During the Cold War, for various strategic reasons, having three methods of weapon delivery was preferred: Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and manned bombers. These were also augmented by ground-launched and air-launched cruise missiles (GLCM/ALCM) in the latter part of the Cold War. All horrendous stuff, believe me.
But it was really the bombers that were the symbol of the times. These were the visible machines that would deliver the nuclear weapons should the unthinkable ever happen – machines that people could actually see for themselves. Ballistic missiles were hidden away, but everyone can see an aeroplane. Bombers such as the Vulcan, the B-52, the B-36 and other such aircraft.
However, in my opinion, no Cold War bomber epitomised the times as much as the Soviets’ long-range strategic bomber, the Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” (‘Bear’ was the NATO reporting code-name for the aircraft type; it was not what the Soviets actually called it) These snarling monsters were, and still are, the world’s fastest propeller-driven aircraft, huge, angular, threatening, and yet strangely still beautiful, majestic and impressive.
Although these aircraft were of course designed primarily for the delivery of nuclear weapons, in practice they were mainly used for electronic reconnaissance. The idea of this is that you fly near, but not quite in, a nation’s sovereign airspace where, naturally, you are ‘looked at’ by the nation’s air defence radars, and this gives you the opportunity to analyse the actual radar signals and communications protocols. This means that you can then develop methods for jamming or otherwise interfering with those systems at some point in the future, should you so desire. ‘Defending’ aircraft can’t shoot down these aeroplanes; technically they are doing nothing wrong! But you can intercept them – scramble a pair of armed fighters to make sure they don’t get up to any further mischief. Plus of course you can always take photos of each other, which are also useful for intelligence-gathering. The whole thing is quite fascinating, to be honest.
Flying close to Britain’s air defences throughout the 60’s and 70’s, ‘Bears’ were regularly intercepted and ‘escorted’ by RAF Lightnings:
…and even later, by Tornado F3s:
They’re still in use today, and are being used for exactly the same purposes – electronic reconnaissance – and have recently been in the news for causing the scrambling of several pairs of Typhoons to intercept:
Usually. the ‘photo opportunity’ yields some interesting shots. In this closeup of the tail gunner’s position and observation ‘blisters’, you can see two crewmen having a really good look at the intercepting fighters:
You’ve probably gathered by now that I think that this aeroplane is absolutely gorgeous.
But here is one of my favourite pictures of this beast, a real beauty showing how the strong twisting propeller-wash from those powerful engines disrupts the thin cloud layer that the aircraft has just flown through, before her pilot pulls her up out of the cloud:
Here’s another shot of the Bear, this time an early Cold War shot of her in formation with two Soviet MiG-17 fighters:
(The MiG-17 will probably also appear as a Beautiful Destroyer here sometime in the future 🙂 )
Now a plan-view of the Bear:
And, after a flight halfway round the world to wave at ‘enemy’ aircrew, what could be better than a safe landing at home plate, looking forward to a nice cup of tea – or maybe something stronger, tovarisch….
The runway/taxiway surface could do with a bit of a weeding, though….
So there she is: The Bear. Menacing, huge, impressive – and totally gorgeous.
For more on this amazing aeroplane, try searching for Tu-95 Bear on YouTube.
Here’s a couple of clips to be going on with. The first one is only really watchable for the first minute and a half; then they do an inflight engine stop/restart which is probably not all that interesting to most people But it does catch the menacing snarl of this monster aeroplane nicely:
…and then the second clip, which is a bit more jerky between scenes but you get to see a lot of the aeroplane:
And finally, there’s a lot of detail in this one, but sadly very little snarling noise: