Stolen Tech: The Soviet Superfortress

Boeing’s B-17 was the most numerous heavy bomber of World War II, and its reputation of being nigh indestructible in the face of Messerschmidts and flak cannons is stuff of legend. The first flight of the B-17 was in 1935, and a decade later at the close of World War II, the B-17 would begin to show its age. It could only carry 6,000 pounds of ordnance; the first atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, weighed 9,700 pounds and 10,300 pounds, respectively. The Avro Lancaster notwithstanding, a new aircraft would be needed for the Allied invasion of Japan. This aircraft would be the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.

On paper, the B-29 nearly holds its own against all but the most modern bombers of aviation history. Yes, the B-29 is slow, but that’s only because jet engines were in their infancy in 1944. This bomber was a forgotten super weapon of World War II, and everyone – Japan, German, Great Britain and the USSR – wanted their own. Only the Soviets would go as far to build their own B-29, reverse engineering the technology from crashed and ditched American bombers.

Like all countries in World War II, the Soviets needed a heavy bomber. Flying from Moscow to Berlin was a mere 1,000 miles, Vladivostok to Tokyo is only 700 miles. Russia did not need a long-range bomber as much as they needed a bomber that could carry more than a dozen 500 pound bombs.

The Petlyakov Pe-8, a havy bomber used by the Soviet air forces in World War II.
The Petlyakov Pe-8, a heavy bomber used by the Soviet air forces in World War II.

At the outset of the war, the Soviet Air Forces’ most powerful bomber would be outmatched by any other four-engine bomber in the Allied inventory. The Petlyakov Pe-8 could carry 2,000 pounds of bombs 1,200 miles. the B-17 could carry 6,000 pounds the same distance. The Soviets were outclassed, and even though Berlin is less than a thousand miles from Moscow, and Tokyo is seven hundred miles from Vladivostok, a larger bomber would eventually be needed.

Raids on Tokyo

The US had hit Tokyo early in the war, in April 1942 during the Doolittle Raid, but the success of this operation was marginal. The operation included carrier-launching B-25 bombers to overfly Japan and land in China. For the planes, it was a one-way trip. Little damage was done and after the mission, Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle believed he would be court marshaled on his return to the states. It was only because of the massive morale boost that the Doolittle raid could be called a success.

The Doolittle would never be duplicated, and it would take another two years before the next attack on Japan. In the summer of 1944, the US Army Air Forces launched Operation Matterhorn, bombing raids from air bases deep in China’s interior to Japanese-controlled Manchuria, Formosa, and the Japanese home island of Kyushu. While this operation would not be a resounding success – the logistics of moving fuel and bombs from bases in India to forward air bases in China would be a nightmare – it did provide the Soviets with several B-29 airframes to study.

Recovering the B-29

Although the Soviet Union was an ally, the United States refused to provide the B-29 under the a lend-lease agreement. That’s not to say the United States was unwilling to provide aircraft to the Soviets; the American-designed P-39 Ariacobra would be best known as a Soviet plane, with thousands ferried over from plants in the United States to Alaska, through Siberia, and over to Europe’s eastern front. The B-29 was special, it was the biggest and most powerful bomber of its day, something every country wanted, and a plane the US would not share.

During the few missions of Operation Matterhorn, several B-29s were damaged and rerouted to Russian territory. One B-29 crashed, with three others making controlled landings. Estimates to build a Soviet-designed long-range heavy bomber were about five years, and there were no plans on the drawing board. To Stalin, the arrival of B-29s on Soviet soil was a gift. The order was given by Stalin to copy the B-29, bolt for bolt, in two years.

A Mechanical Marvel

The B-29 was a mechanical marvel. The remote-controlled gun turrets, Norden bomb sight, pressurized compartments, and extraordinarily powerful engines were the pinnacle of technology in the 1940s. There were other technological advances in the B-29 less apparent to the American workers on B-29 assembly lines. The landing gear for the B-29 was enormous, and this was something Soviet industry could not manufacture. The impressive clear plastic dome on the nose of the B-29 was something the Soviets could not duplicate; test pilots frequently complained the Soviet-manufactured acrylic panels were distorted.

