Icons of Aviation History: The Soviet Tupolev Tu-22 Bomber

The Tupolev-22 Blinder caused near-panic among NATO air forces when it appeared, but it never lived up to its promise.

Tupolev Tu-22 Blinder in Ukrainian service                                          photo from WikiCommons

When the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, it had an awkward problem. The only long-range heavy bomber it had at the time was the Tupolev-4, a Russian copy of American B-29 bombers from the Second World War. The Tu-4, codenamed “Bull” by NATO, did not have sufficient range to deliver nuclear weapons to targets in the United States. The US had the propeller-driven B-36 and was already putting the jet-powered B-47 into development.

The USSR responded with the twin-jet Tupolev Tu-16 (NATO codename “Badger”), introduced in 1954. But this was only a medium-sized bomber and, although it was equipped with the Mikulin AM-3 turbojet engine—the most powerful Soviet powerplant available at the time—its range was only 3,000 miles and it could not reach most targets in the US without air-to-air refueling. The Badger would soon be outclassed by the US Air Force’s planned supersonic B-58 Hustler bomber. The Tu-16 was subsonic and was severely vulnerable to new NATO supersonic fighter-interceptors. Once again, the Soviets were forced to catch up, and a crash program was begun for a long-range high-altitude supersonic heavy jet bomber.

Tupolev proposed two potential options, known as Plane 105 and Plane 105A. The first idea was only a marginal improvement of the Tu-16, and it was ultimately canceled. The 105A used more advanced technology. Like the Badger, the new bomber would have two jet engines, but rather than being contained within the wing roots these would be mounted at the back of the plane, on either side of the tail fin. This left room inside the wings for bigger fuel tanks and longer range.  There would be a crew of three: one pilot (there was no co-pilot), one navigator, and one weapons officer.

The prototype Plane 105A first flew in late 1959. It immediately demonstrated problems. On its seventh test flight the prototype crashed when it was torn apart by wing fluttering, which led to some changes to strengthen the structure. With its engines mounted above the aircraft’s center of gravity, there was a constant tendency to pitch the nose down, which caused difficulties in handling. This was compounded by a tendency for the tail-heavy end to suddenly drop if the landing speed were too slow. Air crew were also not happy with the ejection system, which sent the ejection seats down through the floor of the cockpit and which required a minimum altitude of 1000 feet—making them useless during takeoff or landing. The crew entered the plane by cranking the seats up on rails, and there were a number of cases when the seats malfunctioned and dropped their airman onto the pavement as the plane was taxiing on the ground.

The USSR desperately needed a supersonic bomber, though, so it was decided to go ahead and begin production anyway, and to fix all of the various issues as the planes were rolling off the assembly lines. The first production Tupolev Tu-22 entered testing in late 1960.

NATO reportedly gave the new aircraft the codename “Bullshot”, in keeping with the practice of designating Soviet-Bloc jet bombers with two-syllable names that started with a “B”. But it was then decided that this name was “inappropriate”, so it was changed to “Beauty”, which was in turn rejected as “too complimentary”. Finally the codename “Blinder” was settled on.

From the beginning, the Blinder failed to reach its specifications for range and speed. Only 12 of the bombers were made in the first year of production due to the many design changes and the modifications that had to be made to the factory tooling.  When a formation of Tu-22 bombers flew over the crowd at the July 1961 annual air show in Moscow, they were nearly all of the Blinders possessed by the Soviet Air Force at the time, and none of them were meeting their design goals.

NATO of course knew none of this, and the sight of the new swept-wing supersonic bombers convinced Western planners that the Russians had taken a major leap in nuclear capability. In reality, several of the test flights had crashed, a number of air crews had been killed, modifications were taking forever, and the first combat-operational Blinders were not deployed until 1962. Issues with the wings were never completely solved, and the pilots were limited to a speed of Mach 1.4 so they would not shake the plane apart. At supersonic speeds there were also “hot spots” produced on the metal skin, which distorted the control surfaces and made handling difficult.  Of the 311 Blinders made, over 70 were lost in crashes and accidents. The plane became known to Soviet air crews as “the Man-Eater”.

Part of the problem was that the Tu-22 had only one pilot, and the cockpit he flew in was crowded with instruments and mechanical switches, some of which he could barely reach. It was too much for all but the most skilled of flyers. To help remedy this issue, the Russians began producing special twin-cockpit training versions, designated Tu-22U.

This model proved to be an instant favorite with both the flight crew and the ground maintenance teams, but their fondness was not related to the performance of the plane. It came from the fact that the Blinder’s cockpit air conditioning system used 40% ethyl alcohol as its refrigerant—and with two cockpits, the Tu-22U variant had twice as much alcohol, over 100 gallons worth. It was, essentially, vodka. In typical Soviet fashion, it became almost an accepted sport for airmen to fill up their Blinder’s refrigerant tank on takeoff, manually adjust the air conditioning to a lower level during the flight, then siphon out the unused ethyl alcohol upon landing and either drink it or sell it. The U model became known as “the Supersonic Booze Carrier”.

Although production of the Tu-22 Blinder ended in 1969, the bombers would remain in service until the late 1990s, with some of the major issues not being finally worked out until the mid-1970s. As it turned out, only a couple dozen were actually configured as supersonic nuclear bombers: most Blinders were used as air reconnaissance aircraft or electronic spying or jamming platforms. Some Blinders were configured to carry the KH-22 anti-ship nuclear cruise missile, known to NATO as “Kitchen”, intended mostly to attack American Navy carrier groups. Export versions of the Tu-22 saw some combat use during Libya’s support of Uganda in its 1970s conflict with Tanzania, and during Libya’s military actions against Chad in the 1980s. Iraqi Tu-22s also flew missions against Iranian targets during their war in the 1980s.

In 1962, however, before the Blinder had even ended its production run, Tupolev began planning its replacement. This would be a complete redesign, with new engines that would be placed inside the fuselage and variable-geometry swing-wings. To avoid embarrassment at needing to replace the failed Blinder so quickly, the Soviet Air Force designated the new bomber as the Tupolev Tu-22M and tried to pass it off as just another upgrade to the Blinder. In reality, when it appeared in 1971 it was a totally new aircraft with virtually nothing in common with the earlier models. NATO designated it “Backfire”. With improvements and modifications, the Backfire remains in Russian service today.


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