The Tupolev Company
By Asif Siddiqi, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
The Tupolev company is probably the most famous aeronautics firm, or
design bureau, as the Soviets referred to their aeronautics companies, in
the former Soviet Union. Tupolev is named after Andrey Tupolev, the man
many historians consider the patriarch of the modern Soviet air industry.
Almost all the major Soviet aviation designers of the mid-twentieth
century, from fighter designer Pavel Sukhoi to space rocket designer
Sergey Korolev served their apprenticeship under this legendary man.
Tupolev was born in 1888 and developed an early interest in
aeronautics, building gliders by the time he reached his early twenties.
In 1918, he received his diploma as an "engineer-mechanic" based
on a thesis for a design of a seaplane. Early in his career, Tupolev was
an advocate for introducing modern concepts into Russian aviation. On
October 22, 1922, he founded a commission to design and develop all-metal
aircraft for the Red Air Force. To this day, the Tupolev company regards
this date as the founding date of the organization. At the time, the
commission was part of TsAGI (the Central Aero-Hydrodynamics Institute),
the premiere Soviet aeronautics research institution based in the town of
Zhukovsky, south of Moscow.
Through the 1920s, Tupolev's team steadily gained respect and began to
dominate the burgeoning Soviet aviation industry. Despite poor health,
Tupolev had a larger-than-life personality that enabled him to define many
important directions in Soviet aviation. For example, he introduced new
concepts of testing prior to mass production. He was also opposed using
foreign technology in Soviet aircraft unless it offered a major advantage.
Tupolev's initial forays into aircraft design led to the creation of a
number of notable early Soviet airplanes such as the TB-1 (ANT-4) bomber,
one of the largest planes built in the 1920s. Two of his aircraft from the
period, the ANT-20 Maxim Gorky and the ANT-25, set world records for size
and long-distance flights respectively. These aircraft were important
elements in improving the Soviet Union's reputation in aeronautics. As the
Tupolev team's mandate grew bigger, it could no longer be subordinate to
TsAGI, and in July 1936, Tupolev's Moscow-based Plant No. 156 formally
separated from TsAGI.
It was at this time that Tupolev's spectacular rise to the top was
interrupted. The late 1930s was the time of Stalinist terror, when a whole
nation practically lived in fear of arrest. Aviation was among the hardest
hit areas in Soviet science and technology. In October 1937, the Soviet
secret police arrested Tupolev (and many other important aviation
designers) on the doubtful charge of selling secrets to the Nazis. Tupolev
and many of his associates were carted off to the infamous Lubyanka prison
where they were forced to sign false confessions. Not long after, with an
impending war on the horizon, Joseph Stalin realized that he could not do
without his aviation designers. In late 1938, the Soviet leader authorized
the creation of a special prison camp in the Bolshevo suburb of Moscow to
develop new bombers for the Soviet military. Almost all of the country's
major aviation designers were part of this prison organization. As
prisoners of the state, these talented engineers had no right to a name
and were not permitted to sign their design drawings. Each designer merely
had a rubber stamp with a number on it. Secret police guards constantly
followed the engineers around workshops during their daily work.
Soon after the beginning of World War II, in July 1941, Tupolev and
several other members of his team were "freed" for their work on
a new twin-engine tactical bomber named the 103 (later named the Tu-2).
The Soviet Air Force used the Tu-2 as the standard tactical bomber both
during the war and for many years after. Following release from prison,
Tupolev's firm eventually returned to Plant No. 156 in Moscow in the
autumn of 1943 where he reformed his old organization, now known as the
"OKB-156" (Experimental Design Bureau No. 156).
