In the years before the invention of the flight data recorder, the “black box” that records essential flight data, an aircraft accident investigation could occasionally degenerate into a mere finger-pointing exercise, like this one from Russia during World War I — a group of aviation cadets at the Gatchina Military Flying School near Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) point fingers of scorn at a student pilot identified only as “Ivanov” after his less than perfect landing, fortunately injuring only his dignity. The photograph comes from the collection of Alexander Riaboff (1895-1984) — he’s the finger-pointer at the left — who served in the Russian Army Air Service and was trained at Gatchina. After the Revolution, Riaboff flew in the Red Air Fleet and also with the counterrevolutionary White forces before fleeing in 1920 to Harbin, China. Later, he emigrated with his wife and daughter to the United States and settled in the San Francisco area. Years later, Riaboff wrote up his adventures as a pilot during those tumultuous times, and as edited by National Air and Space Museum curator Von Hardesty, they were published in 1986 as Gatchina Days: Reminiscences of a Russian Pilot.
Allan Janus is a museum specialist in the Archives Division of the National Air and Space Museum.