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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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.

Kerber tells of being the passenger on a later flight in which Mark Gallai flew a new Tu-4 from Kazan to Moscow. During the flight, hot air filled the pressurized compartments, and no one could get the air conditioning to work. Kerber remembered the embarrassment of cancelling the welcoming reception because the sweat-soeaked passengers looked as “if they had just walked in from the Sochi beaches.”

The Tu-4 made its public debut on Aviation Day in August 1947, at Moscow’s Tushino airfield. Foreign observers, including the Western powers—particularly their military attaches—were all invited. Three Tu-4s, followed by a Tu-70 passenger version, flew by at 600 feet. At the controls of one of the Tu-4s was Air Marshal Golovanov. When the Western observers counted three bombers, they assumed the Soviets were flying the long-lost interned B-29s. But the appearance of the Tu-70 clearly indicated that the Soviets were flying freshly cloned B-29s. This carefully staged event became a headline story in Western newspapers, though few realized how narrow the margin had been to get these four airplanes airborne. The Tu-70 had been fitted with cannibalized parts from the disassembled General H. H. Arnold Special to make it airworthy.

Operational deployment of the Tu-4 brought a series of breakdowns and near disasters as the airplane encountered teething problems such as engine overheating, a glitch that mirrored the U.S. experience with the first generation of B-29s. Soviet engineers fretted over numerous other problems such as runaway props, deicing system failures, and chronic failures of the landing gear.

Rafael I. Kapreylan, one of the first to fly the new bomber, could not get his landing gear to extend fully on one flight but managed to make a successful landing on his starboard main gear, saving himself, his crew, and the aircraft. Vasil’chenko, the test pilot, faced an engine fire. Fearing the worst, he ordered his crew to parachute to safety; after nine of the 11-man crew bailed out, the fire died and he was able to land the bomber safely. In time, these problems would be corrected, but in the early days of the program the Tu-4 inspired little confidence.


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