Western observers were stunned when they saw a unique aircraft flying over the Moscow Airshow in July 1955. The aircraft was designed with a thirty-five degree swept wing, but powered by propellers rather than jet engines. This stunning aircraft became known as the Tupolev TU-95 (NATO code Bear), an iconic symbol of Soviet aviation. During this blog, we'll follow the development of the Bear, as well its operational service.
The story of the TU-95 dates back to World War II. During the last year of the war three American Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers were forced to land in the Soviet Far East as a result of damage sustained during bombing missions over Japan. The Soviet Union, being neutral in the war against Japan, eventually returned the aircrews to United States diplomats, but retained the aircraft. The three B-29s were state of the art aircraft, giving Stalin a windfall of aviation technology. Stalin immediately directed Andrei Tupolev, founder of the Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute and a leading designer of large Soviet aircraft to lead the effort to reverse engineer the Boeing aircraft. Within two years, Tupolev's team was able to produce a copy of the B-29, designated the TU-4 Bull, which first flew over the Tushino Aviation Day parade in August 1947, to the shock of western guests. Though the success of the TU-4 gave the Soviets a nuclear delivery capability, the plane did not have the range to reach the continental United States from Soviet bases. In 1950, Stalin issued a requirement for a new strategic bomber. The aircraft needed an unrefueled range of 5,000 miles, with a payload of 24,000 lbs.
In 1952, Tupolev and rival design bureau Myasishchev were asked to design a bomber, which could meet Stalin's requirements. Myasishchev's answer to the problem was to build a four-engine jet bomber with thirty-five degree swept wings. While in theory the Myasishchev design might have merit, Soviet jet engines were notoriously inefficient during the early 1950's. The Myasishchev design, now designated the M-4 Bison, was to be a totally new aircraft that stretched Soviet technical ability to the very limits. Tupolev applied a more conservative approach to the new bomber design, mixing established design techniques with features borrowed from the first generation of jets. Designated the TU-20 Bear, the Tupolev plane was powered by four enormous turboprop engines (12,000 hp.), a form of gas turbine whose power drives propellers rather than being thrust out the back. The four turboprops were fuel efficient, giving the Bear a range of 8,100 miles. The TU-95 has eight sets of propellers, measuring 9 ft. each, which power the plane to a top speed of 575 mph. One advantage is the Bear's wings are swept back at a thirty-five degree angle, in contrast to most propeller-driven aircraft. This feature limits drag and enables the plane to reach relatively high speeds. While a fast aircraft when it entered service, the TU-20 (now TU-95) was also a large one, with a ninety ton empty weight coupled with a length of 151 ft. and a wingspan of 164 ft.
Another unique feature of the Bear was the arrangement of its propellers. Each engine on the Bear has a set of contrarotating propellers. The second one spins in the direction opposite that of the first. This not only counteracts the torque created by the rotational airflow of the first propeller, but harnesses it for greater speed. While contrarotating propellers are slightly more efficient than the conventional arrangement, they are more expensive to produce and maintain, along with an unbelievable amount of noise produced by the two propellers. By 1954, Tupolev was awarded a contract for production of the TU-95, after a successful test flight that year with large scale production beginning in 1956. The Bears normally had a crew of between six and eight, depending upon the mission. The Bear's original mission was to fly across the Arctic Circle and drop nuclear bombs on targets over the United States. The philosophy was even if a number of the TU-95s would be shot down by surface-to-air missiles, some of the Bears would get through. Over time the missions flown by the TU-95 crews began to change. With the advent of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, which were less expensive to operate than manned bombers, as well as increasing effectiveness of air defense missiles, new variants of the TU-95 were developed to pursue different missions. One method of surmounting the bomber's inability to interception was to use them as a platform for long-range cruise missiles. The TU-95K variant could carry the enormous Kh-20 nuclear cruise missile, known by NATO as the AS-3 Kangaroo. The missile had a range of from 660 to 1,320 miles and gave the appearance of a wingless airplane, as it was modeled off the fuselage of a MIG-19.
Another mission assigned to the Bear was to shadow U.S. carrier battle groups. Even with state of the art sensors, finding and tracking ships across the vastness of the ocean was a challenging endeavor. However, if a U.S. carrier group could be located, it would be subject to attack by swarms of land-based bombers. The TU-95, with its ability to fly over the ocean for hours on end and cover vast territories, was ideal for detecting the position of U.S. fleets and tracking their movements. The success of this mission spawned a new Bear variant, the TU-95RT, which was a dedicated reconnaissance aircraft. The RT variant had surface search radar in a belly pod and even added a glass observation blister just behind the tail gun position. Not only were tracking fleet movements tactically useful, but psychologically as well, making the U.S. carrier groups appear vulnerable. In the early 1970's, the Soviet Union developed a specialized antisubmarine reconnaissance variant of the Bear, the TU-142. These were specifically designed to counter the U.S. Polaris Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM)s, which were first launched in 1960. The 142 aircraft was upgraded periodically to keep pace with U.S. submarine development. The TU-142 was a successful design and a number of them were exported by the Soviets during the 1980's, primarily to India. The TU-142 is distinguished by its Berkut surface-search and targeting radar. A boom in the tail houses a Magnetic Anomaly Detector, useful for finding submarines. The TU-142 has a stretch panel to accommodate all of the sensors packed inside of it.
The Bear was also developed into Russia's first AWACs aircraft, the TU-126, which entered service in 1965. The TU-114, the airliner variant of the Bear, was first flown in 1957 and carried Khrushchev on an eleven-hour nonstop flight from Moscow to New York in 1959. There were a number of experimental Bears, such as the TU-95 LAL, which was powered by a nuclear reactor, as well as the TU-95K, designed to carry MIG-19 fighters for airborne deployment. Other than the TU-142 naval variants, the only TU-95s in service today are the 55 TU-95MS cruise missile variants, developed in the 1980's from the TU-142 airframe. Tupolev initially wanted to modify TU-95s built in the 1950's and 1960's as cruise missile platforms in the 1980's. These proved unsatisfactory, being unable to accommodate sixteen long-range cruise missiles. Thus, about sixty of the MS missile carrier variants were constructed during the 1980s, making them at least twenty years newer than comparable B-52 Stratofortress models. The MS variants have been upgraded with the latest navigation and targeting systems. The MS variants also carry several types of cruise missiles to include the Kh-55, designated the AS-15 by NATO, with a range of 200 to 2,000 miles, as well as the Kh-101 stealth cruise missile and the Kh-102 nuclear stealth cruise missile. Both missiles have an effective range of 3,500 miles. TU-95s were also used to conduct nuclear weapons tests with a TU-95V dropping the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated over Severny Island in 1961. The fifty megaton hydrogen bomb detonated four kilometers above the ground, sending a mushroom cloud forty miles into the sky. The shock wave tossed the Bear about three-thousand feet toward the ground, but the pilot managed to recover the aircraft, returning to base. The crew had been briefed before the test that they had about a fifty per cent probability of surviving the blast.
The Bear has been in service for nearly seventy years and continues to perform its respective missions. Modernization programs in recent years have made it an even more capable aircraft. Both the TU-142 naval variant and the TU-95MS strategic bomber employ the latest electronics and weapons systems. Though newer bombers have been developed since the Bear entered service, they have not had the staying power of the TU-95. The versatility of the Bear is a tribute to Andrei Tupolev and the men who designed the aircraft over seventy years ago.