The OKB-156's first major task in the postwar years came about almost
by accident. After a 1944 raid on Japanese cities, four
U.S. Army Air Force Boeing B-29 Superfortresses, crippled by anti-aircraft
fire, landed near Vladivostok, a city in the Soviet Far East. Although the
crews were returned to the United States, Stalin refused to hand the
aircraft back. Instead, he ordered Tupolev to build an exact replica of
this technological marvel in order to acquire a new strategic bomber for
the Soviet Union. Tupolev resisted the idea of copying since he believed
that one of his own designs, the Samolet 64, would be a better option. But
forced by Stalin, Tupolev had no other choice, and subsequently organized
a massive program to produce a working copy of the B-29, known by the
Russians as the Tu-4 and by NATO as "Bull." Tupolev's version,
while similar to the U.S. bomber, wasn't identical. For example, Tupolev
used different engines and cannons. Pilots flew the Soviet version for the
first time in May 1947. The project to reproduce the B-29 not only gave
the Soviet Union a strategic bomber within two years of the end of the war
but perhaps more importantly, allowed the Soviet aviation sector to
organize a modern aeronautical industry capable of producing high
Tupolev simultaneously converted the Tu-4 for civilian use as the
72-seater Tu-70, a precedent that he later followed for several other
military aircraft. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Tupolev developed
the Soviet Union's first long-range strategic bomber, the swept-wing
Tu-16, known by NATO as "Badger." The Soviet Air Force operated
the bomber as late as the late 1980s. The Chinese also built some under
license. The Tu-16 was followed by the first very long-range strategic
bomber, capable of intercontinental ranges—the swept-wing turboshaft
Tu-95. Known by NATO as the "Bear," Tupolev produced many
different versions of the Tu-95, including one that was a missile carrier
and another a reconnaissance plane. In the same period, Tupolev created
the first Soviet jet airliner, the Tu-104, which
caused a minor sensation in the West when it flew a high-level Soviet
delegation to London in September 1956. Tupolev continued a parallel path
of developing civilian airliners and military bombers using the same
blueprint. For example, he used the Tu-95 to create one of the most famous
Soviet passenger airplanes, the turboprop Tu-114, capable of carrying 220
passengers. When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States
in 1959, he arrived in a Tu-114. U.S. military officials were astonished
that a turboprop airliner could achieve speeds of 800 kilometers per hour
(497 miles per hour).
Front view of two Egyptian
Air Force Tu-16, Tupolev, aircraft taxing on the
runway during airlift exercise Bright Star. The
Tu-16`s NATO designation is Badger.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Tupolev organization introduced a new
generation of strategic bombers, among them the Tu-22, the Tu-22M (both
known by NATO as "Backfire"), and the Tu-160. These were in
addition to several civilian passenger aircraft such as the 160-passenger Tu-154.
One of the more spectacular additions to the Tupolev production line was
the Tu-144, a supersonic airliner developed as a
parallel to the Anglo-French Concorde. Although it was a remarkable
technical achievement, the program was plagued by problems, including a
crash at the Paris Air Show in 1973 that killed the flight crew. The
Soviet passenger carrier Aeroflot never used the Tu-144 extensively due to
high operational costs and a variety of technical problems. Tupolev did
not witness the ultimate failure of the Tu-144. He died in his sleep in
December 1972 at the age of 84.
Tupolev's only son, Aleksei Tupolev, succeeded his father when Andrey
died in 1972. In 1989, the design bureau took the name ANTK imeni A. N.
Tupoleva (Aviation Scientific-Technical Complex Named After A. N. Tupolev).
It had about 10,500 employees in the late 1990s. It traditionally
contributed about 80 percent of the short- and medium-range passenger
airplanes in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, but
this number has declined in recent years due to economic turmoil. Although
its primary products are civilian passenger aircraft, the Tupolev
organization also produces freight aircraft, unpiloted aerial vehicles,
research and development test aircraft for cryogenic engines, and
incorporates improvements to its older military bombers.
Over the course of its lifetime, the Tupolev design bureau has produced
more than half of all passenger aircraft operated by the former Soviet
Union. These have included 80 projects, 35 of which went into mass
Note: This article was commissioned by and
first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It
appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author