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On Oct. 30, 1961, the Soviet Union conducted a live test of the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created. Codenamed ‘Ivan’, and known in the West as the ‘Tsar Bomba’, the RDS-202 hydrogen bomb was detonated on the Sukhoy Nos cape of Severny Island, Novaya Zemla archipelago, in the Barents Sea.
As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Tsar Bomba: Live testing of Soviet Nuclear Bombs, 1949-1962, the operation was conducted from Oleny airfield on the Kola Peninsula where the Tsar Bomba was delivered by train. It had a weight of 24 tons to which 800kg more had to be added accounting for a retarding parachute system. This was considerably more than the earlier optimistic calculations showed but the Tu-95V (a modified Tupolev Tu-95 bomber featuring an enlarged bomb bay with special fittings to accommodate the RDS-202 and reduced fuel capacity. The Tu-95V was specifically developed to carry and drop the Tsar Bomba) was still able to take off with this load.
Another problem arose due to the bomb’s size as it measured 8 metres in length and 2.1 metres in diameter, which was too much to fit into even the enlarged bomb bay of the aircraft meant to carry it. This problem was solved by removing the bomb bay’s doors so that the bomb would be carried semi-recessed into the fuselage rather than fully internally. As a final touch, the aircraft was given a white anti-flash paint finish. For the mission, the Tu-95V was crewed by the pilot Lieutenant-Colonel Andrey Yegorovich Durnovtsev, navigator Major Ivan Nikiforovitch Kleshch and Flight Engineer Valenty Yakovlevitch Bruy.
During the nuclear test the Tu-95V was to be accompanied by a e plane which was a standard production Tu-16 was fitted with film-recording equipment as well as measuring instruments and hence designated as a flying laboratory (literally aircraft laboratory – samolet laboratoriya), in addition it also received flash white finish. The aircraft was captained by Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Fodorovich Martynenko.
As planned the Tu-95V, accompanied by the Tu-16, took off from Oleny airfield in the morning hours of Oct. 30, 1961, setting course for Sukhoy Nos. At 11.33 Moscow the aircraft arrived over the test area at an altitude of 10,500m (the Tu-16 at a somewhat different one to facilitate better filming of the bomb drop), and the Tu-95V released its load. After 188 seconds – the descent being slowed down by the breaking parachute – the bomb went off at an altitude of 4,200 m (4,000 metres above ground) the coordinates of the detonation point being most frequently given as 73°51’N and 54°30’E.
Lead tampers dialled down the yield of the bomb’s calculated 100 megatons to circa 50 megatons (some sources put the actual yield at 58 megatons), but that was still enough to bring about a gargantuan explosion with a humongous fireball mushroom cloud – 64km in height and with a diameter of almost 40km – as well as a very destructive shockwave. The latter destroyed all buildings in Severny village located 55 kilometres from the point of detonation, inflicted lesser damage for hundreds of kilometres away and was literally felt worldwide: the shockwave was registered by sensors to have travelled around the globe three times over!
Tsar Bomba shockwave
The Tu-95V was 39km away from the point of detonation when it occurred, and 115km when the shock wave caught up with it, the figures for the Tu-16 being 53.5km and 205km respectively. Both aircraft were roughly shaken by the blast with the Tu-95 dropping some 800 metres before the pilot regained control and their white anti-flash finish was scorched too. Yet despite this, and a temporary communications failure caused by the electromagnetic shock of the nuclear explosion, they flew back without further incident and landed safely.
Naturally the Americans desired to learn much as possible about the new weapon. Since its test took place at Novaya Zemlya and not deep inside the Soviet Union’s interior there was a realistic possibility to observe it from a relatively close position. For this purpose, an appropriately modified aircraft had to be readied at short notice. This was managed under the USAF’s Project Big Safari which provided management direction and control of the acquisition, modification and logistics support for special purpose weapons systems derived from existing ones. A major advantage of Big Safari was that it facilitated operating outside normal acquisition procedures and therefore offered the ability to handle complex tasks at short notice.
USAF JKC-135A irradiated
In this particular case a Boeing JKC-135A Stratotanker (serial 55-3127) which had previously been used for special systems testing was fitted with extra sensors and other modifications in just five days between Oct. 22-27, 1961. Dubbed Speed Light Bravo, the aircraft was able to observe the Tsar Bomba test (code named Joe-111 in the West), gathering important data in the process.
This data was of considerable value to American nuclear scientists as well as the military and political leadership, with the US the President John Kennedy showing his personal appreciation for the effort. As for Speed Light Bravo, it did not escape some scorching of its surfaces. More alarmingly it was also supposedly highly irradiated ‘lighting up like a Christmas tree’ as was commented at that time, though it was also claimed that no long-term adverse health effects were experienced by its crew.
Tsar Bomba: Live testing of Soviet Nuclear Bombs, 1949-1962, is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Nuclear Vault YouTube Channel, User:Croquant with modifications by User:Hex Own work and Soviet government of Russia via Wikipedia