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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).


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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 performance aircraft.

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.

DOD photo

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 production.

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 and NASA.


Duffy, Paul and Andrei Kandalov. Tupolev: The Man and His Aircraft. Shrewsbury, UK: Airlife, 1996.
Higham, Robin, John T. Greenwood, and Von Hardesty. Russian Aviation and Air Power in the Twentieth Century. London: Frank Cass, 1998.
Kerber, L. L. Stalin's Aviation Gulag: A Memoir of Andrei Tupolev and the Purge Era. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.



The last great accomplishment before he died, the SST Tu-144

NASA Dryden RC

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