Today’s header image features the Tu-95, NATO codename “Bear”, intercepted over the north Atlantic by an F-102 based in Iceland. It was just dumb luck that Tu-95 was dubbed the Bear, that was just the next name on the list when western intelligence services learned of this aircraft’s development in the mid-1950’s. The name turned out to be very appropriate as the Bear roamed the skies from the late fifties onward and became the international symbol of Soviet air power.
Some readers may not be familiar with the Tu-95 and think it odd that a propeller driven plane would serve as a front line strategic bomber almost the whole duration of the Cold War. But those counter-rotating double propellers are part of the genius of its design. In 1950 Stalin commissioned the Myasishchev and Tupolev aircraft design bureaus to build intercontinental range jet bombers capable of carrying a few of the newly developed plutonium based bombs. Stalin specified he wanted a jet. Britain had couple of very good jet bombers, though they were short ranged, and the US had the enormous “hybrid-drive” B-36 and were working on a couple of long range jets. Stalin wanted a jet plane and that’s what Myasishchev started working on. Andrei Tupolev’s team didn’t think a jet design would work because Soviet jet engines of the time were not fuel efficient enough to provide the required range. By the time the prototypes of both planes were developed in 1952, it was clear the Tupolev design was superior and the Tu-95 went into full production in 1956.
The Tu-95 really is a work of genius. The Soviet Union even made a few new ones at the time it was ceasing to exist. It’s often cited as the fastest propeller-driven aircraft. I’m not sure that’s true, surely some specialized racing plane could beat it. I do think it’s plausible that it it is the fastest propeller-driven aircraft produced in large numbers. It has its problems, the tips of the propellers move faster than the speed of sound making the T-95 surely the loudest plane ever built. Pilots who intercepted the Tu-95 often reported they could hear the sound of the propellers over their own jet engines. If you’ve ever been in the back of a DC-9 you know how loud that can be, and the interior of a military interceptor is even louder. There used to be a joke in the US Navy that even submarines can hear the engines of a Bear. I’m not really certain that’s a joke. Passive sonar in US submarines is very sensitive. Maybe they really could hear a Tu-95. And they would need to. The USSR made quite a few maritime patrol versions of the Tu-95 equipped with special radar systems, sonar buoys, depth charges, and torpedoes.
The Tu-114 was an airliner version of the Tu-95. When Khrushchev visited the US his second time, he flew nonstop from Moscow to New York on less than a full load of fuel in an astoundingly short time. This record was not broken until Boeing intentionally broke it in the late 90’s. Scheduled flight times even today are a little longer than Khrushchev’s trip. Nikita was carrying a special passenger, one of Strelka the space dog’s puppies. The Soviets bred some of their space dogs to see if Van Allen Belt radiation would damage animal reproduction. JFK’s family loved their Russian puppy.
In my recent research on the Tu-95 I was surprised to learn it is a bright and comfortable aircraft. Just look at this interior shot:
What a cheery blue-green color. and the cockpit is not that cluttered. Yes, there seems to be a lot going on, but it’s far less cluttered than a B-52 cockpit. And it seems that the aqua background is a thing for Russians. Many other Soviet and Russian aircraft have this paint. I’ve tried to look up how they decided on this color, but I can’t find anything. Also, the Tu-95 has windows and some variants have observation blisters. So cheery and happy compared to American planes. Did they think this bright background would put them at ease as they committed the mass-murder of nuclear warfare? If so, well played.
Tu-95’s cruised everywhere, but usually only in small numbers. This is in contrast to how the US sometimes kept B-52’s in the air 24/7 ready to strike. The B-52’s seldom got visited by Soviet interceptors, but the Tu-95’s that flew alone or in groups always had company during the Cold War.
Here’s an English Electric Lightning intercepting a Tu-95RT maritime patrol craft in the sixties:
Here’s some intercept footage from the INSIDE of a Tu-95.
But wait a minute, aren’t those intercepting aircraft modern fighters deployed in the late 90’s and early 00’s? Yes, they are. The Bears are back. Putin loves the Bear. News sources say this video was from Feb 18, 2015, but a plane spotter from the UK I trust says it was from a Jan 28 patrol a few weeks earlier that did not make the news. He knows all the plane numbers and records radio signals, so I trust him. And I won’t link to him. It doesn’t matter because both patrols were intercepted by Norwegian, French, and UK planes. Notice how the French plane gets very close and tips the wings to show a full load of missiles? That’s playing chicken with the Bear, just like in the late 50’s.
And this is not just in Europe. Bears and their refueling planes visited Alaska and California on the Fourth of July last year.
I’m not sure the Cold War is over. The Bears tell me it isn’t.