In 1944, the United States deployed its production of B-29 Superfortresses to 20th Air Force in Chengtu, China, to attack targets in Japan.
While the operation was not a success before they departed (the new Superfortresses had a variety of technical problems and were moved to bases on Pacific atolls), three of the Superfortresses were involved in a series of events that were to have a huge impact on the post war world.
On July 29, 1944, the B-29 “Ramp Tramp” was attacking targets in Manchuria when it had a variety of electric and radio problems. It diverted to the allies’ air base at Vladivostok, Soviet Union, where the crew assumed they could get the aircraft repaired and refueled. Instead, the crew was interned. On Nov. 11, 1944, the damaged B-29 “General H. H. Arnold Special” diverted to Vladivostok, followed on Nov. 21 by another B-29 – the “Ding How.”
The B-29s were repaired and test flown, and the test pilots sent back glowing reports of the bomber’s advanced level of technology – lightweight aluminum alloys, pressurized crew compartments, remote-controlled guns, powerful supercharged engines and advanced radar and electronics – all well beyond the capabilities of Soviet industry.
The arrival of three B-29s was what one Soviet military leader called “a gift from God.” Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had been extremely impressed with the Allied strategic bombing campaign and knew the Soviet air force lacked a strategic capability. If the Soviet aircraft industry could simply copy the B-29, they could build a modern strategic bomber in a fraction of the time it would take to develop an indigenous bomber.
On June 22, 1945, Stalin demanded “an exact copy of the B-29.” He made Andrei Tupolev lead designer and, to Tupelov’s dismay, cancelled Tupelov’s own Samolet 64 (“Airplane 64”) long-range bomber project. Tupolev accepted the assignment reluctantly, thinking copying the B-29 was foolhardy, but began on the aircraft he would name the Tu-4.
Stalin insisted on an “exact copy” because he thought even one concession would lead to a torrent of modification requests that would delay the project, and appointed the ruthless head of the Security Services, Lavrentiy P. Beria, to control the program.
The task seemed impossible for the primitive Soviet aviation industry, which was intended for volume production of simple airplanes, and from the beginning, Tupolev faced enormous challenges. One challenge was that the U.S. B-29 used U.S. measurements and all the Soviet measuring equipment used the metric system. But to save time, Tupolev had to use the U.S. units.
The “General Hap Arnold Special” was taken completely apart and teams of engineers and technicians measured, numbered, labeled, photographed and recorded each component – 105,000 parts and subassemblies – for replication. Tupolev’s team generated 40,000 detailed drawings, completed by a force of 1,000 draftsmen.
The components, down to such instruments as the altimeter (which, like all the flight instruments, had to be relabeled in Russian), were then assigned to a design team in one of the 64 design bureaus and more than 900 factories for reproduction. Any missed deadlines or poor workmanship had to be explained to Beria.
Tupolev walked a tightrope between Stalin’s requirements and practical concessions. Tupolev remained attentive to external cosmetic flourishes – the Tu-4 had a repair patch in the fuselage like the “General Hap Arnold Special” and the exact hue of the interior paint scheme duplicated the B-29. Soviet aviation industry could not produce the oversize tires for the landing gear, so agents were sent to the West to purchase them.
But for many important internal systems, such as hydraulics and electronics, Tupelov modified the American systems so the Soviet industry could build them. One internal thing he removed was the tunnel that connected the front and rear pressured cabins because the portly Tupelov got stuck in the tunnel on his first inspection of the “Hap Arnold Special.”
On Aug. 3, 1947, at the Aviation Day Parade over Tushino Airport, Moscow, three B-29s appeared during a low-altitude flyover. It was first thought these three aircraft were the three intact B-29s known to have been in Soviet hands, but then a fourth B-29 appeared. There was no doubt that the earlier report of a B-29 being copied was accurate, and the Tu-4 was given the NATO code name “Bull.”
The “Superfortresski’s” performance was not as good as the U.S. B-29 – it only had a range of about 1,500 miles, for example, instead of the B-29’s 3,200 miles – but Stalin authorized full production in 1948. In service, there were constant problems with engine overheating and frequent propeller failures as well as chronic failures of the landing gear.
Most problems were caused by poor quality control in the manufacturing plants, but this was improved and the more serious defects corrected. In mid-1949, Tu-4s with sufficient range to attack the United States entered service. When, on Oct. 18, 1951, a Tu-4 dropped an atomic bomb, the United States was forced to develop a costly system of ground radar installations, radar picket planes, surface-to-air missiles and jet interceptor fighters.
Stalin’s decision to copy the B-29 allowed the Soviets to project strategic power credibly and the Tu-4 blazed the trail for modernization of the Soviet aviation industry aimed at military parity with the West – a goal they approached but never achieved.
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