Losses and Aviation Safety

The story of the formation of 75 Tu-16 Badger bombers that avoided collision after flying through thick clouds at 990ft during the May Day Parade in Red Square

The Tu-16 Badger bombers took off and began the circuitous route to Moscow, assuming close formation before the final turn onto the heading that would take them over Red Square…

Developed to meet a Soviet Ministry of Defense requirement for a fast bomber that would counter the threat posed by NATO, the Tupolev Tu-16 (NATO reporting name: Badger) 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. It also served as the basis for the first Soviet jet airliner, the Tu-104. Nearly 1,500 were built for the Soviet Air Force and the Soviet Navy, and the Tu-16 showed remarkable longevity, the final examples being retired in 1993.

As explained by Yefim Gordon, Dmitriy Komissarov, and Vladimir Rigmant in their book Tupolev Tu-16: Versatile Cold War Bomber, the Tu-16 was a regular participant in the May Day and 7th November parades in Red Square, as well as the Aviation Day (or Air Fleet Day) flypasts staged on the third Sunday of August. (7th November was the anniversary of the October Revolution, one of the most important public holidays in the Soviet Union. Here it should be explained that on Jan. 26, 1918 three months after the revolution, Soviet Russia switched from the outdated Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Thus Oct. 25, the ‘old style’ date of the revolution, equals Nov. 7 according to the current calendar.)

Before the 1956 May Day parade the huge Tu-16 formation – 75 bombers from the 121st, 171st and 203rd TBAPs – practiced daily at Chkalovskaya AB east of Moscow. First, the bombers were lined up on the runway and markers taped on them to help the pilots memorise the correct position in the formation. Next, daily practice flights began to ensure perfect station-keeping and timing. The landing of this armada was a problem in itself; the intervals had to be reduced to 20 seconds because with normal intervals the last of the bombers would have to wait their turn for hours! On one occasion this nearly led to a ground collision when the bomber in front had an engine problem and stopped on the runway.

The practice flights were recorded on cine film from the ground and the films used for debriefing. Occasionally the DA Commander Air Marshal Vladimir A. Soodets would attend the debriefing; he was famous for his hot temper and could mete out punishment promptly. If Soodets noticed something untoward at the debriefing, he would order the ‘movie’ stopped and demand: ‘Aircraft coded by such-and-such! Who’s the aircraft captain?’ A frightened major would rise and identify himself. Then he would receive the full blast: ‘Why didn’t you maintain formation [expletive deleted]?’ ‘I ran into wake turbulence, Comrade Marshal’ – the culprit would stammer. ‘If a Major can’t maintain formation, then maybe a to Captain can [expletive deleted]!’ the marshal would comment as and the ‘movie’ would continue.

Came May Day, and the bomber armada led by 45th TBAD CO Col. Vitaliy A Gordilovskiy took off and began the circuitous route to Moscow, assuming close formation before the final turn onto the heading that would take them along Leningradskiy Prospekt avenue, then along Gor’kiy Street and over Red Square. All ad of a sudden the group flying at 300 m (990 ft) went smack into thick clouds that should not be there at all -the weather reconnaissance flight 90 minutes earlier had shown clear skies. Receiving no orders from the leader or from the ground, the pilots did the only possible thing and moved the bombers apart to avoid a collision in the clouds. When they broke clear of the clouds at 3,000 m (9,840 ft), the beautiful tight formation had gone to the dogs and there was no time to restore it. Someone radioed in clear code, telling the bomber pilots to abort the mission and return to base, the mood was rotten, but at least everyone landed in one piece. At Chkalovskaya the crews waited for the big brass and the inevitable repercussions. At length one of the DA’s Deputy Commanders arrived – a level-headed and businesslike man. He summoned the airmen to the officers’ mess where the tables had been set for the occasion. ‘Well, Comrades pilots- the general said after accepting a glass of vodka, – what will we be celebrating? May Day or your birthday? ‘ Of course everyone said ‘Birthday, Comrade General!’ The general drank and went on: ‘Happy birthday! Everyone came out of this alive – which means you did the right thing!’ Ironically, the jet fighters that approached Red Square ahead of the bombers followed a different route, taking off from Kubinka AB west of Moscow; they avoided the freak clouds, making the flypast without any trouble.

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

Photo credit: VFP-63, Det Bravo / U.S. Navy, 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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