* Following World War II, the Soviet Union invested major resources to ensure that the Red military technology kept up with the latest weapons developed in the West. An early priority was the development of a strategic bomber with the range to attack the United States; the result was the Myasishchev M-4 / 3M "Bison" jet bomber, which did not prove entirely satisfactory but which served for decades, if primarily as an aerial tanker.
The push to obtain improved strategic jet bombers led to the development of a supersonic successor to the "Bison" in the form of the M-50A "Bounder". However, the "Bounder" was left behind by the development of long-range strategic missiles, and only one was built. This document provides a history and description of the "Bison" and the "Bounder".
* During World War II, the Soviet VVS (Voyenno Vozdushniye Sily / Red Air Force) was primarily focused on tactical support and not on strategic bombing. A four-engine bomber, the Petlyakov Pe-8, roughly comparable to the British Short Stirling, was built in small numbers and played an insignificant role in the conflict.
By the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the USSR was pushing forward on development of the atomic bomb -- the effort greatly aided by well-placed spies in the Anglo-American bomb program -- and though the first Soviet atomic bomb, an effective copy of the American "Fat Man" weapon, wouldn't be detonated until 1949, Stalin was of course interested in developing a long-range strategic bomber to deliver atomic weapons. Lacking much experience in development of such aircraft, as an interim fix Soviet industry reverse-engineered three Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers that had been forced to land in Siberia after being damaged in raids over Japan. The Superfortress copy would be fielded with the VVS as the Tupolev Tu-4, which was assigned the NATO codename of "Bull".
During the Cold War, there was a common belief in the West that the Soviets were copycats -- but though they did not hesitate to borrow, beg, or steal good ideas from others when it seemed useful to do so, they had plenty of ideas of their own. During the war, an experimental design bureau (OKB in its Russian acronym) under the direction of Vladimir Mikhailovich Myasishchev worked on an advanced long-range, high-altitude bomber of purely Soviet design designated the "DVB-102". It only had two engines, not four as was normal for long-range piston-powered strategic bombers, but they were very powerful engines -- and there lay the problem with the concept. Pushing piston engines up to very high power ratings led to diminishing returns and development difficulties; due to the non-availability of the engines, the DVB-102 program was canceled in 1946.
Myasishchev's OKB was liquidated, being folded into the aircraft design organization under Sergei Ilyushin, and the staff were dispersed through Soviet aviation industry. Bomber development generally became the domain of the OKB directed by Andrei Tupolev -- which, as mentioned, produced the Tu-4.
* The Tu-4 was never more than a stopgap; It only had the range to reach peripheral targets in the continental USA, and worse, the writing was on the wall for piston-powered combat aircraft. The Tupolev OKB worked on improved derivatives of the Tu-4, including the Tu-80 and Tu-85, but neither reached production since their performance was clearly inadequate. In addition, after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, American B-29s ended up tangling with Soviet Mikoyan MiG-15 jet fighters on raids over Korea, and though it was some satisfaction to the Soviets to find that the Superfortress was a fairly easy target for the MiG-15, they also immediately realized that the Tu-4 and its piston-powered derivatives would be every bit as vulnerable to Western jet fighters.
In the meantime, Western air arms were acquiring modern high-speed jet bombers. The Americans had flown the sleek Boeing B-47 Stratojet in 1947 and were on the way to fielding the type, with plans in the works for a more potent follow-on that would emerge as the Boeing B-52. The British had flown their advanced Vickers Valiant -- as well as much stodgier jet bomber, the Shorts Sperrin, with two built strictly as a backup plan -- and were busily working on the even more advanced Handley-Page Victor and Avro Vulcan.
Unfortunately for the Soviets, acquiring a useful long-range strategic jet bomber was problematic. The Americans strategic bomber force could and did operate from bases in Western-allied countries around the periphery of the USSR, in effect boxing the Soviet Union in with a "ring of steel". In contrast, the Soviets did not have forward bases to attack the USA and that demanded bombers with very long range, which was a troublesome notion because the jet engines of the era were notoriously fuel-thirsty. It was difficult to strike a reasonable balance between range, payload, and performance -- there was no point in building a jet bomber if it looked like a flying fuel tank, couldn't carry a useful warload, and wasn't any faster than a piston-powered equivalent.
