Tupolev-95V, the Soviet Bomber That Dropped the Biggest Nuclear Bomb of All Time

Tupolev Tu-95 Heavy Strategic Bomber 19 photos
The Tsar Bomb Nuclear MushroomThe Tsar Bomb Nuclear MushroomThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tu-95V Specially Modified BomberThe Tsar Bomb Nuclear MushroomThe Tu-95 Bomber
Exactly 61 years ago, on the 30th of October 1961, the world witnessed a first-hand Armageddon rehearsal. The Soviet Union dropped the biggest nuclear weapon ever made before and since – the Tsar Bomb, or Big Ivan. It became the culmination of the nuclear Cold War, as the hydrogen bomb test showed that humanity had gained the capacity to wipe itself out.
Carried out in the Russian far north, in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, the doomsday explosion shook the entire planet. And not just from a political and military standpoint but literally, as the shockwave circled the Earth three times (a weather station in New Zealand recorded bursts of atmospheric pressure increase in the following three days).

The cataclysmic weapon was – and remains to this day – the largest explosion triggered by an artificial mechanism. Needless to say, it is also the greatest nuclear explosion in the history of atomic science. To put it into perspective: take the Hiroshima atomic bomb and multiply its energy three thousand times. Or imagine all the explosives detonated during World War Two and increase that ten-fold. You now have the devastation capacity of the Tsar Bomb.

Ironically, it was downscaled to half its original design power by removing certain uranium elements from the build, specifically to reduce the radioactive fallout of the blast. Even so, the Soviet weapon was strong enough to shatter the nuclear arms race between the USA and the USSR and bring about a ban treaty (signed in 1963).

The bomb was so monstrous that it couldn't fit in the carrier bomber, the specially modified Tupolev TU-95 (airplane enthusiasts might know it by the affectionate codename "The Bear"). The standard version of the heavy bomber - among the world's biggest and most powerful airplanes at the time - was still deemed unfit for this duty.

The Tu\-95V Specially Modified Bomber
Photo: Nuclear Vault/YouTube
To carry its hell-bringing payload of 60,000 lbs. (27 tons), the Bear had its engines, bomb bay, and suspension and release mechanisms wholly refitted. The bomb alone amassed 15% of the combined weight of the airplane's gross weight (aircraft and cargo put together).

For this one-of-a-kind mission, the bomber had the internal fuel tanks removed, and the bomb bay doors were dismantled. The weapon – seven feet in diameter and some 26 feet long (two meters by eight meters) – was carried hanging under the fuselage and not inside it.

Even with its superpower aura, a normal Tupolev-95 couldn't do the job, and project Tu-95V bearing no. 5800302 took shape. The standard engines were replaced by more powerful versions - 14,800 shaft horsepower each, turning the four-bladed counter-rotating propellers. This setup gave the aircraft a top speed of 497 kts - 572 mph/920 kph – a vital feature for the survival of the nine crewmembers selected to carry out the drop.

Still, the survivability rate was estimated at just 50%. A special deflective coating was added to protect the flying machine, and a long list of precision reading and recording instrumentation was fitted to monitor the test. Watch the declassified Soviet documentary below – enable subtitles, please – to see how the entire operation unfolded.

The Tu\-95V Specially Modified Bomber
Photo: Nuclear Vault/YouTube
Discouraging as it sounds, the chances were raised by adding a massive parachute to the bomb to slow down its descent just long enough to allow the bomber to flee the no-survival area. The 1,800 lb (800-kilogram), 17,000 sq ft (1,600-square-metre) parachute deployed immediately after the 34,500 feet (10,500 meters) launch.

The bomb dived for 188 seconds down to 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above ground and exploded. At that time, the Bear bomber was 24 miles away (39 kilometers). The shockwave caught up with it five minutes later when the TU-95V was 71 miles (115 kilometers) from ground zero. The fierce blast force dropped the heavy bomber 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) before the pilot could regain control of the aircraft.

At 151,5 feet (46.2 meters) long and with a wingspan of 164,5 feet (50 meters), the base Tu-95 weighed 198,500 lbs. (90 tons) empty. Its maximum takeoff weight of 414,000 lbs. (188,000 kilograms) put it in the heavyweight category, with a nuclear punch capable of reaching over 8,100 nm (9,300 miles - 15,000 kilometers) at a maximum altitude of 45,000 feet (13,700 meters). At the time, the TU-95 was USSR's most potent long-range nuclear bomber. It's the only turboprop strategic bomber still in active service worldwide.

In an ironic twist of nuclear fate, this doomsday prophet was derived from a Soviet copycat of the B-29 – the bomber that flew over Japan in August 1945, delivering the nuclear attacks. Terrifying as they were, those two detonations were mere firecrackers compared to the Tsar Bomba test sixteen years later.

The Tu\-95V Specially Modified Bomber
Photo: Nuclear Vault/YouTube
The Soviet apocalypse lit brighter than the sun for 30 seconds, completely vaporizing the dense cloud strata above the impact zone. The five-mile fireball (eight kilometers in diameter) could have been seen nearly 620 miles (1,000 km) away. The mushroom cloud reached an altitude of 42 miles (67 kilometers) – roughly seven times higher than Earth's tallest mountain, Everest.

If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram
About the author: Razvan Calin
Razvan Calin profile photo

After nearly two decades in news television, Răzvan turned to a different medium. He’s been a field journalist, a TV producer, and a seafarer but found that he feels right at home among petrolheads.
Full profile


Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories