An American in Moscow, or, How a Soviet clone cost North American taxpayers a fantastic sum of money, Part 1

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The one and only Tupolev Type 70 transport plane. Anon., “Russian B-29 version.” Aviation Week, 2 February 1948, 12.

Greetings, my reading friend, and welcome to the wonderful world of aviation and space. Yours truly has a good story in store for you, I hope. This all began during the Second World War, in July 1944 to be more precise, when the pilot of a damaged Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber of the U.S. Army Air Forces decided to land on a nearby airfield in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) rather than on his faraway base in China. The pilots of two undamaged but low on fuel Superfortresses made the same decision in November. In January 1945, the Soviet government, which was at war with Germany but not with Japan at the time, allowed all three crews to cross into Iran, where a delousing team awaited them. None of the aircraft was returned to the U.S. Army Air Forces, which was quite legal under international law.

If truth be told, returning the three Superfortresses to their rightful owner was never in the cards. You see, my reading friend, the arrival of these airplanes was a gift from heaven for the high command of the Aviatsiya dalnovo deistviya. The long range / strategic bombing force of the USSR very much wanted to develop a long range heavy bomber but knew that such an airplane would not go into service until the early 1950s. The three aforementioned Superfortresses opened the door to another option, the production of a clone of this airplane, the most modern bomber of the Second World War. This titanic task was given to the experimental design bureau headed by one of the great airplane designers of the 20th Century.

What Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev and his team accomplished has no equal in the history of technology. It is the greatest example of reverse engineering ever, way greater than those that followed the theft of Lockheed F-35 Lightning II data. And yes, it looks as if the Chinese government managed to download, in 2007, a lot of info related to this super secret single engine and single seat supersonic stealth fighter bomber. The prototypes of two equally super secret supersonic stealth fighter bombers, the twin engine single seat Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 / FC-31, flew in January 2011 and October 2012. Deliveries of the former to the Zhōngguó Rénmin Jiěfànjūn Kōngjūn, or People’s Liberation Army Air Force, began in 2016. But back to our story.

Soviet test pilots flew all three Superfortresses to Moscow in late 1944 and / or early 1945. One of them was taken apart for study. Soviet engineers worked around the clock on the cloning project, under the frightful gaze of Josif Vissarionovich Stalin, born Ioseb Jughashvili, the monstrous master of the USSR. Failure was not an option. The engineers probably did not know that the Superfortresses they were working with were still suffering from numerous teething problems. In any event, a German newspaper broke the story in November 1946 but most aviation experts rejected the report out of hand. The Soviet airplane industry was not advanced enough to build a clone of the Superfortress. Many of these experts were left speechless when they heard that the Soviet government had tried to purchase Superfortress wheels, tires and brake assemblies in 1946.

The rumours took on substance on 3 August 1947 at the flying parade held near Moscow for Soviet Aviation Day. Western observers saw three Superfortresses sweep across the airfield at low level. Their shock would have been greater still had they known that the pilots of the three airplanes, the first pre-production Tupolev Tu-4 heavy bombers if you must know, had flown low to avoid running into the main formation of airplanes. For some reason or other, they had approached the airport from the wrong direction.

The final shock of the day for the Western observers was the flyby made by a military transport plane or civilian airliner very similar in appearance to a Superfortress. This airplane was, you guessed it, the Tupolev Type 70, in other words the very airplane you saw when you opened this webpage. Its presence at the flying parade, combined with that of the three Superfortress-like bombers, was proof that the Soviet airplane industry had done the impossible. It was producing a copy of the American airplane.

While this was true in the case of the Tu-4 bomber, the Type 70 was something else again. The Tupolev experimental design bureau supervised the mating of a fuselage of its own design to the wings and tail of the Superfortress it had taken apart for study. This Frankenstein airplane, if I may us this expression, first flew in November 1946. It was to be the progenitor of a military transport plane, the Tu-12, which was not put in production. Although interested in acquiring a long range airliner, Aeroflot, the Soviet state airline, knew that the number of passengers it carried did not justify the acquisition of a number of civilianised Tu-12s.

What does all this have to do with the fantastic sum of money mentioned in the title of this article, you ask? A good question. It shall be answered… next week.

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Rénald Fortier