* In early 1951, Vladimir Myasishchev was an engineer at the Moscow Aviation Institute, a considerable demotion from the days when he ran his own OKB. He remained ambitious, however, and began to promote concepts for a jet-powered "Strategicheskiy Dahlniy Bombardirovshchik (SDB / Strategic Long-range Bomber). His lobbying finally reached the desk of Stalin, who concluded: "Let's believe Comrade Myasishchev, and entrust him with developing such an aircraft." Hedging bets, the Kremlin also authorized the Tupolev OKB to build a turboprop-powered strategic bomber in parallel, which would emerge as the "Tu-95 Bear".
By the spring of 1951, Myasishchev was back in charge of his own OKB again, with a directive to construct the SDB. Specifications for the aircraft defined a machine powered by four axial-flow turbojets; a maximum range of 12,000 kilometers (7,450 miles); a maximum speed of 850 to 900 KPH (530 to 590 MPH); and a warload of 5 tonnes (5.5 tons). The initial prototype was to enter flight test in December 1952, with a second prototype close to production spec to fly a year later; a static test article would also be built. The specifications were extremely aggressive, and in fact they would prove impossible to meet in all respects.
After considerable evaluation of different options -- including straight or swept wings; vee / butterfly or conventional tail; engines on pylons ore buried in the wing roots -- the final design, referred to only as "izdeliye (item) M" for the time being, detailed an aircraft with:
Although each of the four engine nacelles had its own elliptical intake, the initial notion had been to use a slot-type intake shared by both engines on each side of the aircraft, as on the British Vickers Valiant and Avro Vulcan, and in fact this configuration was featured in a full-scale mockup.
Work on the prototype moved forward rapidly, with the aircraft, now sporting the service designation of "M-4", finally taking flight for the first time on 20 January 1953 -- acceptably close to the initial target date of December 1952 -- carrying a crew of seven, including pilot Fyodor F. Opadchiy and copilot A.N. Gradsiansky. There were the usual expected glitches to work out, a series of them nearly leading to disaster on the 13th flight, though Opadchiy was able to get his "bent bird" down on the runway safely. The second prototype made its first flight in December 1953.
Due to various work on fixes, the handover to state acceptance trials didn't take place until March 1954. To tell the world that the USSR now had its own long-range strategic jet bomber, the first M-4 prototype performed a public flyover during the Moscow May Day parade, flanked by four Mikoyan MiG-17 fighters. NATO quickly assigned the type the codename "Bison", which would be amended to "Bison-A" when later versions appeared. For whatever reason, the Western press also tagged the name "Molot (Sledgehammer)" onto the type, though it is unclear if the Soviets themselves ever used that label.
While the Soviets were proudly showing off the M-4, state trials were proving that the machine fell well short of spec -- in particular, its range was only about 9,500 kilometers (5,900 miles), not the 12,000 kilometers (7,450 miles) required. It also fell short in its service ceiling and had an excessively long takeoff run, with the trials further showing that the crew accommodations led to excessive fatigue. Tupolev sniped at the M-4 to the authorities, pointing out that his Tu-95 was demonstrating much better range. However, the Tu-95 development program was having difficulties of its own, including the fatal crash of a prototype. The M-4 was ordered into production, with work to proceed on improvements that would bring the type up to spec.
Construction began in 1954, being performed at State Factory #23 in the Moscow suburbs. The M-4 was in formal service within a year. A total of 34 "Bison-As" was built, including the two flight prototypes. All operational machines went into VVS service; no "Bison" ever served with a foreign air arm. Not surprisingly, given the way the aircraft had been rushed into service, there was a series of flight mishaps until the bugs were worked out. Early pictures of the M-4 show them in natural metal colors, but eventually the "Bison" fleet standardized on an "anti-flash white" paintjob on the underside to reflect the glare of a nuclear blast.
* There were a number of one-off modifications and proposals for unbuilt variants of the M-4. The "M-29" or "M-6P" airliner / military transport was another early concept, effectively a "Bison-A" with an airliner fuselage; the military transport version would have had cargo loading ramps and the ability to carry large military cargoes.
