Made in the U.S.S.R.
Of course they copied it. The two airplanes could have been twins. But was the Soviets' Tu-4 truly an exact duplicate of the Boeing B-29?
- By Von Hardesty
- Air & Space magazine, March 2001
(Page 7 of 10)
While Tupolev remained attentive to certain external cosmetic flourishes to suggest strict compliance with Stalin’s order for an exact copy (a repair patch in the fuselage was included and the interior paint scheme duplicated exactly), he often went his own way on the more critical, less obvious components. Stalin’s acquiescence on the matter of using the metric system had been a major concession. Other concessions followed in engines, radar, and armament. Leonid Kerber aptly described the Tu-4 as an “analog” or, in this context, a facsimile of the B-29. If the airplane can be thought of has having a gentic code, the dominant genes were Boeing’s, and the recessive genes were Tupolev’s.
Among all the concessions, the choice of engines for the new Tu-4 became critical. Arkadiy Shvetsov, a Soviet engine designer, learned from Tupolev that he would not have to replicate the B-29’s powerful 2,200-horsepower Wright R-3350 engine. Instead, Tupolev approved Shvetsov’s request to fit the Tu-4 with a variant of the M-71 design (a Wright engine clone). The resulting ASh-73TK engine would boast 2,300 horsepower, but the Shvetsov design proved inadequate, at least in the initial production run, to match the performance of the Wright R-3350. There were constant problems with overheating and frequent propeller failures. The ASh-73TK design, however, was a sound one, and subsequent refinements eliminated problems.
Some duplication efforts led to surprising successes. One of the more complex units on a B-29 was the Central Station Fire Control System, the computerized remote firing system. Gunsights and controls were located with the gunners in Plexiglas blisters and were linked electronically to remote turrets housing the guns. The system incorporated complex circuitry and switches that enabled any B-29 gunner to control any of the gun turrets that he could aim properly. I.I. Toropov devoted his considerable talent and energy to this system. He succeeded, to the amazement of Tupolev and the consternation of observers in the West, who believed this advanced system was beyond the capacity of the Soviets.
No less important was the decision to substitute the Soviet NS-23 cannon for the original .50-caliber machine guns, another concession approved by Stalin. Tupolev also contended with a bomb bay that was larger than any produced in the Soviet Union. And there were enormous problems with the system that actuated the undercarriage, along with the inability of the Soviet aviation industry to produce the oversize tires for the landing gear. When faced with the task of copying the B-29’s large tires and complex gear, the Soviets used a unique approach: Agents were sent to the West to purchase them on the war surplus market.
Many myths have arisen in the West about how the Soviets built the Tu-4. Over the decades stories have circulated that the B-29 was copied in exacting and often ludicrous ways. These tales suggest that Tupolev and his team mindlessly replicated every aspect of the Boeing design. As noted, Tupolev did approve the precise copying of such details as a fuselage patch and the exact hue of the interior paint scheme found on Ramp Tramp. Some rumors circulated that even flak damage on the wings had been carefully copied, but such stories exaggerate what actually happened.
When I interviewed Leonid Kerber in 1991, he told me that these stories were partially true, although he felt Westerners did not understand the historical context or Tupolev’s motives. All these minor details in copying, according to Kerber, were a way to prevent Beria’s police from accusing the Tupolev team of ignoring Stalin’s precise instructions. No one wanted to risk arrest.
Aside from the threat of imprisonment, Tupolev had to contend with the legendary bureaucratic inertia associated with the aviation industry. For decades, Soviet designers had come up with excellent aircraft designs, even prototypes, only to see serial production fall short of the design standards. Soviet aviation plants had trouble sustaining quality control in the mass production of aircraft. The more complex the aircraft, the more disappointing the result. It was easier in the war years to build huge numbers of military aircraft of simple design, such as 33,000 Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik ground attack aircraft known for their sturdiness and austere instrumentation. Such aircraft could be built using a largely unskilled labor force. The Tu-4 demanded a level of sophistication at odds with decades of industrial practice, and to a degree no Westerner might have expected, the Soviets succeeded. The first batch of Tu-4s rolled off the assembly line on schedule in 1947, less than two years after the project was launched—an incredible feat. As production expanded, additional plants were mobilized.
Tupolev selected three prominent test pilots to fly the first operational Tu-4s off the assembly line—Nikolai S. Rybko, Mark Gallai, and A.G. Vasil’chenko—and Rybko received the nod to make the maiden flight, scheduled for May 1947. Police security was tight, but once word of the flight leaked, workers streamed to the edge of the airstrip near the plant. The workers had made enormous sacrifices, and no one wanted to miss the first flight. Thousands crowded the roads and the outer boundary of the plant’s airfield to get a glimpse. When Rybko lifted the new Tu-4 into the air, the workers cheered.