US Air Force representatives who demanded an explanation were told that the Tu-160’s engines had several operational modes, not all of which were characterised by a smoke trail.
Developed as the answer to the American B-1, the Tupolev Tu-160 (NATO codification: Blackjack) was the Soviet Union’s most potent strategic bomber. Several project versions were rejected, and a highly controversial contest involving some of the Soviet Union’s top-class aircraft design companies took place before the Tu-160 variable-geometry bomber reached the hardware stage. Its design made use of many advanced features not used previously on Soviet bombers.
As told by Yefim Gordon & Dmitriy Komissarov in their book Tupolev Tu-160, Soviet Strike Force Spearhead, the West got its first close look at the Blackjack on Aug. 12, 1988, when Frank C. Carlucci, the then US Secretary of Defense, visited Kubinka AB near Moscow during his Soviet trip. Kubinka had a long history as a display centre where the latest military aircraft were demonstrated to Soviet and foreign military top brass. The aircraft shown to Mr. Carlucci included a Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrum-A tactical fighter, a Mil’ Mi-26 Halo heavy-lift helicopter, an Il-78 sans suffixe (Midas-A) tanker/transport — and a 184th GvTBAP Tu-160 coded “12 Red.” In an unprecedented show of openness, the Secretary of Defense was allowed to examine the weapons bays, the flight deck and other details of the Blackjack. The US delegation was accompanied by TV crews and press photographers, and soon the first reasonably good pictures of the Tu-160 were circulated in the world media; the event also made the evening news on Soviet TV. Also, some performance figures were disclosed for the first time, including a range of 14,000 km (8,695 miles) on internal fuel.
As is usually the case on such occasions, a flying display was staged; it included two more Tu-160s which were parked elsewhere on the base. When the bombers (captained by Vladimir D. Grebennikov and Aleksandr S. Medvedev) were due to taxi out for their demonstration flight, a single engine would not start on each of the two aircraft (!). Realising the embarrassment that would result if the demonstration flight was cancelled for this reason, the VVS top command authorised the crews to take off on three engines —which they did. The flights went well, thanks as much to excellent airmanship as to the Blackjack’s good flying qualities. Nevertheless, the fact that only three of each bomber’s engines were emitting the characteristic orange efflux did not escape the attention of the US Air Force representatives who demanded an explanation. Worried though he was about the situation, DA Commander Col.-Gen, Pyotr S. Deynekin answered with a straight face that the Tu-160’s engines had several operational modes, not all of which were characterised by a smoke trail.
It is not known whether the Americans believed him; indeed, it would appear improbable that ordinary service pilots would run the risk of taking off with one engine dead. However, even if they had guessed the truth and had the grace to say nothing, they surely acknowledged that the Soviet pilots were real pros.
Another embarrassing situation arose when Frank Carlucci climbed into the Tu-160’s flight deck. As he moved about in the confined space he bumped his head painfully on a carelessly positioned circuit breaker panel (which the witty airmen promptly dubbed “the Carlucci panel”). Indeed, almost every person making his first visit inside the Blackjack bumps his head on it!
After this event the bomber became a familiar feature both of such shows for foreign military delegations at Kubinka and of the air events at Moscow-Tushino and Zhukovskiy for the benefit of the general public (more will be said about these later). For instance, the French Defence Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement examined a 184th GvTBAP Tu-160 coded “16 Red” at Kubinka AB in March 1989. Three months later, on Jun. 13, another 184th GvTBAP Blackjack (“21 Red”) was shown to Adm. William Crowe, the then Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the same location. Climbing down the steep ladder from the flight deck (and presumably having avoided the famous panel), Crowe described the Tu-160 as “a world class aircraft.”
On Feb. 13, 1992, Tu-160 “16 Red” was demonstrated to the political leaders and top-ranking military officials of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) republics at Machoolishchi AB on the southern outskirts of Minsk along with other advanced military aircraft. Curiously, the data plates for the exhibits were carefully draped with black cloth to hide the “top secret” figures from prying journalists (who arrived in force) and unveiled only for the visiting VIPs. Obviously glasnost’ still had a long way to go in 1992!
Tupolev Tu-160 Soviet Strike Force Spearhead is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Dmitry Terekhov from Odintsovo, Russian Federation via Wikipedia and Dmitry Terekhov from Odintsovo, Russian Federation