportions. After all, aviation was practically the only area of technology where Russia and the USSR were on par with developed countries, not only never lagging behind, but in fact, leading in some ways, for example, in the construction of large multi-engine aircraft.

The first successful flight of a domestically designed aircraft in Russia. Prince Alexander Kudashev after he flew the Kudashev-1, the aircraft of his own design. May 23, 1910
One of the first flights of the Ilya Muromets plane designed by Igor Sikorsky, the world’s first mass-produced four-engine aircraft. 1913

How the Soviet Authorities Promoted Aviation and Astronautics in the 1920s

Vladimir Lositsky, historian of Russian aviation and cosmonautics, director of the Cosmonaut Serebrov Foundation

The leading Soviet aircraft designers at the time and what they designed

Why Korolev Did Not Become a Pilot

Aircraft Designer and Pilot

While still a student at the Moscow State Technical University, Korolev became known as a young talented aircraft designer and an experienced glider pilot. On November 2, 1929, Korolev passed the pilot exam flying the Firebird glider, and in December of the same year, got a degree by completing — under the guidance of Andrey Tupolev — his graduation project, the design of the SK-4 plane.

The aircraft developed by Korolev — gliders Koktebel and Red Star and the SK-4 light plane designed to achieve a record flight range — testified to his outstanding abilities as an aircraft engineer.

3D reconstruction
A1 Koktebel Glider
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Koktebel glider driven to the top of the mountain. Korolev is near the cabin. 1929
Gliding competition in the Crimea. 1929
Korolev in the cockpit of the Koktebel glider. 1929
Korolev in his student years. Mid 1920s

The Red Star glider was specifically designed by Korolev to perform aerobatics. On 28 October 1930 in Koktebel, pilot Vasily Stepanchonok was the first in the world to make a triple full loop in this glider. Loops had been already performed in gliders, but no one had ever done that three times in a row.

Korolev’s SK-4 plane on the flying field. 1930
Korolev in his final year at the University. 1929
3D reconstruction
SK-4 Aircraft
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Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara. May 2021

In the late 1920s, Korolev came upon a totally new field of technology, rocketry. His interest was to a great extent provoked by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s book Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Reactive Devices, which he read no later than the spring of 1929.

Korolev and Tsiolkovsky, did they meet each other?

For an aircraft designer, using rocket engines to propel airplanes offered prospects of unprecedented flying speeds at yet unattainable altitudes. But the rocket itself could be capable of travelling into space, which was far more exciting.

Building such a rocket became a priority.

Rockets were not the only reason Korolev lost interest in aircraft. The first flight of the SK-4 took place in Koktebel on October 28, 1930, and was made by pilot Vasily Stepanchonok. Korolev, who designed the airplane, dreamed of flying it himself but, shortly before the flight test, fell ill with typhoid fever and suffered complications. He became deaf in one ear and, thus, would not have been allowed to fly as a pilot any more.

Typhoid would haunt Korolev yet again a few years later when his teacher, friend and colleague in the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion, engineer Friedrich Zander, one of the first rocket-building enthusiasts in Russia, would die of the disease.


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Based on recollections of Korolev’s mother Maria Balanina, Korolev’s student companion Pyotr Flyorov, and aircraft designer Oleg Antonov

About the project


Georgy Avanyan


Natalya Akulova


cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko


Elena Matza


Natalya Makarova


Pixeljam Studio
  • Art director:
    • Aleksander Grigorev
  • Developers:
    • Dmitry Udovichenko
    • Dmitry Orlov
    • Daniel Denisov



  • Producer:
    • Artem Patyn


Studio Lastik


  • Actors:
    • Valeria Dorokhova
    • Alexander Vladimirtsev
  • Director:
    • Gleb Dobrovolsky


Elena Kuklina


Julia Baklanova


Anna Ulyanskaya, Alla Chetaeva, Victor Koreshev, Georgy Kulikov, Vladimir Derevyanko, Alexei Taranin, Natalya Bogoyavlenskaya, Maxim Makarov, Svetlana Alexikova, Dmitry Anzhaparidze, Dmitry Koshelev, Danila Koshelev, Ivan Karyshev, Arthur Salikhov, Mikhail Tatyanin


Progress Rocket and Space Center in Samara for the filming opportunity

Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow for the filming opportunity on the territory of the Memorial House Museum of Academician Sergey Korolev in Ostankino


Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation

Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive



Yaroslav Golovanov, Boris Smirnov, Evgeny Ryazanov


Documentary footage:

«Pilot Shabanov’s Flight Moscow-Berlin (1920-1930)», «The Country of the Soviets Turns 16. (1933)», " May 1 Celebration in Moscow (1923)», «Sovjournal No. 64/173 (1928)», «Aero March (1934)», «Aircraft Inventor Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1927)», «Into the Air Now! (1923)», «The Great Scientist of the Great People (1935)», «The Eastern Flight (1924)», «Socialist Village No. 3 (1935)», «Fighter Planes (1942)», «Airplane in the Service of Culture (1925)

Documentary films and stories (1960-1992):