The most advanced bomber in the Soviet inventory used fabric-covered ailerons, while the B-29 was an all-aluminum marvel. Cloning the B-29 would be a nigh-impossible task even in the best of times, and one that would fall directly on the shoulders of Andrei Tupolev, head of the most important Soviet aircraft design bureau on the outskirts of Moscow.

The General H.H. Arnold Special being disassembled at the Central Aerodrome in Moscow
The General H.H. Arnold Special being disassembled at the Central Aerodrome in Moscow

Three aircraft diverted to Siberia during a raid on Japan, and were quickly ferried to the Central Aerodrome in Moscow. These aircraft, General H.H. Arnold SpecialDing How, and Ramp Tramp would be either disassembled, used for training and flight testing, or kept as a reference airframe. The reverse engineering of the B-29 would require over 100,000 components to be remanufactured, and the directive from Stalin required these aircraft to be perfect reproductions. This copy of the B-29 would become known as the Tu-4.

This was easier said than done. The Soviet Union did not have the manufacturing ability to reproduce many parts, and either way, the B-29 used a 1/16″ aluminum skin. The Soviet Union used the metric system. Still, the reproduction was a success. Tupolev’s design team replicated the interior paint scheme, and a repair patch on the General H.H. Arnold Special was reproduced in the cloned aircraft.

The differences between the B-29 and Tu-4 were more than skin deep. The powerful, 2,200 horsepower Wright R-3350 engine found in the B-29 was unavailable. The Tu-4 was fitted with a variant of a clone of this engine, the ASh-73TK that produced 2,300 horsepower. The first version of this engine did not match the performance of the Wright engine. The .50 caliber machine guns used in the B-29 could not be sourced, and the Tu-4 was fitted with cannons. The massive tires from the B-29 could not be manufactured, and agents turned to the western war surplus market to outfit the landing gear of the Tu-4.

The Reveal

Germany fell to the Allied powers on May 8th, 1945, and because of agreements at the Tehran conference, the USSR would enter the war 90 days after Germany fell. On August 6th, the atomic bomb would fall on Hiroshima. On August 9, Nagasaki. Japan would surrender on August 15th, and the Soviet Union would not enter the war in the Pacific. By this time, the B-29 was fully disassembled in a Moscow hangar, although it would be another two years until the latest Soviet bomber would be revealed.

On August 3, 1947, the Soviet Union held Aviation Day at the Tushino airfield northwest of Moscow. Representatives from all major air forces were present. This air show would be the first public viewing of the Su-9 and Su-11, a copy of captured German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters. During the show, three large bombers flew past at 600 feet. The distinctive streamlined shape, four roaring engines, and unique Plexiglas nose told the observers these were the forgotten B-29s lost years earlier. After this fly-by, another bomber, this time a passenger version of the Soviet Tu-4 roared past the crowd. The world now knew the Soviets were flying brand new B-29s.

The last surviving Tu-4, on display at the Monino aviation museum.
The last surviving Tu-4, on display at the Monino aviation museum.

The B-29 would not see much service after the war; it was quickly eclipsed by the massive B-36 peacemaker, itself eclipsed by the B-52 Stratofortress in 1955. The Tu-4, though, would remain in the Soviet inventory for decades.

Although the mythos surrounding the Tu-4 revolves around it being a carbon copy of the B-29 – down to the alleged inclusion of flak damage on one of the wings – this isn’t truly the case. The Tu-4 served to bootstrap the Soviet aerospace industry, and a mere decade after the introduction of the Tu-4, the Soviet Air Forces introduced The Tu-16, a jet bomber still in service with the Chinese Air Force, and the Tu-95, a turboprop bomber that will remain in service until the 2040s.

It’s an impressive piece of engineering, despite most of the design work being a Boeing product. It’s also not the only time an American design was copied by Soviet aerospace engineers. The Soviet’s first atomic bomb – the RDS-1, a copy of the Fat Man and Gadget devices to come out of Los Alamos – was dropped by a Tu-4.

Now, only one Tu-4 aircraft survives, in an aviation museum on the outskirts of Moscow. While that’s not a remarkable survival rate for a manufacturing run of hundreds, it is an excellent example of how far Stalin would go to bootstrap the Soviet aerospace industry.

78 thoughts on “Stolen Tech: The Soviet Superfortress

      1. Why would they put content on someone else’s site that they wouldn’t put on their own?

        Besides there aren’t enough ads for shows about car flipping, guys climbing on mountains of junk, and pawn shop experts.

    1. all ive learned from the history channel in the last 10 years is how to make moonshine. they are a shell of their former self. so its nice to see that some people actually give a crap about history, even though i seen this documentary four times.

  1. Very cool article. I realize some people are not enthralled by this kind of content, but I for one appreciate these sorts of articles.

    Also, in regards to the Tu-95 – 88 years (if it makes it that long) is one heck of an impressive service life for an aircraft design.

    1. It’s about the average age of a Delta plane…. zing!

      At any rate: what I wonder about is fight-hours versus actual age. How much of upkeep goes into simply fighting material breakdown due to time an not necessarily wear from use?

      1. Mike, I think the key word here is “variants”.
        The B-52A and a number of successors are now waiting in the Nevada desert for salvage, I think the B-52G/H are operational.

        1. Only the B-52H is operational, nearly all B-52Gs were destroyed as part of the 1992 SALT agreements. The B-52G was the model I worked on when I was an EW Tech in the USAF.

    2. I like them too. Hacking is as much fueled by history and bits of trivia as it is by scientific or technical prowess. It is the combination of many elements together with a “need” that forms the impetus of new inspiration.

    1. But they didn’t improve it. They just copied it right down to all the flaws. Not really a hack.

      I find the article interesting as well. I also like the retrotacular articles on HaD too. But I find this one reads like a Wiki page and doesn’t really fit my reasons for reading HaD. Just saying….

      1. AFAIK Intel did this with chip manufacturing plants, even with pipes going in curves around pillars which did not exist in the new factory, after one new built factory had massive problems with yield. It turned out that that a short piece of rubber hose from a quick repair gave of tiny amounts of something like sulfur and without that the process worked badly.

      2. Didn’t you read? They made changes due to the limitation of the materials available.
        Plus I bet they didn’t copy that norden bomb sight but used their own design.
        But I leave it to experts to tell us with more certainty.

  2. They even copied the radio tubes down to the lettering and markings inside and out, like 6AU6, tiny light bulbs, switches, etc. Stalin was way ahead of Intel in “Copy Exact”. Today, Russia is the best source of a lot of old tubes that are clones of designs from the U.S.

    Note the Soviet hydrogen bomb was also a design provided by spies.

    1. Soviet designs used first the layer-cake design which no other state ever used and then independently developed a radiation-compressed design similar to the US one. No copying.

      1. No, Mr. Chekov. They copied the tubes in the Superfort radios and intercom and servo systems exactly. There are complete reports on the copying progress from the time.

        1. That have nothing to do with my post nor with hydrogen bombs at all? Did you perhaps reply to the wrong post?

          [A clarification of my original post: designs similar to the Soviet layer-cake was known in the US and UK but the Soviet one was developed much further and was a bit different.]

          1. Ah, I thought you were referring to the layer cake style of tube. The Rosenbergs supplied the plans for the hydrogen bomb. Were defended by the American left for decades as scapegoats until intelligence was declassified that showed the military/intelligence community chose not to add their considerable evidence at the time of the trials because it would have compromised their entire intelligence network. Truman and Eisenhower undoubtedly were aware when they denied clemency despite a worldwide demand. When the Soviet Union collapsed the Soviet files were released which confirmed the plans were passed by Rosenberg who thus contributed directly to the beginning of the Cold War.

    2. Flight Journal featured an article on this plane a few years ago. If I recall correctly, the directive to copy everything exactly was so all-encompassing that the team had to get express permission from Stalin to remove the American white star insignia and replace it with the Russian equivalent.

    3. Yet somehow, as a russian nuclear physicist once said – The first russian thermo-nuclear device was a bomb, you could drop it out of an airplane. Ivy Mike was a building :P

    4. Well, what OTHER markings would you expect them to use? After all, they did need to mark them to keep straight which one was which. I wonder if they analyzed the chemical composition of the markings. The soviets already had their own vacuum tube industry, so presumably they already knew how to make markings that would stick to glass and not burn off in a few days, but did they use getters? Did they use cathodes with radioactive compounds to boost their emissivity?