The "Aircraft 26" or "VM-26" -- "VM" for "Vladimir Myasishchev", of course -- was essentially an M-4 "Bison-A" with twin Dobrynin VD-5 turbojets instead of four AM-3A turbojets. Each VD-5 had a maximum thrust of 127.5 kN (13,000 kgp / 28,660 lbf) thrust. The VM-26 would have also had provision for two big rocket-assisted takeoff (RATO) boosters to help it get off the runway in heavily loaded condition.
An even more drastic variation on the "Bison" design was the "Aircraft 28" or "VM-28", which was considered in parallel with early M-4 development. The relatively small wing area of the "Bison" limited its altitude ceiling, which not only made it more vulnerable to interception but also reduced its cruise efficiency. The VM-28 featured a bigger wing and four Dobrynin VD-5 turbojets, with an engine arrangement along the lines of the Boeing B-47 -- one engine on a pylon inboard on each wing, a second tacked on outboard under each wing, with the bicycle landing gear stowed in the bottom of the outboard engine nacelle. The VM-28 actually got as far as a full-scale mockup, but development of the M-4 seemed to be promising enough and the VM-28 got the axe in 1955.BACK_TO_TOP
* As mentioned above, the M-4 was an all-metal aircraft, made mostly of aircraft aluminum alloys, with some steel and magnesium components. It featured a fuselage with a circular cross-section, all-swept flight surfaces, four turbojets in nacelles near the wing roots, bicycle-type landing gear straddling a bombbay, and three defensive gun positions.
The two-spar wing had a sweep of 35 degrees at quarter-chord -- there were actually outer and inner wing panels, with steeper sweep on the inner panels -- featuring a 1.5 degree anhedral droop on the outer wing panels, and a 2.5 wing degree incidence. There was a really impressive flap inboard, with electric actuation, and a hydraulically-actuated aileron outboard on each wing. Both ailerons featured trim tabs. The tail assembly was of conventional configuration, with hydraulically-actuated rudder and elevators. The tailplane had a steep dihedral of 10 degrees.
Early production M-4s were powered by four Mikulin AM-3A engines with a maximum thrust of 85.8 kN (8,750 kgp / 19,290 lbf) each. Later production featured the RD-3M-500 or -500A turbojet -- an uprated version of the AM-3A, the "AM" for "Alexander Mikulin" having been traded for the "RD", meaning "Reactivniy Dvigatel / Reaction Device" -- with a maximum thrust of 93.2 kN (9,500 kgp / 20,940 lbf). Surviving AM-3A-powered aircraft were generally refitted with the improved engines. Each engine featured a starter motor in the intake bullet, with the starter powered by jet fuel. The engines were toed out 4 degrees and down 4 degrees from the aircraft centerline to prevent engine exhaust from washing against the fuselage and tailplanes. Engine bleed air was used to deice the leading edges of all flight surfaces and the engine inlets; electrical deicing was used for flightdeck glazing and the pitot tubes.
There were 18 bladder fuel tanks in the fuselage and wings, providing a total fuel capacity of 123,600 liters (32,610 US gallons). Two auxiliary fuel tanks could be fitted in the bombbay to provide extra range at the expense of warload. Fuel trim was handled automatically, an advanced feature for the time, with an inert gas system reducing the likelihood of a fire due to combat damage. A fire-extinguishing system was built in to protect the fuel tanks, as well as the engines. All tanks were filled through a single point, and there were wing and rear fuselage fuel dump tubes.
The main landing gear consisted of two four-wheel bogies, fore and aft of the bombbay, and wingtip outriggers. All landing gear assemblies retracted forward using electrical actuation. The nose gear bogie was hydraulically steerable -- it would have been troublesome to perform ground steering with an aircraft fitted with bicycle landing gear otherwise -- and didn't have brakes, while the rear bogies had pneumatic braking. A three-chute brake parachute system was stored in the tail.
Incidentally, the nose gear bogie had an interesting hydraulic ram system that caused it to tilt back on its rear duals when the load was removed, increasing the angle of attack during the takeoff run. Unfortunately, this led to a couple of fatal take-off accidents early on; some pilots forgot about the tilt feature and hauled back on the stick to achieve rotation -- with the aircraft nosing up, stalling, and slamming back on the runway. Once it was realized what had happened, pilots were rigorously trained not to do that.
