The words “flying tank” probably conjure mental images of the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a heavily armored gun-toting close air support aircraft that pretty much functions like… well, a tank that flies. But…
In the early 1940s, the Soviet Union found itself embroiled in a bitter campaign to counter significant Nazi German advances into Soviet territory. Partisan fighters (Soviet civilians who took up arms against the German invasion) were in need of more capable weaponry that could inflict considerable damage on inbound German columns of armor and infantry; more so than what their small arms could do. Oleg Antonov came up with a possible answer to this problem in the form of… you guessed it, a flying tank.
Ordinarily, tanks aren’t supposed to fly under any circumstances. They aren’t aerodynamically suited towards flight, nor do they have wings or the appropriate engines to generate lift to achieve flight. Antonov’s solution was to strap a Krylya Tanka (Russian for “tank wings”) kit to a T-60 light tank, tow it into the air using a Pe-8 or TB-3 heavy bomber, and then release it near the drop zone, allowing the tank (with its two-man crew inside) to glide to the battlefield while the tug aircraft got the hell out of Dodge before German anti-aircraft gunners lobbed flak into the sky.
The T-60 was chosen for the job thanks to its light weight, a mere 5.8 tonnes, and the fact that there were hundreds being churned out of factories by the day. Some of the weight was cut down further with the removal of its guns, ammunition, head lamps, and minimizing the amount of fuel the T-60 carried. The Krylya Tanka kit would be strapped to the upper surfaces of the tank’s hull with removable links that connected the control surfaces (i.e. rudders and flaps) to the driver inside the tank, so he could actually pilot the T-60 once it was released by the tug aircraft.
The Krylya Tank kit itself consisted of two wings in a biplane layout (one above the other) with a span of nearly 60 feet (or 18 meters), made of canvas and wood to reduce weight. Two tail booms attached to a twin-tail with movable rudders. The overall length came to around 40 feet (or 12 meters). Though the Soviet Air Force had initially ordered Antonov to design a glider that could carry a tank, and not a tank that could glide, they were nevertheless willing to give his idea a shot.
In the autumn months of 1942, Antonov and a team of mechanics and engineers completed the Krylya Tanka in less than three weeks and hooked it up to a modified T-60. The new designation for this peculiar combat vehicle was A-40, also known as the A-40T. For what would be the first (and only) test flight in the project, the A-40 was piloted by Sergei Anokhin, a record-holding glider pilot and test pilot for the Soviet Air Force. A TB-3 heavy bomber was allocated for the flight, and was hooked up to the A-40, which now sat on the airfield weighing 7.8 tonnes, thanks to the additional weight of the Krylya Tanka kit.
After a long takeoff run at Monino Airfield, the TB-3 tug and its A-40 were able to climb, though trouble appeared very quickly in the form of overheating engines and steadily decreasing airspeed in the TB-3. The pilots of the tug realized that the A-40 (which possessed the aerodynamics of a brick) was causing an immense strain on their aircraft, and they needed to ditch it quickly or they’d drop out of the sky like a rock. Acting fast, they released the cable, and Anokhin suddenly found himself flying a tank.
Somehow, the Krylya Tanka actually worked! Anokhin would later report that the A-40 glided far better than expected, and that the idea of a flying tank wasn’t so unrealistic after all. Anokhin was able to land the tank in a nearby field, remove the kit, and then drive back to Monino. However, the lack of an an aircraft powerful enough to tow the 7.8 tonne A-40 at around 100 miles per hour to sustain lift meant that the A-40 wasn’t feasible, and the Soviet Air Force ordered the project closed permanently.