Cold War Era

The story of the crazy wing-to-wing in-flight refueling procedure of the Soviet Tu-16 Badger medium bomber

There was a joke in the Soviet Air Force that you could identify the pilot of an in-flight refueling -capable Tu-16 Badger medium bomber by the sweat stains on his leather flying jacket!

Developed to meet a Soviet Ministry of Defense requirement for a fast bomber that would counter the threat posed by NATO, the Tu-16 was a ground-breaking project. It was the first Soviet medium bomber to feature swept wings, and it was built around a pair of turbojets that were the world’s most powerful jet engines at the time. First flown in 1952, the Tu-16 filled such roles as nuclear bomb delivery, missile strike, reconnaissance, and Electronic Counter Measures.

As one might expect of a new aircraft, the Tu-16 was beset with many problems at the service entry stage-not least because it had been rushed into production, as was often the case.

As explained by Yefim Gordon, Dmitriy Komissarov, and Vladimir Rigmant in their book Tupolev Tu-16: Versatile Cold War Bomber, in-flight refuelling (IFR), particularly with the Tu-16’s wing-to-wing system, was a complex procedure that took a heavy toll on the with crews’ nerves. Maj.-Gen. Aleksandr A. Balenko, CO of the 2nd TBAD (heavy bomber division. Each TBAD consisted of two or three heavy bomber regiments, TBAP), was one of the first service pilots to master the IFR technique; he famously commented that it was ‘akin to holding a tiger of by the tail-all fear and no fun and that refuelling at night was ‘just the same, except that you can’t see shit’. During IFR operations the pilot’s blood pressure soared and his pulse could go as that high as 200; the stress was so severe that pilots could lose about 2 kg (4.4 lb) of body weight in a single sortie. There was a joke in the Soviet Air Force that you could identify the pilot of an IFR-capable Tu-I6 by the sweat stains on his leather flying jacket!

The refuelling procedure harboured a danger: if the pilot of the receiver aircraft placed his port wing on the tanker’s hose too abruptly, the hose could bend over and form a loop, ensnaring the port aileron; the result was inevitably a departure from controlled flight. This phenomenon was dubbed the `Gibalevich Loop’ after a 185th TBAP Tu-16 captain who was the first to crash for this reason. Entering the tanker’s wake vortex was likewise fraught with loss of control, the receiver aircraft rolling to port, which resulted in a collision with the tanker.

When in 1956 the 13th GvTBAD (Guards TBAD) — by then composed of the 184th, 185th and 226th GvTBAPs — started getting to grips with IFR, the tankers were concentrated in the 175th TBAP in Mirgorod; additionally, a special IFR procedures training group was set up in the 184th GvTBAP. At first Col. Vladimir D. lkonnikov and Col. Nikolay V. Novozhilov from the DA’s and Flight Safety Inspectorate were assigned to the group as instructors; Badger crews from far and wide were seconded to this group to take their training.

The refuelling procedure was filmed from inside the aircraft and the films were used for instructional purposes. By the end of 1960 as many as 70% of the crews in the 226th GvTBAP were capable of refuelling in daytime and at night; in 1962-63 the unit was 100% rated for night-time IFR. The training was very intensive; for example, the regiment’s Deputy CO Col. Gheorgiy T. Goobin made no fewer than 330 contacts with the tanker!

Eventually the wing-to-wing technique was mastered, but at a heavy price. In 1958-64, in two regiments alone (the 184th GvTBAP and the 226th GVTBAP) fifteen Tu-16s were lost with all hands in the course of in-flight refuelling — and that means 90 young and fit airmen who were real pros. Quite apart from the accidents, there was a lot of incidents, such as the tanker’s hose breaking or getting ingested by the receiver aircraft’s port engine.

Only one specialised aerial refuelling unit equipped with the Badger existed in the DA — the 179th Berllnskaya OTAE SZ at Siauliai, which was formed in 1959 by reorganising the 345th TBAP. The honorary appellation was inherited from the latter unit which had gained it for participating actively in the Berlin Offensive Operation of 1945. Even so, the 179th OTAE SZ was not an all-Badger unit (and not even an all-tanker unit, for that matter) ten — it operated Tu-16 bombers and Myasishchev M-4-2 Bison-A tankers alongside the Tu-16Z! For whatever reason the 179th Squadron had the unofficial name Normandiya (Normandy). However, there were tanker squadrons within several bomb regiments – such as the 1225th TBAP at Belaya AB, the 303 at TBAP at Khorol’ AB and the 219th ODRAP at Khvalynka AB (all reporting to the 8th OTBAK, independent heavy bomber corps).

After March 1964 the Air Force no longer practiced in-flight refuelling with the Tu-16 because ICBMs were being fielded on a growing scale; the Navy, on the other hand, chose to retain this IFR capability. By the early 1970s the number of operational Tu-16Z tankers declined as the requirement for wing-to-wing refuelling changed and the aircraft reached the end of their service lives. Most of the tankers were converted into ASM carriers. A whole series of regiments lost their tankers, despite the fact that almost all combat versions of the Tu-16, as well as reconnaissance and ECM versions, were IFR-capable.

The Tu-16N/111-16NN tanker using the probe-and-drogue system was much less widespread. It equipped just a single squadron — namely Sqn 4 of the 200th GvTBAP based at Bobruisk, which was established in 1972 to cater for the operations of Tu-22K missile carriers based in Belorussia. Later the tankers were transferred to the 251st GVTBAP at Belaya Tserkov’.

The following video gives an overview of the unique Tu-16 wing-to-wing IFR system.

Tupolev Tu-16: Versatile Cold War Bomber is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Top War and Pinterest

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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