      At least they were able to find engines that were roughly the same size and power – I doubt that they could have built copies of the 18-cylinder Wright R-3350 in any reasonable amount of time. To me, THAT’s the hack here – figuring out where to use what they had available instead of copying absolutely everything.

  3. Nice article. The hackers are Soviets :) Two corrections: 1. “…On August 9, Nagasaki. Japan would surrender on August 15th, and the Soviet Union would not enter the war in the Pacific.” Not true: After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945, the Soviet Union invaded from Soviet Outer Manchuria as part of its declaration of war against Japan. ( 2. “The B-29 would not see much service after the war;” It did: plus its B-50 variant.

    1. My understanding was that while the B-50 did have similar lines to the
      B-29, it was in fact a completely new design and not just a variant or larger
      Version of the 29. My Pappy was the Crew Chief of One in the Early/mid 50s

      1. Not true. My dad flew the KB-50J up until he retired in 1962. The B-29 was disliked by pilots because it was underpowered – with a full load the engine cowling cooling flaps had to be closed in order to take off, causing then engines to nearly overheat. The B-50 was the answer to this. It was re-named B-50 instead of a B-29 variant because the DOD budget had money for a new bomber but not for improving an old design. First the B-50 got the new R-4360 “Major Wasp” engines, then when they made the tanker version it had to be fast enough to refuel jet fighters, so two J-47 turbojets were added. It was a much different plane than the ’29, but make no mistake, it WAS a variant.

        Another variant of the B-29 was the KC-97, another tanker that was still in service when _I_ left the USAF in 1981.

  4. “…and the Soviet Union would not enter the war in the Pacific.” Did I just read that right? The Soviets didn’t enter the war in the Pacific, then I wonder then who steam rolled the Kwantung Army in Manchuria?

    1. And into China where they pulled up the railway behind them when they left, with every bit of metal and machinery in the province. Even Bessemer Converters! If it takes too long to copy it, steal it!

  5. Wow this is pretty bad over all. I love the subject matter but over all the article is filled with errors. Let’s start with the big one.
    “The B-29 would not see much service after the war; ”
    The B-29 after WWII was the only nuclear bomber in US service until the B-36 and B-45 could be certified around 1950.
    The B-29 was used to bomb North Korea during the Korean war.
    The B-29 was used as the mothership for the Bell XS-1 rocket plane.
    The B-29 was used as a reconnaissance platform after the war.
    The B-29 as used as a weather aircraft and hurricane hunter.
    The B-29 became the KB-29 tanker.
    The B-50 was originally the B-29D and was more or less a B-29 with larger engines and a bigger tail.
    The B-50 was the first plane to fly around the world non-stop and was refueled by B-29s.
    B-29s were loaned to the the UK and became the Washington B.1.
    Finally the B-29 was not retired from service until 1960 well after the B-36
    The B-50 was not retired until 1965 and the C-97 until the 1970s.
    The B-29 had long service life in a number of roles. When you add in the B-50, C-97, and Boeing 377 Stratocruiser it becauses one of the most significant aircraft of all times. I would up it right up with the Boeing 707/c-135, C130, and DC-3/C-47 as far a flexibility and long life.

    1. My list of errors could have gone on. For instance the B-29 was not slow. It was actually a very fast heavy bomber and only a few Japanese aircraft could fly high and fast enough to intercept it.

  6. This is a really terrible sentence: “Germany fell to the Allied powers on May 8th, 1945, and because of agreements at the Tehran conference, the USSR would enter the war 90 days after Germany fell.” For those confused, it means the USSR would enter the war against Japan.

  7. What about Concordskiy jet = Concorde, camera Zorki = Leica II, Molnya watch – Rolex movement, optics from Zeiss (whole factory moved in 1945 from Germany to Russia) etc. “inventions” ?

      1. If you shop shitposting for a while and actually look at the design, you might notice that Buran does NOT have 3 huge rocket engines on its ass…quite a bit of difference. Buran was a part of the Energia rocket, a very different approach to recovering the engines.
        Also, it proved in it’s one and only ever flight that it can fly unmanned. A feat the Shuttle never did, despite being upgraded to have that capability.

