A Tu-128 at the Central Aviation Museum of Russia – Photo: Maarten Dirkse
Before I get into the aircraft I want to discuss today, there is an important matter of Soviet Military organization that I see misconstrued often. During the Soviet times, the VVS (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily or Military Air Force) was not responsible for matters of air defense.
This was the auspice of the PVO, sometimes also abbreviated as V-PVO (or sometimes PVO strany). PVO is a Russian abbreviation that literal translates to anti-air defense; strany is Russian for country (sometimes nation). So PVO strany was responsible for the anti-air defense of the nation. They were considered the third-most important branch of the Soviet Armed Forces (behind the RVSN and Ground Forces). While the PVO was merged into the VVS in 1998, their legacy lives on; Air Defense Day is celebrated on the second Sunday of every April.
This, if it was not obvious yet, is a story about an aircraft that served with the PVO. Some would say, the most unusual of them as well.
A Tu-95MS off the coast of Scotland – Photo: United Kingdom Ministry of Defense
If it is possible to have a favorite aircraft, mine would be the Tupolev Tu-95.
The story of the Tu-95 goes back to 1944. During the Great Patriotic War, the Soviets watched with both awe and horror as the Boeing B-29 Superfortress devastated Japan. It was decided that the Air Force needed an aircraft of similar heft and range, lest the Soviets be held hostage by an American bomber gap. At the time, other than the Petlyakov Pe-8, the Soviets had limited bombing capability outside the tactical arena. Sure, they had Li-2s and obtained the occasional B-24 or B-17, but in terms of presenting a threat, there was nothing of the sort.
The Air Force went forth and tasked Andrei Tupolev and Vladimir Myasishchev to design their own heavy bombers. Little was written of Myasishchev’s “objects 202 and 302”, other than that they were similar to B-29s in many ways. Tupolev parried with something commonly referred to as “object 64.” Imagine a fatter B-29 with a twin-tail and 23mm cannon in place of 50 caliber machine guns. Was it a copy of the B-29 – absolutely not. It’s just what engineering doctrine of the time would have you do. “Object 64” would have had a range of about 2,500 miles and a payload of about 10,000 pounds.
The designs of both Myasishchev and Tupolev progressed nicely. However, due to the exigencies of the war, sourcing the materials needed to produce any of the three designs was proving difficult. Stalin saw this. Stalin, after all, saw pretty much everything.
Now, when this decision was made is a bit of a historical question- however, it was decided that the B-29 was already the ideal strategic bomber. So, why not directly copy it?! Luckily, that same year (1944) some U.S. Army Air Corps B-29s had made emergency landings in the Soviet Far East. Due to neutrality in the Pacific Theater, the Russians impounded these aircraft. Copying them could never have been easier.
The Slovak Government Tupolev Tu-154M – Photo: Jacob Pfleger | AirlineReporter
Not too many opportunities exist in this day and age where one can still take flight on a classic Russian aircraft, let alone in a VIP configuration. Recently, I was fortunate enough to be invited to take part in a flight onboard a Slovak Government Flying Service (SSG) Tupolev TU-154M. For me, this would be my first-ever flight on a Russian aircraft, and to say I was excited would be an understatement.
Time to board my first Russian aircraft – Photo: Jacob Pfleger | AirlineReporter
The flight would be an empty ferry sector from Prague-Bratislava, a short 40-minute hop, but I knew I would savor every minute. SSG presently has four aircraft in its fleet, but only three are in operational service. The fleet consists of two Tupolev TU-154Ms (reg numbers OM-BYO and OM-BYR), with the latter being used for spare parts.
The remaining two aircraft are Yakovlev YAK-40s (reg numbers OM-BYE and OM-BYL). The Slovak Government not only carries out various head of state and other VIP missions, it also participates in various humanitarian and troop-carrying missions on behalf of the Slovak Government.
In the Western world, when it comes to aircraft production, it is pretty much common that the aircraft designer is also the manufacturer of said aircraft. For example, in the United States, Boeing, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas were the three big manufacturers of civil aircraft through the 1990’s. All three of these companies employed many thousands of engineers designing every part of each aircraft family, and then would hand the design over to many thousand more factory workers who would build the aircraft at vast company-owned factories. In the former Soviet Union (USSR), things worked a little differently.
When one thinks of Soviet-era aircraft, one normally thinks of the very popular civil designs by Ilyushin and Tupolev. But what most do not realize is that these famous companies were not in the business of aircraft manufacturing. Within the Soviet Union, the aviation industry was governed by three main government organizations: the Ministry of Aviation Industry (Министерство авиационной промышленности, or MAP), the Ministry of Civil Aviation (Министерство гражданской авиации, or MGA), and the Ministry of Defense (Министерство обороны, or MO).