Home » A Tu-16 bomber crew member recalls a training mission where the aircraft dropped a real nuclear bomb

A Tu-16 bomber crew member recalls a training mission where the aircraft dropped a real nuclear bomb

by Till Daisd
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Nuclear testing

At the height of the Cold War, in the early 1960s, nuclear testing was resumed by both the US and USSR.

The largest thermonuclear bomb ever dropped was launched over Cape Sukhoy Nos on the island of Novaya Zemlaya in the Arctic Ocean by the Soviets in September 1961 and again on October 30, in an incredible demonstration of force. Captained by Podpolkovnik (Lt Colonel) A.E. Durnovtsev, the 50-megaton RDS-220 device, known as Vanya, was transported aboard a specially modified Tu-95V. A Tu-16A airborne laboratory “chase aircraft” piloted by Mayor (Major) V.F. Martynenko accompanied the aircraft.

Before the device exploded at an altitude of 13,000 feet, Durnostev was able to escape to a distance of 25 miles after dropping the weapon from a height of 35,000 feet. Four strong shock waves and intense heat wave exposure caused the Tu-95’s four engines to flame out. The aircraft only had three engines when it arrived at Olenya Airfield; two more were relit at 16,000 feet and one did not restart until the aircraft had glided to 22,000 feet.

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 the 185 TBAP from Poltava, both 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 colors 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 honor…

‘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.

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

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

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