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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To implement this plan, he asked Mikoyan to appoint a person from each ministry to be responsible for timely delivery. Each project manager would have to explain any missed deadlines or poor workmanship to Beria. Mikoyan quickly agreed, appointing high-ranking bureaucrats—often deputy ministers—to assume responsibility. (Later, Sergei Korolev used this same model for the Soviet space program.)

While Tupolev manipulated the politics, he never abandoned control of critical aspects of the program: He kept the calendar, and he was adept at trouble-shooting. Leonid Kerber remembered Tupolev’s uncanny aptitude for anticipating trouble spots, and whenever problems arose, Tupolev would intervene directly. He also hired a talented coordinator in the person of I.M. Sklyanskiy. This choice proved to be inspired, if dangerous in the minds of Tupolev’s nervous associates. Sklyanskiy was an engineer, full of energy, attentive to detail, and blessed with a keen memory. No other person was better suited to supervise the timetable, which filled one entire wall of a special exhibition located at Tupolev’s design bureau on Radio Street in downtown Moscow. As dispatcher, Sklyanskiy filled out four cards for each part placed on order: one for Tupolev, one for the aviation ministry, another one for the cooperating ministry, and a final one for the actual manufacturing entity in the field.

Still, Sklyanskiy’s past aroused some anxiety. He had once been arrested and spent some time in a police-run workshop not unlike Tupolev’s sharaga. This was not unusual, but it did place him in great jeopardy whenever there was a failure or breakdown in the system. Worse, Sklyanskiy’s brother had once served as Leon Trotsky’s deputy on the Military Revolutionary Committee during the Bolshevik revolution. For reasons still unclear, this link with Trotsky, the regime’s premier enemy of the people, never got Sklyanskiy into trouble.

As the first parts and supplies for the Tu-4 began to arrive for inspection, Tupolev devised a special exhibit in Moscow to display progress graphically, noting deadlines met and milestones still to be achieved—along with the name of the responsible manager. Booths for each major component or sub-assembly consumed two floors of his design bureau. Telephone links to the responsible factories provided the latest updates. The exhibit provided a convenient vehicle to showcase the project to visiting officials and alert Tupolev to any potential breakdown. When Stalin learned of this remarkable exhibit, he planned a visit.

Any tour by the boss stirred high anxiety, and Stalin picked a Sunday, when the plant was closed. This was not unusual; he often made late-night phone calls to distant offices, forcing fearful bureaucrats to remain in their offices around the clock. On the afternoon of Stalin’s visit, Tupolev and his staff gathered at the plant. Teams of police in civilian clothes arrived, searched the building, locked all the doors, substituted their own guards for the plant security force, and set up their own sentry posts. For these critical briefings, there were precise instructions. All briefings should be short and comprehensible. At no time should a briefer look away from Stalin’s eyes, put his hands in his pockets or jacket, or ever position himself behind the leader.

The police instructed everyone to stand in place and not move without permission. Armed guards would escort anyone to the restroom. Outside, the streets had been cleared except for policemen dressed in civilian clothes, who strolled around to create the atmosphere of a normal Sunday afternoon. Hours passed, but after all these preparations, Tupolev announced to his exhausted staff at 2 a.m. Monday morning that Stalin had cancelled the tour. Everyone returned home in the black ZiS cars of the police.

The documentation required for the new bomber had been enormous. Retro-engineering dictated the analysis and photographing of some 105,000 parts. Tupolev’s team generated 40,000 detailed drawings, completed by a force of a thousand draftsmen. Exacting quality standards and the threat of police sanctions made the whole enterprise an exhausting experience. During the most critical phases of the program, workers were sometimes allowed only one day off each month. Any deviation raised the fear that someone, for personal benefit or revenge, might complain to the police.

One immense challenge was the difference between English measurements used by U.S. manufacturers and the metric system, which the Soviets used. Early on, Tupolev decided not to convert the U.S. units to the metric system, which would have been time consuming. The manufacture of aluminum panels exemplified the problem. The standard thickness of the aluminum skin on the B-29 was 1/16 of an inch (1.5875 millimeters). It was impossible for Soviet plants to fabricate metal sheets to that dimension. Tupolev opted to vary the thickness of the Tu-4’s skin between .8 and 1.8 millimeters, which actually had the effect of strengthening the aircraft’s structure in some areas. Despite such changes, the weight of the Tu-4 would turn out to be only one percent greater than the B-29. No less critical were other compromises made on electrical wiring as well as hydraulic pressure and fuel consumption.

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.


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