Defensive armament include a manned tail turret, plus top and bottom remote-control turrets on the forward fuselage, all three turrets featuring twin AM-23 23 millimeter cannons, with a rate of fire of 1,250 rounds per minute each. The tail turret had 400 rounds per gun, while the other two turrets had 300 rounds per gun. The tail turret had PRS-1 Argon gun-laying radar in a fairing above the turret, at the base of the tailfin. All three turrets featured gun cameras. The maximum warload was 24 tonnes (26.4 tons), in the form of four 6 tonne (6.6 ton) BRAB-600 armor-piercing bombs. Other warload configurations included:
Trials were performed with drops of rocket-powered torpedoes, with a special sight fitted to the M-4 for torpedo delivery and six torpedoes carried in the bombbay. It worked as far as it went, but torpedo-bombing was an obsolete concept by the 1950s, and nothing further was done. A "Bison" could still carry six naval mines for antiship attack, since the mines were handled much like bombs.
Bomb drop was directed by an OPB-11S optical bombsight, plus an RBP-4 Rubidy-MM-11 bombing / navigation radar in a radome under the nose. The optical bombsight and the bomb-nav radar could be linked to permit optical fine-tuning of radar targeting.
As mentioned, two fuel tanks could be plugged into the bombbay, with enough space left over for a single FAB-9000 bomb or the rough equivalent. There were plans early on for a bombbay reconnaissance pallet, but the idea didn't pan out. A more modest array of day and night cameras was fitted aft of the mainwheel landing gear well, it seems more or less as standard kit, with a rack for night illumination flares in a bay just behind.
MYASISHCHEV M-4 "BISON-A": _____________________ _________________ _______________________ spec metric english _____________________ _________________ _______________________ wingspan 50.53 meters 165 feet 9 inches wing area 326.35 sq_meters 3,509 sq_feet length 47.66 meters 156 feet 4 inches empty weight 80,000 kilograms 176,370 pounds normal loaded weight 140,000 kilograms 308,640 pounds MTO weight 184,500 kilograms 406,750 pounds max speed at altitude 950 KPH 590 MPH / 515 KT service ceiling 11,000 meters 36,100 feet range 8,000 kilometers 5,000 MI / 4,350 NMI _____________________ _________________ _______________________
The M-4 carried an aircrew of eight, with seven of the crew in a forward pressurized compartment and a tail gunner in his own rear pressurized compartment. The forward compartment included a navigator / bombardier in the nose; pilot and copilot in the main cockpit; plus radar operator / navigator, flight engineer / gunner, radio operator / gunner, and dorsal turret gunner in a compartment behind the main cockpit. There was no way to get between the two compartments in flight. There was a hatch on the right bottom of the forward fuselage for access by the forward section crew, with a hatch under the tail turret for access by the tail gunner. There was a hatch on the top rear of the cockpit and above the tail gunner's position to allow the crew to get out after a belly landing or ditching at sea; there was an inflatable life raft stowed in a bay in the upper fuselage, along with emergency rations and other survival kit.
All the crew compartments featured extensive armor plating, though it was selectively applied to reduce weight. All crew sat on downward-firing ejection seats; there were five ejection hatches for seven crew, with a pneumatic system shunting the navigator / bombardier and the two pilots around to fire through the same hatch in succession. The nose featured traditional bomber-type glazing for the navigator / bombardier. There was a plexiglas dome behind the cockpit for navigation and turret sighting, plus a dome on each side of the cockpit for turret sighting.
Aside from the bomb-nav and tail turret radars, avionics included a short-range navigation receiver; a gyrocompass; automatic direction finders and radio beacon receivers; radar altimeters and Doppler groundspeed radar; HF and UHF radios, plus a crew intercom; an identification friend or foe (IFF) system; and a post-strike assessment film camera fitted in a bay in the rear fuselage.BACK_TO_TOP
* Although the M-4 "Bison-A" left something to be desired, so did its rival, the Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear" -- the "Bison-A" had the edge in speed and warload, the "Bear" in range. As a result, there was an incentive to improve the M-4, in particular by fitting it with more fuel-efficient engines to increase range. The Dobrynin jet engine OKB was working on such an improved engine, designated the "VD-7", and in 1954 approval was granted for a redesign of the M-4 "Bison-A" to use the new VD-7 engines. It would also be provided with a nose inflight refueling (IFR) probe to further increase range -- the IFR system having been evaluated on M-4 trials machines, as described below. The new variant was to be given the designation of "3M".
