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Kevin Myers: Put the cold war back on ice and get those skies growling

Published 07/09/2007

All wise people are now hoping that the cooling relations between the US and Russia become even colder. I do anyway, for two reasons: one because I have a perfectly depraved nostalgia for the Cold War, and two, the Tupolev 95 Bear might soon be again patrolling the skies of the world; and I yearn to see it.

You'll no doubt have read on Tuesday that the Tu-95 was initially flown to compete with the US Boeing B-29, but the real truth is actually more interesting.

Well, I say 'interesting', because I find it interesting, but for the three dogs and a toad still reading this column, it's probably as fascinating as beige custard. No matter. This is still the silly season, and if I want to spend the rest of the month writing about the Tu-95, I will. All right?

Now, the Tu-95 wasn't just deployed to oppose the B-29: it was actually based on it. Towards the end of the Second World War, Stalin ordered his major aircraft designers to build a long-range heavy bomber that could penetrate NATO defences, a task which proved beyond them.

But by evil mischance, three B-29s made emergency landings in the Soviet Far East. The aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev decided to reverse-engineer the B-29. That is to say – and look, I really don't care if you've thrown the paper aside in disgust: I'm having the time of my life right now - every single screw, every singe valve, every single light-bulb, every single switch and toggle and ashtray and button - over a million parts in all - were painstakingly and perfectly copied, and then assembled in the greatest act of flattery in industrial history.

So confident was Tupolev of the soundness of the Boeing design that his version was put directly into production, without any test flights, and over 4,000 Tu-4 Bull bombers were manufactured for the Soviet air forces. Opposing them were 2,000 identical B-29s of the USAF. It was the only time in history that two world powers equipped their rival fleets with precisely the same bomber, identical to the last little flush-rivet, And if you're not asleep yet, you soon will be: but as for me, why, I'm only warming up.

The creation of the B-29 had been the most complex project in aviation history, and the capture of the B-29s enabled Tupolev to learn in a few weeks what had taken the US many years to discover: the steepest aviation learning-curve ever.

However, the Tu-4 could not reach the USA, and if there's one thing that dear old Stalin wanted, it was the ability to turn New York into a Siberia. So after various intermediary experiments, Tupolev produced the Tu-95, which basically consisted of the B-29/Tu-4 fuselage, but with huge new swept-back wings and four colossal turboprop engines, based on captured German Junker 222 designs. Asleep? Good!

The resulting Soviet/Nazi/US fusion was one of the most extraordinary aerial confections ever. The Tu-95 had a range of over 10,000 miles, could cruise at 500mph at an altitude of 50,000 feet carrying a nuclear bomb. With air-to-air refuelling, the Bear - as a horrified NATO called it - could reach anywhere on Earth.

Not everything went to plan. During an early test flight in 1953, test pilot AD Perelyot reported that an engine was on fire, and he was returning to base. Several minutes later, he radioed: "The engine has fallen off. The wing and engine nacelles are all on fire. I have just ordered the crew to abandon ship."

Perelyot remained at the controls firstly to enable his men to escape, then to steer the doomed Bear away from a town below. Finally, the Tu-95 nose-dived into the ground. The gallant Perelyot was made a posthumous hero of the Soviet Union. Now, you don't have to like the USSR to admire the courage of a Soviet test pilot, or the wonders of the Tu-95. It's a matter of respect. Like its comparable rival, the Boeing B-52, the Tu-95's service life has spanned more than half a century: but unlike the Boeing B-52, the Tu-95's fuselage, also Boeing designed, is actually 65 years old.

But the most awesome thing about the Tupolev is the noise of its four engines, driving eight contra-rotating props, each of which is the size of a large house: it sounds, I'm told, like a flying Vesuvius. And I yearn - yearn: do you hear me? yearn to hear a Tu-95 overhead. So I draw the attention of the Russian military attache to the presence of a US missile battery in my back garden, just outside Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare. I suggest you send a Tu-95 to investigate, at around noon tomorrow. My house is the one with six dogs in the yard. Tell the pilot to waggle his wings when he sees me wave.

And as for the rest of you, you might be sleeping now, but by God, you won't be when the big bad Bear comes to town. Oh, and relax: the Silly Season ends soon.

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