The Sincerest Flattery of All: The Tupelo TU-4

The Tu-4B.

The Tu-4B.

It was famously said of Ginger Rogers that she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. The same comparison might be drawn between the Tupolev Tu-4 and the Boeing B-29, for the Russians did almost everything the Americans did by reverse engineering (the backwards part) and in about half the time (the high-heels part.)

During the 1940s, the United States and the Soviet Union produced aircraft in quantities dwarfing all previous experience. Each nation also produced a bomber with characteristics so advanced that they demanded a national revolution in contemporary engineering, aerodynamics, manufacturing, electronics, material and operation. Each nation spent more on the one bomber than on any previous aviation project. Ironically, but by design, the two monumental efforts produced essentially the same aircraft. In the United States it was the B-29. In the Soviet Union it was the Tu-4 Bull, a virtual carbon copy of the Superfortress.

There were major differences, however, in what each nation received for its expensive investment. The United States obtained the long-range B-29 bomber that forced Japan to its knees. The B-29 then did what no other aircraft in the world could do: deliver a war-winning coup de grace by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Superfortress later became the primary weapon of the Strategic Air Command and was essential in the Korean War before serving in a variety of support roles.

The Soviet Union’s return on investment was equally valuable. The Tupolev Tu-4 took part in no decisive battles. Yet its effect on Soviet aviation was incredibly important. The Tu-4 brought the entire Soviet aircraft industry, from its design bureaus to its most insignificant parts supplier, into the modern airpower age. It laid the foundation for the Soviet Union becoming an aerial super power. The Soviets made remarkable progress in producing nuclear weapons, but without the amazingly rapid production of the Tu-4, the Soviet Union could not have delivered those weapons for many years.

Some attribute an even more important consequence of the Tu-4’s manufacture. The nuclear armed Tu-4 projected a Soviet threat that was countered by the Strategic Air Command. This initiated an era of mutual deterrence that many say did much to prevent the Cold War from turning into a nuclear conflict.

The Boeing B-29

While the operational exploits of the Boeing B-29 are well known, much has been forgotten about the massive size of the project and the many difficulties it encountered over the life of the program. In March 1938, Boeing responded to an Air Corps request for a pressurized B-17 equipped with a tricycle gear, in an era when appropriations were low and things moved slowly. It was not until January 1940 that Air Corps requirements were issued for a “Superbomber” with a speed of 400 mph, a range of 5,333 miles, and a one-ton bomb dropped midway.

The Army Air Corps began to perceive a need for “hemispheric defense” and asked for a Superbomber capable of bombing Germany from the United States and Japan from the Philippine Islands. Hitler’s successes in Europe accelerated the process and seven months later a contract was let for two XB-29s and a static test model. More than 1,600 more were ordered “off the drawing board” before the XB-29’s first flight on 21 September 1942. The famous test pilot, Eddie Allen was at the controls. Sadly, Allen lost his life on 18 February 1943, when the number two prototype crashed on its second flight.

Program estimates vary depending upon what is included, but it is generally stated that the entire B-29 effort cost about $3 billion—more than the Manhattan Project. Huge new plants were built for the three companies that manufactured airframes—Boeing, in Renton and Wichita, Bell in Marietta, and Martin in Omaha. The B-29 was at the time the heaviest bomber ever built, its early maximum gross weight of 124,000 pounds dwarfing that of the B-17 (65,500) Avro Lancaster (70,000) or Heinkel He 177 (68,300).

The enormous cost of the program derived from three main factors. The first was its size, for ultimately 3,943 were built and thousands more were cancelled There were four main factories, three modification centers and the largest sub-contracting program until then in Boeing history for equipment and sub-assemblies.

The second was the complexity of the aircraft, with its new structure, pressurized crew compartments, central fire control system and powerful new Wright R-3350 engines equipped with two superchargers and trouble-prone propellers. The engines were also rushed into development and would plague the B-29s throughout its lifespan with fires and failures. To obtain the required performance, Boeing reduced drag by specifying that the B-29 be built with smooth skin joints and flush riveting. Aerodynamicist George Schairer created a new air foil and opted for a high aspect ratio wing of relatively small area for the B-29s weight. The resultant high wing-loading was offset by the use of huge Fowler flaps that provided additional lift and wing area.

The third factor was the pell-mell speed of the program which saw the first aircraft flown before many of its key systems were designed, much less tested.

The B-29 program was backed by President Roosevelt and Major General Hap Arnold. Arnold saw to it that it received the top personnel available to create and train the tens of thousands of factory workers, aircrews and all the support people necessary so that the B-29 could enter combat as soon as possible. Despite many problems, some of which threatened its cancellation, the B-29 entered combat on June 5, 1944 with a raid on Bangkok. In the next thirteen months it would win the war with Japan and change the course of history forever.

The Soviet Approach to a Superbomber

During the 1930s, the Soviet Union had led the world in the construction and operation of large bombers. The Tupolev bureau designed the four-engine ANT-6 (TB-3) bomber, of which some 800 were built. First flown on 22 December 1930, it was at the time the most advanced heavy bomber in the world. In 1936, a B-17 equivalent, the TB-7 (later Pe-8) flew, but fewer than 100 were built as the Soviet Union turned its attention to smaller aircraft to stem the tide of the 22 June, 1941 German invasion.

The Russians first became aware of the Boeing B-29 when a talkative Eddie Rickenbacker made his controversial June 1943 trip to the Soviet Union. Russia’s later request for the delivery of 120 Lend-Lease B-29s was ignored, but on 29 July 1944, it received an intact example when a B-29 was damaged in a raid on Manchuria and forced to land in Vladivostok. Three more fell into their hands, as the sidebar shows.


Serial # Name Aircraft Commander Unit Interned at Date

42-6256 Ramp Tramp Capt. H.R. Jarrnell 770th BS/462nd BGH Vladivostok 20 July 1944
42-93829 Cait Paomat II Maj R. McGlinn. 395th BS/40th BGH Crashed 20 Aug 1944
42-6365 Gen. H.H. Arnold Special Capt. W.H. Price 794thBS/468th BGH Vladivostok 11 Nov 1944
42-6358 Ding Hao! 1/Lt W. Micklish 794th BS/468th BGH Vladivostok 21 Nov 1944

The Soviet Union scrupulously upheld its agreements with Japan, interning U.S. aircraft and aircrews making emergency landings in Russian territory. Crews were treated with a primitive rough-hewn hospitality and secretly released through Iran in January, 1945.

The Russians were naturally excited by the interned B-29s and began a careful, systematic test program running from January to July, 1945. Three American bombers had landed at Vladivostok’s Tsentral’naya uglovaya, a Pacific Fleet air base; the fourth had crashed nearby. They were thus under the jurisdiction of Admiral Nikolai G. Kuznetsov, People’s Commissar for Naval Affairs and Commander of the Soviet navy. That summer, the three flyable aircraft flew to the Izmailova airfield outside of Moscow and transferred to the 65th Special Mission Air Regiment. They then came under the purview of Air Marshal Aleksandr Ye Golovanov.

Stalin was distressed that the Soviet Union did not possess a strategic bomber like the B-29, and was very unhappy with Tupolev, whose own strategic bomber “Samolet 64” was not only behind schedule but also lacked sources for essential bombing and navigation equipment.

Golovanov is reputed to have suggested to Stalin that the interned B-29s be copied and placed into production. Stalin apparently leaped at the idea and with uncanny prescience subsequently decreed that it be copied exactly, down to the smallest detail. He saw that any deviation in one part would inevitably lead to deviations in others, and production chaos would ensue. As doctrinaire as the orders were, Stalin could occasionally be persuaded to allow changes that would not imperil the program, as with the installation of the Russian engines and cannon.

On 6 June 1945, Stalin’s orders were promulgated, tasking the Tupolev design bureau to copy the B-29 and put it into production. An extremely detailed instruction placed the weight of responsibility on Tupolev’s shoulders—but also placed the whole of Russian government and industry behind him. His bureau was to break down a B-29 in the reverse order in which Boeing and its subcontractors had assembled it. All parts were to be reverse engineered, and individual elements were to be assigned to the appropriate enterprises for manufacture. Many elements of the aircraft had never been dreamed of, much less built, in the Soviet Union, yet firms were ordered to fulfill the task.

Had the exact same assignment been given to American industry, it would have been immensely difficult. Its assignment to Russian industry made it seemingly impossible for a wide range of reasons, beginning with the Soviet use of the metric system. There were more subtle differences as well. The Soviet aluminum industry could not be converted to mill aluminum sheet to American dimensions. Each aluminum part had to be analyzed for its strength requirements to determine whether a slightly larger (i.e. heavier) or smaller (i.e. lighter) piece of Soviet aluminum could be used. Weight control was essential, and it is to the credit of Soviet engineers that the Tu-4 was kept within one-percent of its designed weight goal.

Dimensions were not the only problem; materials also had to be reversed engineered to determine their composition, with suitable alterations then being made in what had previously been standard Russian techniques. In some areas—plastics, electronics, navigation and radar equipment and most particularly, the fire control system—the complexity and sophistication of the B-29 seemed beyond attainment. Yet Stalin decreed an iron-clad two year deadline for the program. With Stalin, the term “deadline” had a double meaning, and he used the notorious chief of the NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria, to back up his orders with the customary Soviet brutality.

No one knew this better than Tupolev, who had been arrested in 1937 on the absurd charge that he had sold the Messerschmitt Me 110 design to the Germans. He began working in a gulag-like aircraft bureau in Moscow in 1939 and was not released from prisoner-status until 1941 nor fully pardoned until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death. Tupolev thought Stalin’s decision was wrong, believing that his bureau could have created a better aircraft. But he knew Stalin’s decision could not be contested.

A long series of administrative decisions were made, assigning responsibility and accountability, but leaving final control in Tupolev’s hands. Against all odds, given the arcane interactions of the Soviet bureaucracy, what emerged was a model of managerial efficiency, one which was subsequently adapted by the Soviet Union’s successful space program.

Some far seeing decisions were made on the use of the interned aircraft. Appropriately, given Arnold’s patronage of the B-29, the General H. H. Arnold Special was chosen to be disassembled and copied. The Ding Hao was grounded for use as a back-up source of reference. The Ramp Tramp continued to fly for almost a decade, doing some fascinating test work that included air launching the near-supersonic rocket powered Samolet 346 test aircraft. Parts were scavenged from Cait Paomat II.

The General H. H. Arnold Special was carefully broken down into separate assemblies. These were further disassembled, with each of the thousands of pieces–metal, instruments, radios, wiring, motors, ducts, vents, Dzus fasteners, everything– being measured, photographed, weighed and given a detailed written description. All parts were analyzed to determine the material from which they were made. The products of modern American chemistry—plastic, synthetic fabrics, lubricants—were especially challenging.

Draftsmen working around the clock created thousands of engineering drawings, each one including the key transition from American measurement standards to the metric system.

A full-scale mockup of the Tu-4 was available by mid-1946, and Ramp Tramp was used to check out the flight crews which would test the Tu-4 and then establish the required crew training program.

While Tupolev, a master politician, dealt with the key government, party and service officials, his team at the design bureau managed the “routine” of cloning a weapon system. Special teams were assigned responsibility for each and every element removed from the B-29. Tupolev mustered his industry, calling upon scores of designs bureaus, dozens of research institutes and hundreds of factories. Their task was to create duplicates of the parts being removed from the B-29 and establish the manufacturing facilities to produce them in quantity.

The Tupelov design bureau carefully monitored the quality control of the products. There was a natural desire on the part of some suppliers to lobby for their own products or manufacturing techniques but Tupolev demanded conformance to the Boeing sample. Part of this was because he shared Stalin’s belief that a little deviation in one area could lead to a domino effect of sequential changes in many areas. Another part was the fear that Beria might perceive some change, however innocuous, as being treason.

