Jet Race

In 1956, the Soviets held first place — briefly.

A source of national pride, the Tupolev Tu-104 jetliner drew a crowd at a 1959 national economy exhibition in Moscow, and at all its public appearances. (Ria Novosti)
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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.

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.

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