The early pioneers of aviation sometimes branched out from other fields before realizing their ultimate success. For example, Glenn Curtiss raced motorcycles and developed small engines prior to his fame in aviation. Both Wiliam Boeing and his family were in the timber business before he founded the Boeing aircraft company. The hero of this blog was no exception, although he achieved his success by a more indirect route.
Andrei Nickolaevich Tupolev was born in Pustomozovo, Russia in 1888. The sixth of a family of seven children, Tupolev developed an early interest in building models and small pieces of furniture – a hobby his parents encouraged. After his graduation from the Tver secondary school in 1908, Tupolev applied to the Moscow Imperial Technical High School (IMTU) pursuing a technical degree. During his time at the technical school, Tupolev met Nickolai Zhukovski, who introduced the subject of aeronautics at IMTU. Zhukovski would serve as both an instructor and a mentor to Tupolev. Perhaps Tupolev’s most significant project at IMTU was the construction of a wind tunnel, one of the first in practical use, from which to test aerodynamic designs. Tupolev was arrested in 1911 for involvement in a subversive student organization. Though Zhukovski interceded on Tupolev’s behalf, he wasn’t successful and Tupolev was placed under house arrest, only allowed to leave to attend his father’s funeral later that year. He was finally released in 1914 and resumed his studies, graduating in 1918 with the degree of Engineer-Mechanic.
In 1918 Zhukovski and Tupolev petitioned the Soviet government to establish an aerodynamic research organization. In December 1918 their request was granted and the Central Aero/Hydrodynamics Institute or TsAGI was established. TsAGI grew rapidly from an initial staff of six to nearly thirty engineers and technicians by mid 1919. In 1921 Tupolev was elected by the staff at TsAGI to be Zhukovski’s deputy or Comrade To The Director. The following year he began work on his first aircraft, designated the ANT 1, using Tupolev’s initials for the name. Because he advocated the use of light metals in aircraft, such as duraluminium, pioneered by Junkers in Germany, Tupolev met with opposition from the timber industry, promoting the construction of wooden aircraft. Although he won the battle for an all-metal aircraft, the ANT 1 was built of mixed metal and wood. It was a single seat cantilever monoplane, with a 25′ wingspan. The ANT 1 first flew in late 1923 and was a successful design. In 1927 the ANT 2, the Soviet Union’s first all-metal plane flew, proving both the durability and practicality of light metal construction. The ANT 2 was powered by an air cooled 100 hp. Bristol Jupiter engine and could accommodate two passengers in the cabin with an open cockpit for the pilot.
In the 1930′s Tupolev traveled to Germany, France, Britain and the United States to gain insight into the aircraft technologies of those nations. He encouraged the Soviet government to purchase a license to manufacture Wright Cyclone engines, which were the basis for a series of Soviet built air-cooled engines, as well as the liquid-cooled Hispano Suiza engine from France. Tupolev’s design bureau produced a number of large scale aircraft, such as the ANT 20, named after the famous Russian poet Maxim Gorky. The ANT 20 was an extremely big plane for its day, having a fuselage 107′ long with a wingspan of 207′. The Maxim Gorky was powered by eight engines, six in the wing and two above the fuselage. The passenger compartment was subdivided into four cabin areas. The ANT 20 first flew in 1934 and made several foreign tours, of great propaganda value to the Soviet state. However, the Maxim Gorky crashed in May 1935 as a result of a mid air collision with a fighter performing aerobatic maneuvers during a Moscow airshow. Tupolev’s next major effort was the development of the ANT 25. The ANT 25 was first proposed in 1931 as a long range bomber. The 25 plane was somewhat smaller than the Maxim Gorky, with a 44′ long fuselage coupled with a 112′ wingspan. It had a crew of three: pilot, copilot, and a navigator who doubled as a radio operator. The long tapered wings of the plane contributed to its range by storing its fuel tanks, which accounted for 52 % of its take off weight. After several test flights in 1934-36, two ANT 25s made transpolar flights from Moscow to Pearson Field, Oregon and San Jacinto, California in June 1937. Both planes had enough fuel to reach Panama, but were denied permission by the Mexican government to overfly its territory.
The World War II era was a difficult one for both Tupolev and his design bureau. He was arrested in 1937 for passing aviation secrets to foreign governments, a charge which was totally baseless. Both he and his staff were imprisoned until released in July 1941. Tupolev and his team worked round the clock designing and improving Soviet aircraft for the demands of war. In 1945 Tupolev was given the demanding task of reverse engineering the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Though the Soviet Union was not yet at war with Japan, four of the Boeing planes could not make it back to their Marianas bases and were forced to land near Vladivostok, on the Soviet Pacific coast. Stalin ordered three of the planes sent to Moscow with the fourth unit retained for quality control purposes. Tupolev was to have direct control of all aspects of engineering and production. Any requests made by his staff were given top priority, which greatly reduced production time. In just 20 months, the first Soviet B-29 (TU-4) flew above the 1947 May Day parade, to the astonishment of western observers.
Tupolev went on to produce a number of other Soviet aircraft, such as the TU-16 Badger, the Soviet Union’s first major jet bomber, the TU-104 jetliner, a civil variant of the Badger, as well as the TU-95 Bear, the world’s only turboprop bomber. Tupolev’s crowning achievement came in 1968, when, as promised, his design bureau flew the worlds first supersonic transport (SST) on December 31 of that year – some two months ahead of the Concorde. Though Tupolev experienced many hardships throughout his life, his dedication to the field of aviation produced some of the worlds premier aircraft.
This blog is the third of a series about the heroes of aviation.