Today’s post begins a multi-part Flightdeck Friday – Red Star Edition series on the Tu-22M Backfire. We’ll look at the Tu-22 Blinder, the rootstock for the Backfire, the controversy it engendered at the height of the Cold War and SALT II nuclear arms limitation talks and eventually move to the version many of our readers are most familiar with – the Tu-22M3 Backfire C operating in the maritime strike mission. – SJS
Northern Pacific, 2015
Shifting as much as the confines of the harness connecting him to the ejection seat would allow, LTJG (soon to be LT) Scott “Hozer” Miller tried to ease the now persistent ache in his left hip. Cognizant of the big grey and white bomber a couple of hundred feet away, he tried, unsuccessfully one more time to relieve the ache. Giving up the effort for now as another futile attempt, he re-focused on the number three aircraft of a flight of three that he and a handful of other fighters from USS George Washington were escorting. They’d come out of the north on yet another long range, “show the flag” patrol in keeping with Russian leadership’s declared intent to reassert Russian will, Russian power on the world’s stage.
But it wasn’t the latest musings out of Moscow that was the focus of Hozer’s thoughts, it was the big silver and black missile semi-recessed in the belly of this, and the other two Tu-22M3 Backfire’s that was the center of his attention. The last couple of flights in the past few weeks had been clean – now this, and it had everyone’s attention from the first report.
“Chippy Two, Liberty” The E-2 was calling
“Chippy Two, AB wants Kodaks of your date’s payload along with the usual”
The strike group’s admiral, a former Tomcat RIO and CAG, wanted some close-up pics of the AS-4, no doubt reliving his JO days at the end of the Cold War.
“Roger, Two’s in”
Pulling forward, even with the cockpit he gently rocked his wings and got the pilot’s attention, indicating he was going to cross under – no point in getting anyone overly upset with all this iron out here.
A head nod and exchange of the usual pleasantries via the middle digit and he began his slow slide to the starboard side, pausing for the requisite pics along the way. As he emerged on the other side he mulled the size of the big bomber – for indeed it was exceedingly large. About 2/3 the size of the Bear he’d intercepted a week ago, there was a lethal grace about it that the Bear lacked. Maybe it was the emphasis the white underbelly and medium grey (freshly painted? Hmm, that might be worth noting in the debrief) painted upper body versus the unremitting silver of the Bear – or the fact that the Bear just seemed naked whereas the Backfire had the menacing, though ancient Kitchen it was hauling. Perhaps it was the remote controlled Gh-23 gun in the tail barbette – currently up and locked; sitting by itself, unlike the Bear’s tail gunner who tried to elicit a response with the tired old practice of holding up a Playboy centerfold. A tired wave of the hand was all he got for his efforts.
Still, with wings slightly swept and making good speed over ground as indicted from the solid undercast, there was a certain grace to big bomber. The realization of its mission was never far from his mind, nor would there have been any hesitation about launching one of the AIM-120Ds he was carrying should the call ever come.
For now, he was satisfied to having else besides the nagging hurt in his hip occupy his mind.
And with that, the throbbing resumed…
One of the things our imaginary pilot failed to appreciate in this encounter is that the Backfire is a survivor, emblematic of a manufacturer, Tupolev, that had survived foreign invasion and internal purges – indeed, Tupolev had been teetering on the brink of irrelevancy under Kruschchev in the early 1960s due to the Soviet premier’s preference for ballistic missiles over manned bombers, and the issues with the Backfire’s forebear – the Tu-22 Blinder, were suffering, not least of which was it’s growing reputation as a pilot killer. And just as the Backfire had emerged, almost phoenix-like from the ashes of that effort, now, here it is again, a talisman of the Soviet era of power and glory refitted, repainted and reminding the American’s that their alleged sea supremacy led by their big carriers would not go uncontested.
Part 1. Swing and a Miss
By the mid-1950s it was already apparent to those given charge over Soviet nuclear planning that the Tu-16(NATO codenamed: Badger) would require replacement sooner than later as a deliverer of nuclear bombs. The Americans were already fielding supersonic interceptors with more on the way, and more troubling were hard at work on supersonic bombers, one of which the GRU was saying would fly higher and faster than any of their current or planned fighters could reach. Clearly, Tupolev would be the sourced manufacturer – Ilyushin and Myasishchev had demonstrated little competency where jet bombers were concerned and after the fiasco with the M-4, there was little appetite to repeat history by tasking Myasishchev with designing and building a supersonic bomber. So, Tupolev it was.
Even at this stage, Tupolev’s design bureau (OKB-156) had been hard at work on a couple of design concepts, not as the result of any direction from the Kremlin or Long Range Aviation (Дальняя Авиация, Dalnyaya Aviatsiya), but rather trying to look ahead and anticipate where future requirements might comne from and what form they might take. Just one of the signature characteristics of a successful industrial firm.
Amongst the projects was a medium-range, supersonic bomber study, the Samolet 103. Originally based on a variation of the Tu-16 with four Dobrynin turbojets buried in the wing root (stacked vertically), the Samolet 103 design was sent back for further refinement by the design team who re-emerged with a novel concept. Instead of the wing roots, two engines would be placed in individual pods on either side of the vertical stabilizer, enabling a better juncture between the wing and fuselage and a wing itself more suited for supersonic flight. This would be the Samolet 105 for which metal began to be cut in 1956.
The prototype was finally completed in 1957 – but the first flight would not occur until 1958. To say there were “teething problems” encountered in the manufacture of engine and airframe would be a gross understatement. Certainly this was indicative of most aircraft projects of the time – be they Soviet, American British or other, for the boundaries of known aerodynamics, thermodynamics and control theory were being daily pressed. The crash and casualty rates for programs on both sides of the Iron Curtain certainly provided a metric for the difficulties encountered. The Blinder, as it would come to be known, though, was particularly disguised in that regard. And as flight testing commenced, whole new areas in aerodynamics were plumbed, at times financed with the lives of the crew.
– Next week: There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate…The Blinder found that demon…