«Korolev», «Conquerors of the Universe», «Columbuses of the Space Era», «Twenty-Five Years' Undertakings», «Documentary Filings of Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov» — footage of cosmonauts in the TV studio, footage of flight preparation of the first team of cosmonauts


  • Dmitry Zilmanovich. Friedrich Tsander, Pioneer of Soviet Rocketry. 1966
  • Cosmonautics. Soviet Encyclopedia article. 1968
  • Pyotr Astashenkov. Academician Sergey Korolev. 1969
  • Vadim Shavrov. History of Aircraft Designs in the USSR up to 1938. 1978.
  • Irina Strazheva. Tulips from the Cosmodrome. 1978
  • Creative Legacy of Academician Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. Selected works and documents. 1980
  • Yaroslav Golovanov. Road to the Cosmodrome. 1982
  • Mark Gallay. With a Man on Board. 1985
  • Boris Rauschenbach. Memoirs about Sergey Korolev. 1985.
  • Academician Sergey Korolev. Scientist. Engineer. Personality. Creative portrait in recollections of contemporaries. 1986
  • Valentin Glushko. Development of Rocket Building and Cosmonautics in the USSR. 1987
  • Yaroslav Golovanov. Korolev, Facts and Myths. 1994
  • Boris Chertok. Rockets and People. 1999.
  • Mikhail Rebrov. Sergey Pavlovich Korolev. Life and Singular Destiny. 2002
  • Anton Pervushin. Battle for the Stars. Space Rivalry. 2004
  • Natalia Koroleva. Sergey Korolev, My Father. 2007
  • Anton Pervushin. 108 Minutes That Changed the World. 2011
  • Anton Pervushin. Sergey Korolev’s Empire. 2017
  • Korolev. Horizon of Events 1947-1965. Tender Letters of a Stern Man. 2019

The first seaplane was designed in 1909 by the American Glenn Curtiss. The first Russian seaplane, the M-1 flying boat, was designed in 1913 by Dmitry Grigorovich. About 2,500 seaplanes were built in the world during the First World War.

The speed of first flying boats was not high, topping at 120-150 km per hour. In wartime, they were used for reconnaissance and bombing; bombs had to be hand-dropped by pilots. The Imperial Russian Navy even had an actual seaplane carrier Orlitsa («eagless»), also called Aero Mother Ship, which carried a squadron of seaplanes.

M-5 flying boat designed by Grigorovich. 1914
Flying boat before going afloat. 1914
Aero Mother Ship Orlitsa. 1914
The leading Soviet aircraft designers at the time and what they designed

Andrey Tupolev

One of the most successful aircraft engineers in the USSR. He designed more than 100 military and civil aircraft, including the first Soviet all-metal body aircraft ANT-2 in 1924.

Vladimir Petlyakov

A trainee and collaborator of Andrey Tupolev. He created one of the iconic projects of World War II, the Pe-2 dive bomber.

Vladimir Myasishchev

A student and collaborator of Andrey Tupolev; participated in the creation of the first Soviet bomber ANT-4 and many other projects.

Nikolay Polikarpov

In 1923 (together with other designers) he developed the first Soviet I-1 fighter. Supervised the development of the first Soviet mass-produced aircraft R-1. In 1928 he created the legendary U-2 multipurpose biplane nicknamed Kukuruznik («crop duster»), internationally acclaimed and one of the most produced aircraft (more than 40 thousand U-2s were built in 31 years).

Roberto Bartini

An Italian communist, left fascist Italy in 1922 for the USSR. Physicist and designer of over 60 aircraft, including an innovative seaplane dubbed ekranoplane.

Korolev and Tsiolkovsky, did they meet each other?

In the early 1960s, TASS correspondent Romanov recorded a conversation with Korolev, who was recalling his encounter with Tsiolkovsky in Kaluga in 1929.


One of the vivid memories of my life is how I met with Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. I was twenty-four then. … We arrived in Kaluga in the morning. … We were met by a tall old man in a dark suit. While we were talking, he held a tin-plate hearing trumpet to his ear. … I remembered his surprisingly bright eyes. His face was covered with deep wrinkles. … Although not very long, the conversation was meaningful… When I, with a typical youthful impatience, announced that from then on my goal was to break through to the stars, Tsiolkovsky smiled, «It is a very difficult thing, young man… It will require knowledge, strong will, perseverance and will take long years, perhaps a lifetime …»

We were profoundly impressed then with his unwavering belief that space travel was possible. I left his place with just one thought — to build rockets and fly them.

Later on, Romanov would change his text several times, and one of the versions totally missed the meeting, as if there had been no real-life encounter at all.

In 1957, the year of Tsiolkovsky’s centenary, Korolev, along with his wife and associates, visited the Tsiolkovsky house-museum in Kaluga — that is, the very house where the meeting had supposedly taken place 30 years earlier — but did not say a word about it.

The story seems somewhat fictional, and so does the monument that local authorities in Kaluga put at the intersection of Tsiolkovsky and Korolev Streets in memory of the alleged meeting. The monument features full-length figures of Korolev and Tsiolkovsky who appear to be about same age, although one was 50 years older than the other, and look nothing else but colleagues from a design bureau.

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