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Russian aviator and inventor Captain Sergei Alexandrovich Oulianine (aka Ulyanin) 1871 -1921

Part hidden off the pathway heading towards the near seamless boundary between Ladywell and Brockley cemeteries, topped by a broken cruciform headstone, lies the final resting place of the distinguished Russian aviator and inventor Captain Sergei Alexandrovich Oulianine (aka Ulyanin) 1871-1921.   He lies buried alongside his wife Ludmilla Oulianine (1887-1970)

Captain Ulyanin was based at the famous Imperial Air force flying school in Gatchina (Petrograd, now St Petersburg).  This was the first aviation school in Russia and as its head he was responsible for the training of a galaxy of outstanding airmen at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.   His name was almost as legendary as some of his former students who became internationally recognised as fighter aces including the prolific aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky, and Pyotr Nesterov,  the founder of aerobatics, including the famous death loop. 
A Russian Pilot by Vassily Svarog (cover of the Solntse Rossii monthly, ca. 1916)

The first aerial photographs were taken over Paris in 1858 by French photographer and balloonist Gaspard- FĂ©lix Tournachon. In Russia, aerial photography was pioneered by Lieutenant Alexander Kovanko and Dimitry Mendeleev the scientist better known for creating the periodic table.  In 1885, they set up a park for training army officers in aeronautics and aerial photography. But in the 1890s, Captain Sergei Ulyanin's noted enthusiasm and technical expertise led to the development of box-shaped kites especially for aerial photography.

Ulyanin’s 19th century “drones” could carry a camera either as it went aloft or be the receptacle for one sent up the string on a small cart once the kite was airborne. Sergei Ulyanin had also invented a type of aerial camera that was built specifically for aircraft and was ideal for military use. The camera had a pneumatic altimeter and a clock that time-coded the 13x13cm images. Indeed Ulyanin type kites had been used as a part of aerial reconnaissance and the mapping of terrain during the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904 -1905.  However it was not automatic and had to be operated manually from the aircraft. Certainly determining the coordinates of enemy forces became an essential aspect of contemporary warfare in light of the stalemate of trench warfare, intense artillery bombardments and the protecting or assaulting of fortified positions.  As the aircraft had to fly at low altitude  around 5,000 feet)and as they were not armoured the risk of being shot down was considerable. The longest siege of the First World War at the Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemysl (present day Poland) from 1914 -1915 witnessed the extensive use of aerial photography by the Russian Imperial air force. By April 1917 a total of 77 Russian aircraft had been fitted with Ulyanin's camera.

This remarkable photograph shows Captain Ulyanin meeting Tsar Nicholas II,
believed to have been taken on a visit to Gatchina on 26th October 1911. 

It remains a mystery how this remarkable man who as a Russian engineer, balloonist, and military pilot, creator of the collapsible aircraft and the initiator of aerial photography in the Russian military, arrived in London.   Possibly it was as an emigre following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 after the October Revolution and bloody Civil War.  Not far from where families now fly kites on Hillyfields lies the spot in Brockley & Ladywell Cemeteries where Captain Ulyanin lies quietly interred,  inventor the aerial kites which helped the Russian military gain an edge at the outset of the Great War before the use of airplanes became more widespread and whose memory is still held in such considerable esteem for his contribution to aviation history.