Russian Imperial Air Units in World War I

by G. Adolph Ackerman, PhD Posted: 2008-09-07 Samovar Email the Link to this Exhibit

Exhibit Categories: Air PhilatelyWorld War I

Russian Imperial Air Units in World War I

Topic Summary:

Correspondence bearing Russian Imperial aviation, aeronautic and aviation school free franks that have survived the ravages of war and time are rare. In fact, such historic items are far more scarce than surviving fieldpost correspondence from soldiers of the Russian army, from POWs in Russia and later, mail from Allied Intervention Forces in Russia. Nearly all air-related free-frank items in this frame are the only examples from an individual air unit (e.g., fortress, squadron, detachment) reported in the literature or in auction catalogs. The philatelic literature regarding this phase of Russian aviation philately is limited (1-4).


These postal items document the infancy of Russian (and World) aviation and aeronautics from a military standpoint. The first manned flights had begun only a few years before the onset of WWI (1914). Aircraft and air capabilities were limited. Air combat and bomber missions didn't begin until mid-1916. Basically flying was a rather ragtag and barnstorming affair.

Russia's Western Front in World War I extended ~1800 miles - from the Baltic to the Black Sea - over three times the length of Allies Western Front. Nearly 15 million served in Russian Army during the War. Only a fraction of this number were assigned to aviation/aeronautic units and air support facilities. Casualty rates for airmen/aeronauts were particularly high. Supply/communication links (road/rail/postal) with the front lines were inadequate and undependable. These factors have significantly contributed to the relative paucity of Russian air unit correspondence.

View-cards were the primary means of soldier/airmen correspondence Envelopes and writing paper were scarce and cards didn't necessitate censor opening. Thus, many cards had long messages. Picture cards were usually chosen that showed the town near soldiers location. Inclusion of military details was prohibited.

Aviation/Aeronautic Unit Organization:

Basically, aviation/aeronautical commands were as follows: Air units were assigned to large army groups or fortresses with subordinate air/aeronautic companies and squadrons. There were 8 fortress and 6 companies, each with one air squadron consisting of 9 pilots with 8 planes and support personnel. Squadrons numbered 31, each having 7 pilots and 6 aircraft assigned (details in ref. 1). These air groups were augmented during War. At start of the War, Russia had ~200 pilots/observers and 260 aircraft comparable to Germany. 350 aircraft were on front line by the end of 1915. Although ~100 pilots were trained at military air schools each year, the number of front line pilots/observers were inadequate due to a 25-30% casualty rate. Balloon observers fared no better. Flying was perilous. Except for the famous Ilya Muromets squadron, German planes and pilots generally outmaneuvered Russia's poorly maintained and outdated planes and inadequately trained pilots.

Initially, observer kite balloons were targets of both ground forces and enemy aircraft. Air combat and bombing missions began in mid-1916. Air parks in rear areas served as supply, repair and dispatching centers (airmen/aircraft). Aircraft and balloon units also were part of the navy and provided sea and coastal reconnaissance. Also seaplanes served as part of the strike forces launched from aircraft (transport) carriers.

This exhibit is divided into three sections:

Aviation Units (refers to aircraft),
Aviation Schools and
Aeronautic Units (refers to balloon).

Noteworthy Items:

While each item shown from a given air unit may be the only postal item existent today, the following may be the most important items from an historic standpoint:

  1. Special Aviation Squadron, 10 Army HQ. Squadron formed during earliest days of War with volunteers from the Imperial All-Russian Aero Club recruited into military ranks.
  2. Ilya Muromets Squadron. The squadron flew the World's first giant (4-motor) long-range bombers. This highly acclaimed squadron made bombing/observation sorties deep behind enemy lines. Only 42 operative bombers were on front line during the last years of the War.
  3. Seaplane carrier Emperor Alexander I. One of the World's first converted seaplane carrier. Active in the Black Sea campaign against Turkey.
  4. Baku Naval Aviation School. Card may be earliest example of air-related postal item from the Caucasus. The personalized photo shows the students' training group.
  5. Rear Army, Second Co. Aeronautic Unit. This personnel inter-aeronautic unit postal correspondence paints a vivid portrait of front line activity.
  6. Sea Fortress, 2nd Observation, Aeronautic Unit. This naval unit guarded Gulf of Finland, Baltic Sea along coast of Estonia from German attack.


  1. Ackerman GA: Russian Imperial Air Unit free franks of World War I. Post Rider, 53:7-25, 2003.
  2. Berdichhevskiy V: About the markings of the aircraft carriers and aviation units of the Russian Imperial Navy during WWI. Post Rider, 57:99-103, 2005.
  3. Epstein A: Russian imperial air unit free franks of World War I: Additional examples. Post Rider, 55:42-43, 2004.
  4. Pritula V: Pochta vozdukhoplavatel'nykh rot Rossii. Filateliya 10:12-15, 1991..