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View, from slightly above, of several Boeing B-29 Superfortresses flying in formation, 1945. (NASM)

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?

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Stalin himself was afraid to fly. In fact, he preferred not to travel at all, and when he did, it was aboard a carefully inspected limousine or special train. The Teheran conference in 1943 posed a problem for his train because Iran’s track gauge was different. Two Lend-Lease C-47s were flown from Baku to Moscow for the impending flight, one piloted by Air Marshal Golovanov, the other by Lieutenant Colonel M. Grachev. After greeting the pilots, Stalin said, “So, who will fly me to Teheran? Perhaps it would be better for me to fly with Colonel Grachev. Air marshals do more work behind desks than in the cockpit.” Stalin shook Grachev’s hand after the flight, and a promotion quickly followed.

What we know about the building of the Tu-4 is based largely on the writings of the late Leonid Kerber, whom I first interviewed in 1991. Kerber specialized in radios and navigation instruments, and he worked at Tupolev’s side throughout the 1930s. Kerber wrote a first-hand account of the Tu-4 project, a story he told in an unofficial biography of his boss, Tupolevskaya sharaga (“Tupolev’s Prison Workshop,” reprinted as Stalin’s Aviation Gulag, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996).

Kerber’s work first appeared in the early 1970s as part of the dissident underground press, or samizdat. Kerber’s account of Tupolev’s career included a candid recollection of the B-4 program: Tupolev initially thought the effort to copy the B-29 would be foolhardy. He was more confident that his own Samolet 64 had greater potential to surpass the B-29 in critical categories of range and payload, and his ego resisted the slavish copying of some foreign design. Tupolev wanted to incorporate the West’s latest technology in an airplane that would represent the maturing technological expertise of the Soviet system. On this crucial matter he did not prevail, although the new B-4 bomber eventually bore the name Tupolev.

Stalin demanded that his new bomber be an exact copy of the B-29 because he wisely understood that even one concession would lead to a cascade of modifications, and any request to depart from this discipline would slow the process. Eager to maintain formal compliance with Stalin’s order, Tupolev chose not to take the mandate literally despite the presence of the secret police and the possibility of denunciation, reasoning that Stalin’s order pointed more toward ends than means. Thoughout the first year of the Tu-4 program, Tupolev walked a tightrope between Stalin’s requirements and practical concessions.

Tupolev chose not Ramp Tramp but the General H. H. Arnold Special (serial no. 42-6365) for disassembly. The work took place at the legendary Central Airfield at Moscow, in the only hangar large enough to hold it. A second B-29, the Ding How (no. 42-6358), was ordered grounded to serve as a reference. Only Ramp Tramp would continue to fly, and Tupolev sent it to the air force flight test center at Zhukovskiy.

Ramp Tramp was transferred to the Soviet air force on July 1, 1945, and, on orders from Air Marshal Alexander Golovanov, assigned to the elite 890th Air Regiment at Orsha. This special unit boasted the greatest number of pilots with flight experience in U.S. aircraft, and its fleet included 19 B-25s, 12 B-17s (F and G models), and one B-24.

Many of the airplanes had the customary U.S.-style nose art, and political commissars attached to the 890th often criticized this sign of decadence—images of scantily clad women were considered vulgar. Several of the airplanes’ noses were painted over, though one Soviet pilot, I. Ikonnikov, who flew a B-17F in the 890th, remembered that a nose art image of a rabbit with a bomb had struck the commissars as uncontroversial and had been spared. At Orsha, the nickname “Ramp Tramp” puzzled many Soviet pilots and engineers, even those familiar with English. One rough translation offered was “Unshaven Vagabond,” which still baffled Soviet airmen.

Later that summer, two prominent Soviet test pilots, Mark Gallai and N.A. Ischenko, flew a series of demonstration flights in Ramp Tramp. Gallai, along with another pilot, N.S. Rybko, enjoyed enormous prestige with the elite Soviet test pilot fraternity. Gallai came from a Jewish family, which might have been a problem for career advancement under the Soviet system, but his manifest skills as a pilot and engaging personality won him respect everywhere. His flight log included some of the most important aircraft of the period after World War II: He flew the initial flight of the MiG-9, the first Soviet jet fighter, and he participated in the acceptance program for the MiG-15 jet fighter. Gallai flew more than 200 types of aircraft, even taking the controls of the Luftwaffe’s dangerous Me 163 interceptor.

Gallai flew these demonstration flights at the air force flight test facility at Zhukovsky, some 20 miles east of Moscow, where experts made a close inspection of the Wright R-3350 engines. Later they would refit Ramp Tramp with Shvetsov ASh-73TK engines, the Soviet clone of earlier Wright engine designs that had been acquired under license and for which parts were available.

Tupolev’s first inspection of the General H.H. Arnold Special occurred on the night of July 10, 1945, marking the formal start of the B-4 project. During the inspection the hefty Tupolev got stuck in the duct between the forward and aft pressurized compartments of the bomber. He joked later that the Americans apparently did not feed their airmen properly.

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