The compulsive nature of Tupelov’s new system propelled the Soviet aviation industry into a new era of thinking, planning, research and execution even as it maintained the two-year schedule Stalin demanded. It was Tupolev’s good fortune that there was a suitable substitute for the B-29s Wright R-3350 engine available, the Shvetsov Ash-73TK. The Soviet aircraft engine industry had licensed Wright products for years, building many adaptations of them. The Ash-73TK offered 2,300 horsepower and while ultimately reliable suffered some of the same teething problems encountered by the R-3350 including induction system fires.
In many ways, the biggest challenge of the B-29 to Tupolev was in its electronic systems, particularly the Central Fire Control System (CFCS) that used General Electric analog computers aim and fire the weapons remotely. The CFCS was vital because the B-29 was pressurized, and large apertures for the guns were out of the question. It was an extremely complex system that called for a host of intricate parts and switches unknown to Soviet industry. Yet the Tupelov team pulled it off, and went on to substitute 23-mm cannon for the American .50 caliber machine guns.

By late 1946, a full-scale mock-up of the Tu-4 was ready, and Ramp Tramp was being used to gather data and check out the flight crews who would test the Tu-4. Not content with duplicating the B-29, Tupelov also began the design and construction of a passenger version, the Tu-70, which flew on November 27, 1946. The first production facility at Plant No. 22 in Kazan was hurriedly outfitted with the necessary templates, machine tools, jigs and other equipment necessary for mass manufacture. Thousands of workers had to be taught new skills—in short, Kazan was much like the Wichita in 1942. Everyone worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. Later, additional production came from Plant 18 in Kuibyshev and Plant 23 in Moscow.

The enormous confluence of effort resulted in the first Tu-4 being rolled out on 28 February 1947, to the delight of the factory workers and to Tupelov’s profound relief. There was plenty of ground testing, and the first flight took place on 19 May, with Nikolay S. Rybko as pilot, A.G. Vasilichenko, copilot and V.N. Seginov as flight engineer. As aircraft came off the production line, they were entered into a 20-plane test program for the state acceptance program.
Stalin must have considered all the effort worth while when he observed the furor caused when the first three Tu-4s flew at the annual Tushino air show on 3 August, 1947, with Air Marshal Golovanov in the lead aircraft. Western observers initially believed—hoped– that the aircraft were the three interned B-29s. But the fact that the Tu-70 passenger version was also in the fly-by forced them to accept the fact that the Soviet Union had done the impossible: reverse engineer and produce flyable B-29 replicas in two short years. Only one of the Tu-70 was built, but just being at Tushino fulfilled its purpose.

Tu-4s gave the Soviet Air Force a strategic air arm that posed a genuine threat to the free world. Estimates vary on the total built from 450 to 1,195, but there were sufficient numbers to project the nuclear threat that Stalin had in mind.
Just as with the B-29 program, the Tu-4 encountered deployment problems. It was a big new aircraft with the inevitable maintenance and logistics headaches. Like the B-29, it was troubled with engine fires, propeller problems, and the failure of the landing gear components. The landing gear problems probably stemmed from an inability to achieve American standards in metallurgy.
But the program swept forward, so that by 1950, more than 270 Tu-4s were deployed in Soviet Long Range Aviation regiments. NATO gave it the code name “Bull”, which was hardly appropriate given the hard truth of the Tu-4 success. By the Korean War, there were sufficient Tu-4s available to put them in the service of the People’s Republic of China. They continued in the testing role, most notably in the first air drop of a Soviet atomic bomb on October 18, 1951.

The “Bull” continued to serve in many roles—anti-shipping, tanker, reconnaissance, missile launcher, drone carrier, engine test bed—until eventually being retired. But its most important contribution by far was providing the springboard to launch the Soviet Union and its successor states to a leading role in air and space.

2 responses to “The Sincerest Flattery of All: The Tupelo TU-4

  1. The tu-4 or b-29 lives on today as in the TU-95. Because the TU-4 became the TU-80 which became the TU-85. The TU-85 was a stretched TU-4 with the same fuselage diameter,but with different wings and tail surfaces.And the TU-95 has a stretched tu-4 Fuselage but with swept wings and tail surfaces.

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