    1. You are confused by external similarities resulting from fundamental technologies and similar design decisions. State of the art for a practical supersonic transport at the time definitely favoured a delta wing and high aspect ratio pointed fuselage. Buran shuttle – once you have decided on a certain payload volume, cross range, re-entry G and landing type your design possibilities are limited, although I believe that selection among the limited number of fundamental shapes was resolved by US success with the shuttle. Actual design and execution are quiote different to the shuttle though. Molnija watch – I don’t even know where you are going with this. They’re both mechanical watches with swiss lever escapements, like virtually every other watch of the era? I think when the soviets set up a watchmaking industry after the revolution they bought equipment from the swiss, and consequently produced a swiss design, but after that their designs are about as original as any swiss firm. It wasn’t a rolex though, it was probably a high quality movement.

  8. Although this article is not about hacking or anything, it is very good. Past history is something everyone should learn. You can never tell where you are going if, you don’t know where you come from.

  9. The TU-4 was the best the Soviets could do to copy the B-29. The B-29 had better performance. By the end of the war, the B-29 was considered a mature technology, not cutting edge. The B-36, and the B-40(-43,-45,-47) series bombers were cutting edge techonology,

  10. Ah, gotta love the Soviets, they sure loved to copy, and even with the changes they had to make to their B-29 copy it came in at 700kg fatter than the original, the Soviets also copied the Sidewinder missile, one got caught in the tail of a Chinese MiG and they sent it to Russia, and the Russians copied the damn thing and still use it today, the Soviet engineers said the misslie was “A university in missile design” and they learned their lessons well.

  11. “Boeing’s B-17 was the most numerous heavy bomber of World War II”
    Wrong ! While the B17 was the most famous bomber for many reasons, the number built was 12731.
    The most numerous heavy bomber of World War II was actually the Consolidated B24 with above 18482 built.

    1. If you overoaded it, yes. But they never used it in that way because too short range and the difficulty to fly it when overloaded. Usual Bomb-Load was 6000lbs. Also the B-17E didnt had external mounting points for external bombs. So it could not realy be overloaded, If the bomb bay was full, it was full…

  12. Stolen tech, haha … This stolen tech was designed by engineers “stolen” from Russia (and many other countries in Europe). So please don’t be so proud of yourself … :)))

    1. “Look honey, isn’t it cute? I think it’s a troll.”

      “Yeah, it’s a troll all right. Don’t be fooled, sure they may be cute, but whatever you do, don’t feed it.”

      1. So, you said nothing relevant, yep. There is a phrase “propaganda”, which is very popular nowadays in US to blame Russia for everything what happens in the world …

        1. Sigh. I’m going to regret this.

          Wow. I don’t know what you’ve been hearing, but having been an American for some time now, I’ve never heard anyone here blame Russia for our problems. Well, not since the 1960s, anyway. But you mention relevance. Okay, let’s get back to the subject. Who do you think the engineers at Boeing stole the ideas for the B-29 from? Can you show an example of a Russian/Soviet plane this design copied? Or even a German one? Can you name an engineer that Boeing “stole” from the USSR to develop it? Yes, I’m aware that the USA raided Germany for scientists and engineers after WWII, some of whom were crucial to the success of our space program for a couple of decades, but the Soviets did so as well. We’ve acknowledged that all along. But the subject here is a piece of US hardware first flown in 1942, which the Soviets duplicated five years later. I did not say “reverse engineered”, because if there was any engineering involved, they would have made improvements to it, if for no other reason than to make it manufacturable in Russia. (Actually, they DID eventually design several variants of the TU-4, so I guess they did get around to doing some engineering.) And by the way, the ASh-73TK engines used on the Tu-4 were a two-row variant of the Shvetsov M-25, a Russian-built copy of the Wright R-1820, which the Soviets were already building under license from the US. So please provide some examples of the stolen technology you’re talking about.

  13. What they did with the aluminum skin panels on the TU4 was to make them thinner than on the B29, except where they riveted to the framework, which was copied to the exact dimensions instead of being made slightly larger. Dunno why they didn’t simply apply the slightly thinner aluminum panels and have the outside diameter of the fuselage a millimeter or so less. Did they build a giant micrometer to check it?

  14. “because of agreements at the Tehran conference, the USSR would enter the war 90 days after Germany fell”
    because of agreements at the /Yalta/ conference, the USSR should enter the war in the pacific /within/ 90 days after the fall of Germany

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