Codenamed the ‘Bear’ – this is the beast from the East. The Tupolev-95 is a colossal piece of mechanion in 1952.
With its four thunderous propellers and bulky fuselage, the TU-95 has an air of the past to it, but make no mistake about it, this aircraft remains a fearsome proposition in the 21st Century. Like many extravagant pieces of military hardware that emerged during the Cold War, it was never called upon in a way it had been designed for – and thankfully so, because if a fleet of Tu-95s had ever roared towards the United States laden with nuclear cargoes – well you probably wouldn’t even be watching this video.
The Tu-95 remains both an icon of a different time and a constant, present reminder of the longevity and superb engineering that went into it in the early 1950s. A floating mega-fortress with a mechanical growl loud enough to shake fillings loose, this is the story of the indomitable Tupolev-95.
If you follow along with Megaprojects, you’ll know full well that we do rather like a piece of outrageous Cold War engineering – the more preposterous the better in my book. You’ll also know that this was a period when technology barrelled forward unabated, often leaving new engineering behind even before it had a chance to cement its place on the world stage.
And few areas saw such dramatic change as aviation. Jet technology had been used during World War II, and while the most famous aircraft names of the war still used propellers, it wouldn’t be long until they fell out of fashion.
If technology had moved quickly while the world was at war, the effect the ironically peaceful Cold War had on aviation was immense. Numerous aircraft built by the U.S and the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s raised the bar even higher, but the introduction of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles meant many quickly fell out of favour.
As World War II came to a close, the USSR looked greedily at the U.S military machine. The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was at the time one of the largest aircraft in operation and its titanic size certainly made an impression on the Soviet leaders.
With an unabashed disregard for originality, the USSR essentially reversed engineered the B-29 and created their own version, the Tu-4. The U.S had consistently refused to include the B-29 under the Lend-Lease program during the war, but four made emergency landings within Soviet territory and since the USSR was technically neutral in the Pacific War, the aircraft were interned and bundled off to Moscow where engineers took them apart and built their own.
The Tu-4 was followed by the Tu-85, with two prototypes appearing by the early 1950s, but the aircraft still lacked the range to hit the kind of targets Soviet leaders had in mind – say Washington D.C for example. No, the Soviet Union knew it had to go even bigger and even better.
Two separate design bureaus, Tupolev and Myasishchev, were tasked with drawing up plans for an aircraft with a range of up to 8,000 km (5,000 mi) and an ability to carry 11,000 kg (24,000 lb) worth of ordnance. Myasishchev soon produced a design that would go on to become the Myasishchev M-4 – or Bison as NATO referred to it as – an incredibly forward-thinking jet bomber, but one that came with severe range issues.
Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev, the pioneering aviation designer who had once been imprisoned by Stalin during the Great Purge on trumped-up charges of espionage and sabotage, favoured the use of turboprop engines over piston engines, which weren’t powerful enough and jet engines, which used too much fuel over such long distances. Considering what appeared to be the natural evolution of aviation, the use of propellers in the 1950s seemed a little archaic – but considering they’re still flying in 2021, it’s fair to say that that argument has been settled.
The first model, the Tu-95/I, took to the skies for the first time in November 1952 but crashed just six months later killing the pilot on board. Next up was the Tu-95/II, which came with an additional two engines that added further stability to the aircraft and after impressing the Soviet military, the Tu-95 went into full production in 1956.
OK, let’s begin with those propellers. Tu-95 comes with four Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprop engines, each producing 15,000 horsepower and each connected to two contra-rotating propellers with four blades each – meaning that the two propellers travel in an opposite direction to each other. This not only counteracts the torque created by the rotational airflow of the first propeller but produces a greater speed as a result. These propellers are so loud they have even been heard within submerged submarines with the tips travelling at a speed that is just faster than the speed of sound.
The aircraft is an all-metal creation with high aspect ratio all swept wings set at 30 degrees. Its wingspan is 50.1 metres (164 ft 4 in) and has a full length of 46.2 metres (151 ft 7 in) – making it larger than the B-29 in every way, but a little smaller than the B-52. It weighs 104 tons – roughly 55 times as heavy as a standard car – and has a maximum take-off weight of 207 tons.
