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On this day: Russia in a click

Andrey Tupolev Andrey Tupolev

22 September

On September 22, 1922, the Commission on Aircraft Construction was founded, which eventually grew into the major soviet aircraft design bureau led by Andrey Tupolev, the patriarch of Soviet aircraft design.

In 1922-1923, the question about innovations in the aircraft construction was vital, as the necessity for changing obsolete wooden planes for metal ones had become obvious. The advocates of the “metal theory” claimed such a transformation would be complicated but inevitable in order to let the aircraft industry reach new heights, both figuratively and literally.

Tupolev’s mixed – part metal, part wooden – ANT-1 earned its wings in the October of 1923. Inspired by its success, Tupolev soon produced the ANT-2, this time completely made from metal.

In the beginning, Tupolev had to work in terrible conditions with no central heating or the necessary equipment either. He also engaged in the production of torpedo-boats, moto-sleds, zeppelins, at the same time making a real breakthrough in the aircraft industry. The planes designed by the Tupolev bureau had proved their worth by saving the passengers from the infamous Cheluskin icebreaker tragedy, who had to drift on an ice block for two months in 1934. Furthermore, the planes completed the first ever transpolar flight from the Soviet Union to the United States. The feat was performed by Valery Chkalov in June of 1937.

The ANT-2 was highly praised by the Red Army officials who placed an order for a number of reconnaissance planes from the bureau. The aircraft had been extensively exploited by the Soviet Air Force for over a decade. Overall, the state orders from the Air Force for the production of a series of bombers had significantly boosted the technical excellence of the design bureau, which also made a name for itself through the creation of the TB-7, the SZ, and the Tu-2 – arguably the best bombers of WWII.

In the post-war years the bureau designed a wide variety of both military and civil aircraft. In the mid-1950s the design bureau opened another department, unique at the time, which specialized in the production of unmanned aircraft, such as aerodynamic missiles and unmanned reconnaissance planes. In the 1960s, the first Soviet passenger jet Tu-104 was produced.

Regardless of his many merits, Tupolev was repressed in 1937, accused of opening and supervising the Russian Fascist Party. Threatened with the further repressions of his family Tupolev “confessed” he had connections with the French intelligence service, but his wife and son were arrested anyway. Tupolev wasn’t fully convicted. Instead of a regular camp, he was sent to a secret design bureau under NKVD surveillance together with other convicted outstanding designers, where they could resume his work. Unlike other outstanding designers – like the father of the Soviet space program Sergey Korolev who did seven years – Tupolev was lucky, having spent only three years behind bars instead of the ten he had been convicted for. Tupolev’s luck is accounted for by some by the start of WWII. Others say it was part of Stalin’s master plan of convicting certain geniuses in order to keep them in shape. According to Vyacheslav Molotov, then-People’s Commissar of the Exterior, people like Tupolev were too opposed to the Soviet regime to remain free, but too valuable to be executed.

Tupolev conducted the design of over 100 types of military and passenger aircraft. He was named Hero of Socialist Labor three times. Tupolev’s planes account for 78 world records and 28 unique flights.

Today Tupolev’s design bureau is still at the head of the Russian aircraft industry, wowing the audience at air shows with its latest developments.