Outside of Russia and the former Soviet Union, the name Tupolev is probably more widely connected with commercial, passenger aircraft. However, the company has always played a vital role in Russia’s overall defence strategy and the Tupolev bear is ageing, but still shining star of the country’s military fleet.
The Tuploev Bear is a large, four engine strategic bomber and missile platform and it has now seen over sixty years of service as a vital part of the country’s air force. The Bear completed its first flight in 1954 and entered service in 1956.
Its design was carried out by Andrei Tupolev himself and the plane was seen as a natural evolution from its predecessor, 1949’s TU 85. As such, the correct name for the aircraft is the Tupolev 95 – ‘Bear’ being its NATO reporting name.
The Tupolev Bear was unique when it was built as it was the only active aircraft to use turbo prop engines. The other main distinctive feature is its swept back wings which make the Bear easily identifiable.
The wings bend back to an angle of 35 degrees and they were based on another early Tupolev aircraft, the TU-16.
Another feature that sets this aircraft apart from others is the noise. The speed and altitude that the Tu95 flies at means that the propellers rotate at faster than the speed of sound and this makes it the nosiest military plane in the world. A stealth bomber this is not!
When the Bear first flew back in the mid 1950’s the Cold War was at its height and its early roles included vital maritime surveillance of US naval vessels.
The Bear was easily identifiable to the US military, whose instructions were to intercept it whenever it approached within a 200 mile radius of aircraft carriers and escort it away from NATO airspace.
Over the years, the TU-95 became something of a Cold War icon and it engaged in regular demonstration flights starting from the Kola Peninsular and taking in the Western US coastline and a sightseeing trip to Cuba along the way.
Perhaps the Bear’s greatest achievement during its early years was also its most worrying. In 1961 it carried the heaviest and most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated.
The AN602, Tsar Bomba was only ever built once and it was the job of the TU-95 to carry it to its final destination, the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago where it was successfully detonated.
The Tupolev Bear today
In July 2011, two TU-95’s flew over the northeast Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan during an 11 hour flight and had to be escorted by Japanese fighters for part of the way.
And, back in 2007 there was a brief flurry of interest from the British media as it emerged that the British airforce was regularly having to scramble its jets to intercept what were dubbed as Russian spy planes.
The Tupolev Bear is a great feat of Russian engineering but it seems that the country’s military just can’t help but show it off. And, given that it’s scheduled to stay in service until at least 2040, it’s likely that we’ll see it popping up in excitable Western news reports for quite some time to come.