Kevin Myers: Put the cold war back on ice and get those skies growling: “But by evil mischance, three B-29s made emergency landings in the Soviet Far East. The aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev decided to reverse-engineer the B-29. That is to say every single screw, every singe valve, every single light-bulb, every single switch and toggle and ashtray and button – over a million parts in all – were painstakingly and perfectly copied, and then assembled in the greatest act of flattery in industrial history. So confident was Tupolev of the soundness of the Boeing design that his version was put directly into production, without any test flights, and over 4,000 Tu-4 Bull bombers were manufactured for the Soviet air forces. Opposing them were 2,000 identical B-29s of the USAF. It was the only time in history that two world powers equipped their rival fleets with precisely the same bomber.
The creation of the B-29 had been the most complex project in aviation history, and the capture of the B-29s enabled Tupolev to learn in a few weeks what had taken the US many years to discover: the steepest aviation learning-curve ever.
However, the Tu-4 could not reach the USA, and if there’s one thing that dear old Stalin wanted, it was the ability to turn New York into a Siberia. So after various intermediary experiments, Tupolev produced the Tu-95, which basically consisted of the B-29/Tu-4 fuselage, but with huge new swept-back wings and four colossal turboprop engines.
The resulting Soviet/US fusion was one of the most extraordinary aerial confections ever. The Tu-95 had a range of over 10,000 miles, could cruise at 500mph at an altitude of 50,000 feet carrying a nuclear bomb. With air-to-air refuelling, the Bear – as a horrified NATO called it – could reach anywhere on Earth. Like its American counterpart, the B-52 Stratofortress, the Tu-95 has continued to operate in the Russian Air Force while several iterations of bomber design have come and gone. Part of the reason for this longevity was its suitability, like the B-52, for modification to different missions. Whereas the Tu-95 was originally intended to drop nuclear weapons, it was subsequently modified to perform a wide range of roles, such as the deployment of cruise missiles, maritime patrol (Tu-142 Bear-F), AWACS platform (Tu-126) and even civilian airliner (Tu-114). During and after the Cold War, the Tu-95’s utility as a weapons platform has only been eclipsed by its usefulness as a diplomatic icon. When a patrolling Tu-95 appears off the coast of the United States or one of its allies, it may not be the technological menace that it was in its heyday, but it is still a potent and visible symbol of the Russian capability to project military power over great distances.
The Soviet Union did not assign official “popular names” to its aircraft, although unofficial nicknames were common. Unusually, Soviet pilots found the Tu-95/Tu-142’s NATO reporting name, ‘Bear,’ to be a fitting nickname, given the aircraft’s large size, ‘lumbering’ maneuverability and speed, and large arsenal. It is often called Bear in Russian service. An anecdotal story states that it was actually a Russian crew who had the privilege of assigning the NATO reporting name; during the aircraft’s Paris Airshow debut, a Western reporter asked the crew what the plane’s name was. The pilot responded, “it can’t be anything but a bear.“