It comes with a top speed of around 925km/h (574 mph) and a maximum range of 15,000 km (9,300 miles) – though this would require one in-air refuel. The Tu-94 shares its bulky fuel weight around and has four wing tanks and three tanks in the fuselage, two in the centre and one in the rear section of the aircraft.
In terms of weaponry, it has either 1 or 2 23 mm (0.906 in) AM-23 autocannons in the tail turret mainly for defensive duties and can carry up to 15,000 kg (33,000 lb) worth of cruise missiles on its underwing pylons or six KH-55 Granat nuclear-armed long-range cruise missiles mounted on a catapult launch drum in the bomb bay. Of course, when the Tu-95 first appeared in the mid-1950s, cruise missiles were still very much in their infancy and the aircraft would have carried much more traditional bombs – many of the nuclear variety.
The Tu-94 comes with a crew of 6 or 7, with the pilot and co-pilot situated in the cockpit and the flight engineer, communications system operator, navigator, tail gunner and occasional second navigator located just behind in the forward compartment.
When the vast shadow of the Tu-95 began to appear after 1956, it was anybody’s guess how far the degrading relations between the two superpowers would fall. Just to be sure, both nations developed military strategies to be used in the event of a nuclear war. I say strategy, but really both nations simply aimed to wipe as much of the other off the face of the planet before the other could blink. With the fortune of hindsight it seems perfectly obvious that any nuclear war would have led to the likely destruction of vast swaths of the planet but with both the U.S and the USSR desperately building up their military capabilities, neither could afford to fall behind. It was the most costly and strangely demented game of keeping up with the Jones’ we’ve ever seen.
The Tu-95 very much became part of this game and could often be found performing maritime surveillance, which often equated to shadowing U.S carrier battle groups, as well as patrols that got about as close as you can get to violating another nation’s airspace, without actually violating another nation’s airspace.
This was an aircraft that was certainly capable of flying from a Soviet airfield and disgorging a nuclear bomb somewhere over Nebraska – not that you would particularly want or need to bomb one of America’s most tediously dull landscapes, but my point was it could get anywhere in the United States. But of course, that never happened – not even close. Instead, the Tu-95 was often used as a show of force, a belligerent reminder that the USSR had more nuclear weapons than they knew what to do with them. Though that being said, unlike their American counterparts who flew nuclear combat-ready missions, Tu-95s rarely actually carried nuclear weapons as they had to remain on the ground until absolutely needed.
The Bomb To End All Bombs
So while the Tu-95 fleet didn’t typically fly with weapons that could destroy the world, they were certainly involved in the testing, which culminated in the cataclysmic detonation of the Tsar Bomba on 30th October 1961. Luckily for you, we have already covered this subject on Megaprojects, so if this whets your appetite for a bit of global destruction, why not check it out afterwards.
On the morning of 30th October, a modified Tu-95 struggled into the sky, dangerously burdened with a massive nuclear bomb that remains the largest ever detonated. The 50 Megaton bomb, named the Tsar Bomba, weighed nearly 30 tons and needed to be carried below the aircraft rather than inside its bomb bay because it was too big.
The aircraft had been painted with anti-flash white, a common addition on nuclear bombers at the time as it was thought to deflect some of the radiation from a nuclear explosion, but still, those onboard the Tu-95 had been told that their survival chances were only 50%.
As the Tu-95 appeared above Novaya Zemlya, a small archipelago off the north coast of Russia, the most destructive bomb in history began its slow parachute descent, as the Tu-95 and observer aircraft frantically tried to get away from the blast zone. At 11.32 am, the earth began shaking, with an 8-kilometre-wide (5.0 mi) fireball quickly reaching the same altitude as the Tupolev. This was followed by a mushroom cloud that reached 67 km (42 mi) high – that’s more than seven times the height of Mount Everest.
The Tu-95, which experienced a one kilometre (0.6 miles) drop as a result of the explosion, escaped the fiery inferno and returned home. The Soviet Union had not only shown they had the most destructive bomb in the world but also, a reliable workhorse to carry it.
The Soviets even briefly considered modifying the Tu-95 to become a nuclear-powered bomber. The Tu-95LAL was a heavily modified version with a small reactor inside, which was tested over the course of 40 flights (most with the reactor shutdown) but by the 1960s the project had been cancelled.
Another idea that fell out of fashion was that of carrying bulky nuclear weapons inside giant bombers like the Tu-95. With intercontinental missiles now capable of hitting any target on the planet, the need for these types of long-distance behemoth bombers diminished dramatically and in the final few decades of the Cold War, the aircraft experienced multiple variations, which often completely altered its mission profile.
The Tu-126 ‘Moss’ was a heavily modified airborne early warning and control aircraft, primarily developed from the Tu-114, which itself borrowed heavily from the Tu-95. The Tu-96 was designed as a high-altitude version of the Tu-95, which could have climbed to 16,000–17,000 metres (52,000–56,000 ft) had it actually got past the prototype stage. Several more variations have tinkered with the Tu-94 design but in general the aircraft began to be used much more for reconnaissance and bravado-flexing flights, than as a long-distance bomber.
Post Cold War
As the Cold War came to its thankfully anticlimactic finale, it’s thought that roughly 500 Tu-95s had been built. When the USSR finally collapsed in 1991, the vast fleet was pretty much grounded, with many left in suddenly independent countries. Not that many were in any position to be using them, and the following year Kazakhstan began returning the Tu-95s that had been stationed at the Dolon air base to Russia.
With Russia in financial turmoil, the subsequent years saw a vast reduction in Tu-95 presence around the world. The colossal bully that had become a Cold War icon, was now reduced to a hazy memory. But things changed with the ascension to power of the alpha male often found rising hoses while topless – Vladimir Putin. This is a man who has somehow styled himself as a modern politician but continually proves himself as little more than a crafty thug who would like nothing more than to revert to the good old days of the Soviet Union – purges, gulags and Stalin-worshipping included.
From what we know about Putin, you won’t be at all surprised to hear that it was his decision in 2007 to begin Russia’s long-distance patrols once again – something they hadn’t done since 1991. And since then that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. In 2015, two Tu-95s appeared off the coast of Britain and were politely asked to leave by a group of RAF Fighters. In 2020 the same occurred off the coast of Ireland, while on a single day in March 2021, NATO aircraft were scrambled 10 times to intercept Russian aircraft in the North Atlantic, North Sea, the Baltic and Black Sea.
Remember that annoying kid in school, who almost certainly came with a crappy upbringing and who used to throw things at other children to try and provoke a fight, well, that’s basically Russia.
The Tu-95 fleet has an impressive safety record, but one that has certainly been called into question in recent years, with four crashes involving the Tupolevs in the past ten years alone. Not only are many of these aircraft fairly old at this point, but they’re also still tasked with intensive flight missions that clock up thousands of miles in the process. With these ageing beasts, accidents are bound to happen occasionally.
Nearly sixty years after the introduction of the Tu-95, the aircraft saw its first combat operations in Syria. There is an irony to an aircraft being built to drop a nuclear bomb on an American city but finally getting its first fight with poorly armed rebels in the Middle East over half a century later. On 17th November 2015, the Tu-95s made their bow as they took part in the Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War by hitting several targets broadly labelled as ‘extremists.
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that Putin was just itching to get his troops into combat to bolster Russian prestige or fear factor, rather than any great concern for Syrian wellbeing – but what do I know.
Snarky comments regarding the Russians aside, the Tu-95 is a phenomenal powerhouse of an aircraft that just won’t let up. With upgrades and modification now well underway, it’s thought that the Tu-95 fleet will remain in operation until at least 2040, which would mark an extraordinary 85-year reign.
As I said earlier, this aircraft is both a symbol of the Cold War and a monument to its rugged, dependable design. It feels both very old and entirely comfortable in the present day, surrounded by screeching jets and aircraft so young they could be its grandchildren. Not that aircraft procreate, but I think you get my point.
Considering the developments in aviation technology since the 1950s, it’s astonishing that so many of these planes are still flying. Yes, they might be wobbling slightly in their old age, but when you have a classic, robust titan like this, why wouldn’t you keep them in the air. As other aircraft have come and gone, the Tu-95 continues to be a trustworthy mainstay of the skies. A colossal dynamo that doesn’t know when to quit.