A late production M-4 was converted to the 3M spec, performing its initial flight on 27 March 1956, with Mark L. Gallai and Nikolay I. Goryainov in the cockpit. State trials didn't begin until early 1958, the difficulties mostly being due to the immaturity of the VD-7 engines. However, there was such a need for the aircraft that the 3M was in VVS service, at least in principle, even before state trials began! Once NATO got wind of the variant, it was assigned the codename of "Bison-B".
The "Bison-B" was powered by four Dobrynin VD-7B turbojets, with a maximum thrust of 93.2 kN (9,500 kgp / 20,940 lbf) each -- the same as the AM-3A / RD-3M, but the VD-7B had about 25% better specific fuel consumption. The additional range wasn't just due to the new engines, however; installation of the VD-7 required substantial redesign of the center fuselage, and while the engineering team was at it, they also performed considerable redesign of the airframe to reduce weight and substantially improve aerodynamics, helping to boost range.
The wing was completely updated, with the new wing featuring wider span -- increased from 50.53 meters (159 feet 9 inches) to 53.14 meters (174 feet 4 inches) -- and greater wing area -- from 326.35 square meters (3,509 square feet) to 351.78 square meters (3,782 square feet). While the M-4's wing had a slight kink along the trailing edge, that had led to incremental drag; the 3M's wing had no trailing-edge kink and was more aerodynamically efficient. The new wing still featured two fences on each wing, but the fences were moved inboard considerably. The tailplane dihedral was eliminated, and the tailplanes became "variable incidence", able to be adjusted in flight by the aircrew -- though elevators were retained, the variable incidence being used essentially to perform flight trim.
An IFR probe was fitted above the nose, and the nose was reprofiled, eliminating the M-4's glazing in favor of a radome. The new nose extended the length from the 47.66 meters (156 feet 4 inches) of the M-4 to 48.76 meters (160 feet), not including the IFR probe. The navigator / bombardier's position was moved back, with three small windows on each side of the nose to provide an outside view. Along with the IFR probe, range was further boosted by providing fittings for the carriage of a finned 6,500 liter (1,715 US gallon) external tank under the engine cluster at the base of each wing.
The weight reductions of the redesign were dramatic, giving an empty weight 6.5 tonnes (7.15 tons) less than that of the M-4. The weight reductions were partly due to lighter landing gear, but mostly to structural weight reduction -- the M-4 had been "overbuilt", and further investigation revealed many areas where it could be slimmed down. Defensive armament, radars, and bombload remained the same as for the M-4, though there were some avionics improvements -- particularly in the form of a countermeasures suite, including an active RF jammer and three chaff dispensers. A radio operator no longer being seen as a necessary member of the crew, his place was taken by a countermeasures system operator. There was considerable work in improving crew accommodations, the M-4 having been given poor grades for ergonomics during its evaluation.
As mentioned, development of the VD-7 engine proved troublesome, and even when it reached production, deliveries were slow. The prototype 3M had AM-3A engines, and the first production aircraft actually had two RD-3As on the right and two RD-7Bs on the left. The use of two different types of engines persisted into production, with some "Bison-Bs" built with AM-3A / RD-3M engines -- to be designated "3MS-1" -- and others built with VD-7B engines -- to be designated "3MN-1". Just to be even more confusing, late production 3Ms had an improved avionics fit and were designated "3MSR-1" and "3MNR-1", though this distinction is otherwise ignored here. A total of 74 "Bison-Bs" was built in all, not counting the two prototypes that had been converted from M-4s.
