Cold War Era

Tupolev Tu-16 Bomber Crew Member recalls the Training Mission where his Aircraft Dropped a Live Nuclear Bomb

Nuclear testing

During the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, both the US and USSR resumed nuclear testing.

During September 1961 and on Oct. 30 the Soviets staged an impressive show of force by dropping the largest ever thermonuclear bomb over Cape Sukhoy Nos, on the island of Novaya Zemlaya in the Arctic Ocean. The 50-megaton RDS-220 device, codenamed Vanya, was carried in a specially modified Tu-95V, captained by Podpolkovnik (Lt Colonel) A.E. Durnovtsev. The aircraft was accompanied by a Tu-16A airborne laboratory ‘chase aircraft’ captained by Mayor (Major) V.F. Martynenko.

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Durnostev dropped the weapon from an altitude of 35,000ft and had managed to escape to a distance of 25 miles before the device detonated at an altitude of 13,000ft. The Tu-95 was subjected to extreme heat and four powerful shock-waves, which caused all four engines to flame out. It was not until the aircraft had glided to 22,000ft that one of the engines restarted and two more engines were relit at 16,000ft; the aircraft landed at Olenya airfield on three engines.

On Sep. 15 and 16, 1962, two DA (Dal’naya Aviatsiya – Soviet long-range strategic aviation) Tu-16 regiments carried out two Letno-Takticheskogo Ucheniya (LTU – flight tactical exercises), involving live drops of nuclear weapons in a regimental combat formation of 24 aircraft. The units involved were, the 132 TBAP from Tartu and 185 TBAP from Poltava, both of which deployed to Olenya for the exercises.

Generál-Leytenánt (Lieutenant-General) V. V. Reshetnikov, commander of the 2nd Otdel’nyy Tyazhelyy Bombardirovshchik Aviatsionnyy Korpus (OTBAK – independent heavy bomber corps), flew as a member of one crew and eloquently described the experience in Michael Napier’s book In Cold War Skies:

Tupolev Tu-16 Bomber Dropping a Live Nuclear Bomb

‘Suddenly, the brightest glow burst into the heavens, gilding the clouds. It illuminated all the space around us with intense light, which penetrated into the cockpit, scattering the shadows and illuminating the instruments.

‘It lasted a second.

‘The light had a kick like a mule, for a few moments after it appeared we were shaken again and again, as if we were crossing a railway at high speed along a broken road. Dull blows shook the entire airframe, rattling our spines. The wings rocked, the nose twitched. On the instrument dials, the needles spun. We stroked the controls, comforting the aircraft, and once again she sailed obediently through the air.

‘To the left of the smooth surface of the clouds, a huge white dome suddenly began to heave and grow rapidly. As soon as it formed into a hemisphere, it rose through the cloud layer, dragging behind it a wide smoke column, climbing rapidly to a huge height, already well above our own. And the top of it, a colossal turban of the gentlest tones of all the colours of the rainbow bathed in shimmering sunlight, hovering at an altitude of 20–30km. The entire regiment cruised around that turban as if in a circle of honour…

‘I was happy with the successful delivery of the bomb, its successful detonation, the return of the regiment in without loss.’

In Cold War Skies is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

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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