In 1956, the Soviets held first place — briefly.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, November 2013
(Page 2 of 6)
None of the pilots ever met the mighty Tupolev. But they remember him with respect despite his hot-blooded insult to their comrades who died flying his machine. “Tupolev did everything he could as a designer to ensure safety,” Ushof booms. “You have to remember that the Tu-104 flew at a completely new altitude, where meteorologists had no experience of the winds and currents.”
Considering the breakneck pace of the -104’s development, it seems a wonder that it flew at all. These days, when a new aircraft can spend a decade or more in design and testing, it is hard to imagine the pace of the early cold war, when aerospace manufacturers cranked out rapidly evolving generations of military aircraft and the technology spilled over somewhat haphazardly into civil aviation. The -104 was created in 14 months in 1954-55 on the platform of the Tu-16 long-range bomber, known in the West as the Badger, which was itself virgin technology.
During this hectic period, Andrei Nikolaevich Tupolev was at the height of his long, eventful career. Born in 1888 near the central Russian city of Tver, Tupolev went to college at the Moscow Imperial Technical School. One of his professors was Nikolai Zhukovski, the revered father of Russian aviation, who in 1909 taught the country’s first university course in aerodynamics.
Zhukovski and Tupolev stuck together after the Bolshevik revolution, creating the Central Aero/Hydrodynamics Institute, or TsAGI, in 1918, the cerebrum for a vast industry to come. The first aircraft with Tupolev’s name on it, a half-wooden monoplane designated ANT-1, flew in 1923. Two years later, Tupolev launched his first military craft, a reconnaissance sesquiplane called ANT-3.
In 1937, Tupolev’s ANT-25 carried Valery Chkalov over the North Pole to America’s Washington state, a feat generations of Soviet propagandists tirelessly glorified. “Andrei Nikolaevich’s real genius was as an organizer,” says Vladimir Rigmant, house historian and curator of the one-room Tupolev Museum, located at the Moscow headquarters of what is today called Public Stock Company Tupolev. “He could see a practical means for realizing complex ideas.”
Getting to see Rigmant, who has been employed at the Tupolev Works since the 1970s, is not easy. Like much of Russian industry, the company still acts like it has important secrets to protect. My persistence is rewarded with a trip into Moscow’s industrialized eastern quadrant to a squat 1960s office building that only a central planner could love.
Carefully unlocking an unmarked door off to one side of the large, bare lobby, Rigmant ushers me into his cabinet of treasures. He whips out a pointer to review a half-century’s worth of aircraft models jammed tail to nose in the constrained space, rushing through a litany of years and model numbers: Tu-2,Tu-70, Tu-205, Tu-154. On the wall is a family photo of the designer with his wife Julia, who worked closely with him.
Yet scarcely four months after Chkalov’s flight, Tupolev was caught in the madness of Joseph Stalin’s party purges. He was arrested as a saboteur in October 1937, and under torture confessed to a wide range of “crimes” against the Soviet people.