* The 3M "Bison-B" was effectively the last major production version of the series, but there was work to build a follow-on variant. A "3ME" prototype, rebuilt from a 3MN-1, was test-flown in 1959. The major new feature was a much more capable Rubin-1 radar in an entirely new "sharp beaked" nose with the IFR probe mounted directly on the tip; a new long-range radio navigation system was also fitted, as were some other improved avionics. The 3ME was involved in a runway accident with the Myasishchev M-50A "Bounder" supersonic bomber prototype in 1960 and was written off -- see below. The 3ME was never really intended for production, however, since it effectively amounted to a prototype for the "3MD" missile carrier variant, which was being developed in parallel.
The Soviets performed considerable work from the 1950s on long-range air-launched "standoff" missiles, and there had been thought of producing a missile carrier variant of the "Bison". Although there was some design work on a missile carrier version of the M-4 "Bison-A", interest quickly moved on to using the better 3M "Bison-B" as the missile carrier platform. The result was the "3MD", which was to carry two K-14S (NATO AS-2 "Kipper") or other standoff missiles; the 3MD was to feature the new nose evaluated on the 3ME, with the Rubin radar incorporated into a "Rubicon" missile control system. The 3MD would also be able to perform conventional strikes.
Two new-build 3MD prototypes were produced, not only featuring the new nose with the Rubin / Rubicon system, but also the new long-range radio navigation system trialed on the 3ME, plus general upgrades to systems and a reprofiled wing leading edge. The first 3MD prototype performed its initial flight on 25 November 1959, with B.M. Stepanov and A.S. Rozanov in the cockpit. The second joined the flight test program in 1960.
Unfortunately, that was the year that the Myasishchev OKB was dissolved for the second time. The Myasishchev OKB's "product" was no longer seen as particularly useful, and the organization got the axe in September 1960. Myasishchev was "kicked upstairs" to take charge of the influential "Central Aerodynamics & Hydrodynamics Research Institute" or "TsAGI" in its Russian acronym -- a prestigious job in itself, but still an effective demotion compared to leadership of an OKB.
Only nine production 3MDs were completed before the axe came down; NATO got wind of the type and dutifully gave it the codename of "Bison-C", but it never amounted to much. This handful of machines went into service with "Bison-B" air regiments, usually being reserved as the mount for the regiment or air division commander since they were a bit "spiffier" than "Bison-Bs".
* There was some work in the late 1960s to convert the "Bison-B" fleet to carriage of the KSR-5 (NATO AS-6 "Kingfish") standoff missile, with a 3MN-1 configured to carry two of the missiles, one on a rack under each wing, this conversion being designated "3M-5". However, the "Bisons" were getting old by that time, and the VVS was not enthusiastic about performing the conversions. The Tu-95 was converted to carry the KSR-5 instead. The "Bison" fleet" kept busy operating in the tanker role instead.BACK_TO_TOP
* While the "Bison" was generally overshadowed in the bomber role by the Tu-95 "Bear", the "Bison" had a fairly lively career as a tanker. From early on, the M-4's range shortfall gave the Myasishchev OKB a strong incentive to investigate in-flight refueling. The Tupolev OKB had developed an IFR capability for their Tu-16 "Badger" and other Tupolev aircraft that involved snaking a hose from the wingtip of a tanker to the wingtip of a client, but cooperation between the rival Myasishchev and Tupolev OKBs was poor, and leveraging off Tupolev technology wasn't in the cards.
However, an OKB under Semyon Alekseyev had developed hose-&-drogue IFR technology, much like that developed in the West. In 1955, Myasishchev engineers modified the second production M-4 to a hose-&-drogue tanker configuration, and fitted the first production M-4 with an IFR probe above the nose, with the two aircraft put into trials. Two more M-4s were converted for trials in 1956, one to a tanker configuration using a different implementation of the hose-&-drogue system, and the other to a refueling client.
Although the trials did not go all that smoothly, in the end the use of the M-4 as a tanker was validated, and from the late 1950s the M-4 fleet was converted to a single-point tanker configuration through the fit of a KAZ hose-drum unit (HDU) and fuel tanks in the bombbay, as well as removal of all defensive armament.
