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?

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

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Teams of engineers, technicians, and rigging specialists, swarming like worker bees, descended on the airplane. The process was slow and systematic. Each component was measured and photographed for replication. Instruments and controls were carefully removed and the placement of hydraulic lines and wiring marked. Every part and subassembly was numbered, labeled, and recorded. The components were then assigned to a design team for reproduction.

During this process, Kerber discovered a plaque next to the bombardier’s seat that read: “At the request of the workers of the Boeing plant in Wichita, Kansas, this B-29 is named the General H.H. Arnold.” The plaque commemorated an inspection tour Arnold made of the Wichita plant in 1942, and it prompted some debate among the technicians at the Central Aerodrome. They marveled at the apparent solidarity of the workers with a high-ranking American officer, which ran counter to Soviet propaganda on the nature of class struggle in the United States. Kerber eventually gave the plaque to the son of a colleague, Boris Saukke, and the Saukke family still has this sole surviving artifact from the three B-29s at Vladivostok.

Stalin maintained control over the Tu-4 program through Lavrentiy Beria. The fellow Georgians would often break into their native dialect, with devastating effect on intimidated officials. Beria fully embraced the regime’s cruelty and headed Stalin’s most critical programs, including the atomic bomb. Beria came to Moscow in 1938 to head the NKVD—the secret police. He presided over purges, expanded the gulag, and moved up once the war began to serve on the Central Committee of the Communist Party and as deputy prime minister. Stalin even made him a marshal of the Soviet Union. But Beria’s most important post was inside the State Defense Committee, where he oversaw key programs associated with state security. He would cast a long shadow over the Tu-4 program.

Beria evoked fear in all quarters, even among high-ranking party and military figures, but he displayed no small amount of skill in coordinating secret programs. Toward his peers Beria could be rude and threatening, but he frequently displayed politeness to subordinates, especially Tupolev. For Beria, the bottom line was always accountability. Those who performed their tasks on time and to the standards he expected enjoyed relative safety. His efficiency and loyalty earned Stalin’s trust, which endured until the dictator’s death in 1953. Only then did Beria become vulnerable, and he was executed that December.

As administrator, Tupolev enjoyed Stalin’s imprimatur, which afforded unique access to Soviet industry. Tupolev’s return to favor also signalled the decline of his chief rival, Alexander Yakovlev, along with those tied to the expansion of Soviet tactical aviation during the war years. Still, Tupolev found himself at a dangerous crossroads. He understood that success would consolidate his position and could even open up vast opportunities in the postwar aeronautical community. But failure might cast him into yet another uncertain relationship with a ruthless Joseph Stalin and even lead to imprisonment.

In this context, Tupolev’s skill as a manager would face its most severe challenge. While flight tests of Ramp Tramp proceeded, he recruited his administrative team for the Tu-4 project, naming Dmitry S. Markov as his chief deputy. A trusted associate of Tupolev, Markov possessed broad technical expertise and had earned a reputation for competence as a designer. Markov had served with Tupolev in the prison design bureau and knew U.S. aircraft technology first-hand, having worked with Soviet adaptations of a Vultee aircraft. Markov later became known in the West for another high-priority cold war project, the design of the supersonic Tu-22M3 “Backfire” bomber.

Where Tupolev could be brusque and often vulgar, Markov was more gentlemanly. He maintained a low-profile role in the Tu-4 project, yet he was a hands-on manager who could motivate everyone to meet cruel deadlines. When it came to manipulating the system to reward workers with consumer goods and housing, Markov could rival his boss in the arts of maneuver and influence peddling. He won the enduring loyalty of all those caught up in the Tu-4 program and emerged in the postwar years as a beloved and respected figure in the Soviet aviation establishment.

Tupolev faced enormous problems setting up his organizational structure. He would rally some 64 design bureaus and over 900 factories, research institutes, and technical entities, keeping everything in motion and assuring quality control. By agreement, Markov handled the day-to-day work of the project. Tupolev focused on mobilizing the war-weary aviation industry, the air force establishment, party officials, and key government ministries.

During the long war with Germany, the Soviet aviation industry had met Stalin’s extraordinary demand for volume production. Now it was being asked to master complex systems and manage the copying of over 100,000 components, each of which had to meet weight requirements and arrive on time.

Tupolev devised a clever scheme to delegate responsibility. First, he sought out A. I. Mikoyan, then deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, to assist with the problem of coordination. Tupolev did not want the parts suppliers to report to him directly. Having the power brokers at the government ministry level order the parts allowed him to have the best of both worlds: the full power of the state behind the ordering of parts, with police sanctions as backup, plus each parts supplier reporting directly to him and responding to his own quality control mandates.


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