Lisunov Li-2 – The Dakota Goes East

The world’s only airworthy Li-2 as seen at Prague, Czech Republic in 2017.

Being Civil About Things  

In the mid 1930s, the Soviet Union expressed an interest in purchasing and license producing certain American aircraft for the national airline, Aeroflot. Among the machines which captured their interest were the Douglas DC-2 airliner and its legendary follow on, the DC-3.

In 1935, a delegation headed by Andrei Tupolev travelled to America to visit a number of American aircraft firms and arrange purchases of aircraft or production licenses. It was through this delgation that a DC-2 was purchased for evaluation.

Once in the Soviet Union, The DC-2 was inspected in great detail and evaluated quite favourably. Shortly after the evaluation, the Soviets proceded with securing production licenses for the DC-2  and DC-3.

The foundation for what would become the Li-2 was laid in the summer of 1936; when a delegation of Soviet aviation professionals which included Boris Lisunov, Vladimir Myasishchev and Anatoliy Senkov were sent to the Douglas aircraft factory in California to observe production methods and begin the labourious task of translating the DC-3 plans and specifications to make them suitable for Soviet production lines. It was a task that would take approximately two years and incorpoarate many more changes to the original DC-3 design than at first anticipated.

Li-2 at Prague in 2017.

A Dakota, and Yet Not

While most references on the Douglas DC-3 include sections on the Soviet variation of the aircraft, they don’t always give fair space to expand upon the differences that existed between it and the Douglas original. If one is to be fair about things, the DC-3 and Li-2 are distant cousins at best once one looks beyond the family resemblance.

Part of the herculean task of translating the DC-3 plans and specifications to Soviet ones was the redrawing of the plans from American measurement units to metric ones. Metric conversion contributed to the Soviet version having a higher weight than the original DC-3. This was the result of the closest equivalent metric calibrated sheet metal for covering the aircraft being slightly thicker than its American counterpart.

Dimensionally, the Soviet variation of the aircraft was slightly smaller in both length and wingspan than the Douglas original. In addition, while the American version had the cargo and passenger boarding doors both on the left side of the fuselage, the Soviet variant moved the passenger door to the right side while retaining the cargo door on the left.

One of the two Shvetsov ASh-62 engines which power the Li-2.

The Shvetsov ASh-62 engines which powered the Soviet version were themselves a development of the Wright R-1820 Cyclone engine which powered early versions of the DC-3. However, like the aircraft themselves, there were many technical differences between the Shvetsov engine and its Wright designed forbear.

A great many more changes took place under the skin of the aircraft, close to 1,300 in total, to meet the Soviet specification for the aircraft. Many of these changes were connected to the Soviet specification doing away with some of the design refinements of the DC-3 in favour of stronger internal structures and winter specific gear.

An assembly facility was established near Moscow and the first aircraft built to Soviet specification, then designated PS-84, was completed in 1938. After a year of testing and evaluation, full production was approved and several had been built by the end of 1940; further production of the airliner version through 1941 provided Aeroflot with a mixed fleet of PS-84 and Douglas built DC-3 aircraft.

While the PS-84 had greater stuctural strength than the DC-3, it did lack the speed and range of the Douglas aircraft. Many references mention that the Shetsov engines were not as reliable as their Wright counterparts and that many of the Soviet made systems, notably radio equipment, were considered inferior to their American made equivalents by aircrew. Many of these same references go further to say that PS-84 crews prefered to fly the DC-3 when they had the chance.

Li-2 in military colours at the Kbely Air museum in Prague, Czech Republic in 2019.

Life in Uniform

The PS-84 became the Lisunov Li-2 in 1942 when production of military specific variants of it began. It must be stated that it was a peculiar choice to involve Boris Lisunov in the aircraft’s name; by 1942, Lisunov had fallen victim to the paranoia of Stalin’s Great Purge which lasted from 1936 to 1938. His involvement in the aircraft was well in the past by the time his name was put on it.

As with the Dakota, the Li-2’s main stock in trade during the Second World War was as a transport, medevac aircraft, glider tug and paratroop carrier. However, unlike the military variants of the Dakota, the Li-2 could often be seen fitted with defensive guns in place on either side of the rear fuselage and a dorsal gun turret.

Notable use of the Li-2 as a bomber was also made. Though crude and improvised, Li-2s flew many night bombing missions during the Battle of Stalingrad and later conflicts. The bomber versions of the aircraft had external fittings for carrying bombs as well as carrying bombs internally which could be tossed out the rear cargo door by the crew. As the war progressed, bomber versions of the aircraft were subject to a series of incremental improvements.

Beyond World War II, the Li-2 also saw use in the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Though the systematic replacement of the Li-2 began with the advent of the Ilyushin Il-12 and Il-14 in the 1950s; it proved a stubbornly long lived aircraft. The militaries of at least 14 nations used the aircraft extensively in the post war era and the type was known to be flying in military service until at least the mid 1970s with some limited service being observed into the 1980s. Outside of the transport role, military Li-2s saw use in reconnaissance and surveillance roles as well as radiation sampling, electronic warfare and intelligence gathering.

During the Cold War period, the Li-2 recieved the reporting name “Cab” in NATO’s code naming system for Soviet aircraft.

The post war civil career of the Li-2 was also a varied one. The aircraft was modified for work in polar regions and at high altitudes. Additionally, the aircraft was fitted for forest fire work, fisheries monitoring and meteorological studies to name a few.

Flight controls of a civilian Li-2 preserved in the Aeropark museum in Budapest, Hungary.

What Remains and Learning More

Of nearly 5000 built, a number of Li-2s remain extant in whole or partial form in museums. Between at least 15 and 20 can be found in museums across central Europe, Russia and China as of 2016. No doubt there are several others standing alone on pedestals or corroding away anonymously in more remote locations.

Since 2004, the world has known only a single airworthy Lisunov Li-2. Part of the Goldtimer Foundation collection at the historic Budaors airfield in Budapest, Hungary; HA-LIX makes appearances at a variety of European airshows resplendent in period colours of the former Hungarian air carrier, Malév.

This link will take you to the Li-2 page of the Goldtimer Foundation website and give you some insights into the restoration of HA-LIX.