* The 3M "Bison-B" was designed from the outset with the IFR probe, as well as for easy conversion to the tanker configuration by the installation of the KAZ HDU and bombbay tanks. In the 1970s and 1980s, surviving 3Ms were generally converted to the tanker configuration by installing the HDU and tanks, as well as removing the IFR probe and defensive armament. The 3MS-1 "Bison-B" became the "3MS-2" tanker, while the 3MN-1 became the "3MN-2" tanker. The 3MD "Bison-C" was in principle similarly convertible to tanker configuration, but since so few were built and they were usually reserved by senior regimental or divisional commanders as semi-personal mounts, there was no push to convert them to tankers.
Ironically, although most of the "Bisons" had been converted to tankers by the 1980s, the only combat action the type saw was during that decade, during the war in Afghanistan. A number of 3Ms were reconverted back to bomber configuration to perform carpet-bombing of Mujahedin guerrilla positions preparatory to Red Army assaults, with a "Bison-B" carrying an intimidating load of 52 FAB-100 or FAB-250 GP bombs. The details of actual combat sorties flow by "Bison-Bs" during the war are unclear.BACK_TO_TOP
* The "Bison" tanker fleet soldiered on into the 1990s, with the last tanker sortie performed in 1994. In the meantime, however, a handful of "Bisons" had been making a bit of a splash in civilian Aeroflot colors, in the form of bulky-load cargo carriers.
That particular story went back to the 1970s, when the USA was working on their space shuttle program. The American shuttle program was politically driven through by promoting its usefulness as a military space launch vehicle for the US Air Force (USAF) -- which ended up being an absurd exercise, since only the top civilian bosses of the USAF liked the idea, the USAF brass being entirely unenthusiastic. After the loss of shuttle Challenger on takeoff in 1986, the USAF got out of the program without hesitation.
That game, however, did manage to scare and anger Soviet leadership, since it seemed to be an attempt by the Americans to challenge the USSR with flashy new "weapon systems" that would be hard to match. If that sort of thinking also seems absurd in hindsight, it should be noted that Soviet leadership had a distinct paranoid streak. In any case, in early 1976 the Kremlin ordered the development of a Soviet shuttle.
The Soviet shuttle system, which would ultimately emerge as the "Buran (Snowstorm)", would be mostly built in the complex of high-tech factories in the Moscow region -- which led to the problem of getting the big shuttle fuselage and oversized fuel tanks south to the launch site at Baikonur in Kazakhstan. Transport by train or barge promised to be too rough, and fitting some of the assemblies through tunnels was problematic, leaving air transport as the effective alternative. The idea came up: Why not use "Bisons", carrying payloads on an aircraft's back using struts?
The Myasishchev OKB was back in business by that time, Vladimir Myasishchev having been able to successfully lobby for its restoration in 1967. The idea of a "Bison" bulky-cargoes carrier seemed dodgy at first, but tests of wind-tunnel models showed it was in fact workable. Three 3MN-2 "Bison-C" tankers were provided by the VVS in 1979 for conversion to the cargo-carrier spec; the VVS was reluctant to part with them since the service lacked adequate tanker capability, but the space program took priority. The conversions were to be originally designated "3M-T", with "T" for "transport" of course; the designation was changed to "VM-T", for "Vladimir Myasishchev Transport" as a memorial to Myasishchev, who had died of a heart attack in 1978 at the age of 76. The aircraft was named the "Atlant (Atlas)", since Atlas had carried the world on his back.
It was not a matter of just strapping a Buran fuselage to the aircraft's back, and then flying off. The entire rear fuselage of the aircraft was redesigned, being extended 7 meters (22 feet 11 inches), and upraised to end in a huge twin-fin tail with strong dihedral. The wingtip outriggers were reinforced, a modern flight-control system was installed, the fuel trim system was modified, and a set of strut supports was installed for the cargoes. First flight of the initial VM-T conversion was on 29 April 1981, with a test crew of six under command of pilot Anatoliy P. Kucherenko. The initial flight was without an external load; the first loaded flight, with a mockup load, was on 6 January 1982. By the spring of 1983, all three VM-Ts were ready for service, being operated by the Aeroflot and sporting neat Aeroflot colors.
The three "Atlants" performed over 150 operational carrier flights, helping support the first (unmanned and robotic) Buran orbital launch in 1988. The flights were supported by two huge precision straddling crane systems for loading and unloading the cargoes, with one crane at the Zhukovskiy flight test center in the Moscow area and the other at Baikonur. The big external loads of course cut the speed of the Atlants in half, and had an even more drastic effect on range; that meant various refueling stops on the route between Zhukovskiy and Baikonur, until IFR probes were refitted to the aircraft so they could refuel without making any stops.
