In 1956, the Soviets held first place — briefly.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, November 2013
(Page 3 of 6)
Stalin and his secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, soon realized they had made a mistake, however. War was threatening Europe, and without its guiding spirit, Soviet aviation was in chaos. Tupolev was rescued from Moscow’s Butyrskaya prison in late 1938, and transferred to Bolshevo prison to head a new design bureau controlled by Beria’s secret police, the NKVD. There he created a Stalinist version of Schindler’s list, handing his captors the names of some 150 imprisoned engineers and scientists whom he declared essential to his patriotic work. Beria dutifully retrieved this elite cadre from throughout the Gulag archipelago, undoubtedly saving the lives of most of them.
While still prisoners, Tupolev and his fellow designers created the Tu-2 bomber. The Soviet supreme court granted Tupolev clemency as the Nazis overran western Russia in July 1941, just in time for him to evacuate his workshop to Omsk, in Siberia.
After the war, Soviet aviation was enriched by technology shared willingly or otherwise by the country’s Western allies. In 1944, four American Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers were forced to make emergency landings at Vladivostok after a raid on Japan. Stalin had them flown to Moscow and set Tupolev to work reverse-engineering them to create a Soviet version. The result was the Tu-4, which first flew in May 1947.
Simultaneously the master designer developed the Soviet Union’s first jet-powered bomber, using Rolls-Royce Nene and Derwent engines, which Britain briefly made available under license. This aircraft was the Tu-12, which flew in December 1947. In the early 1950s, Tupolev returned to turboprop technology for the Tu-95 strategic bomber—the Bear—which was still flying when the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.
Even in this frenzy of military invention, Tupolev did not forget airliners. He scavenged parts of his precious Superfortresses to make a trial civilian version of the Tu-4. And as soon as the Tu-16 was aloft in 1952, he began lobbying the Communist hierarchy for a passenger variant. Tupolev’s conversion plans made little progress while Stalin was alive. The dictator traveled, with rare exceptions, by train, and thought ordinary citizens should do the same. In Stalin’s mind, airplanes and the limited resources available to build them were for war.
On the other hand, Nikita Khrushchev, the premier who took power after Stalin died in 1953, loved flying. He saw civil aviation as a pillar in his grand strategy to “catch and overtake” the West. Tupolev was invited back in late 1953 to pitch the civilian Tu-16 idea to the Communist Party Central Committee, and by June 1954 had an order to get cracking. The Tu-104 was on its way.
Converting a spanking new jet bomber to civilian use turned out to be not so simple. The bomb bay, for example, had to be transformed into a baggage compartment. But the core problem was that a passenger liner needed a pressurized cabin, and numerous extra holes cut into the fuselage for windows and doors.
The British investigation into the Comet failures was delayed because both crashes had taken place at sea, making wreckage recovery difficult. Tupolev from the first rightly suspected the airplane’s body had suffered metal fatigue. One of his adjustments was simply to add heft to the -104, thickening the fuselage skin to 1.5 mm, compared to the Comet’s 0.9 mm. The extra weight halved the -104’s range to 1,900 miles and considerably increased fuel costs, but the apparatchiks approved of Tupolev’s caution.