The Buran's first flight was also its last, since by that time the Soviet Union was beginning to fall apart. In the aftermath of the collapse, there was an effort to use the VM-Ts as part of a space launch system, carrying a rocket to put light payloads into orbit -- but as with many of the schemes floated in Russia during the early 1990s, it came to nothing. The ultimate fate of the three VM-Ts is unclear.BACK_TO_TOP
* In 1952, even before the first flight of the M-4, the Soviet aviation industry began preliminary studies towards a supersonic bomber. The Americans were known to be working on such machines -- notably, what would emerge as the Convair B-58 Hustler -- and the USSR had to have them as well. In 1953, the organizations working on supersonic bomber designs pooled their ideas under the umbrella of the "Sverkh-Dalniy Bombardirovshchik (SDB / Super Long-Range Bomber)" project.
Supersonic performance was a challenge, but not as big a challenge as obtaining range to hit the USA and get back to the USSR again. The initial concept was a two-part aircraft referred to informally as the "Duck", with an expendable carrier platform under the control of a smaller piloted aircraft that would discard the carrier, perform the strike, and then return home. It was something of a wild idea, but it was one of the few ways the design engineers could obtain the necessary range. The authorities liked the scheme, and in 1954 the Myasishchev OKB was tasked for further development of the concept.
The aircraft was to be ready for state trials by late 1958. It was to be powered by either Dobrynin or Mikulin turbojets, and would be able to carry a 5,000 kilogram (11,000 pound) bombload 13,000 kilometers (8,080 miles) at a top speed of 1,800 KPH (1,120 MPH). Cruise speed was to still be supersonic, at least 1,500 KPH (930 MPH) at an altitude of more than 14,000 meters (45,900 feet). Initial design studies were complete by the spring of 1955, and to no surprise in hindsight, the "Duck" concept proved impractical. Other concepts were investigated, such as a dual-aircraft towed configuration; as well as a single aircraft with large drop tanks with integral auxiliary engines, the tank-engine assemblies being discarded when their fuel ran out.
Nobody could have faulted the Myasishchev engineers for a lack of imagination, but none of the concepts worked out. In July 1955, the logical step was taken to endorse a more conventional configuration -- a single aircraft with drop tanks -- and modify the specs, cutting unrefueled range to 11,000 kilometers (6,835 miles), though inflight refueling would permit longer missions. Maximum and cruise speed were increased, however. The schedule was actually moved up, with state trials to begin in early 1958.
The general layout of the aircraft, now known as the "M-50", was established with help from TsAGI research, and followed a popular configuration of early Soviet supersonic machines: a delta-winged aircraft with a conventional (swept) tail assembly. Four engines were envisioned, and after considering various engine arrangements, the decision was made to mount an engine on each wingtip and on a pylon under each wing. However, despite efforts to reduce weight and increase fuel carriage, the maximum range could not be increased to more than 9,600 kilometers (5,965 miles). Various concepts were evaluated, included rocket-boosted takeoff, "zero length" rocket launch on a rail, and even a seaplane version, but none of these ideas went anywhere.
In response to the range problem, the Myasishchev OKB's engineers conducted a comprehensive redesign, but acknowledged that the M-50 would still not meet spec. OKB officials argued that the specifications were unrealistically aggressive given the advanced nature of the aircraft. Red Air Force brass accepted that argument, and prototype construction was approved in April 1956.
* The "M-50A" prototype was rolled out in July 1958 -- not all that far behind original schedule. The "A" suffix indicated that the prototype did not feature the engines expected for production, since development of the Zubets RD-16-17 turbojet, to feature an afterburning thrust of 181.4 kN (18,490 kgp / 40,764 lbf), had not been completed. The M-50A was instead fitted with two different variants of the Dobrynin VD-7 turbojet:
The fuselage was mostly full of fuel tanks, featuring inert gas pressurization and a fire-extinguishing system. There were no tanks in the wings. Presumably, the aircraft had a fuel-management system to help maintain flight trim as the fuselage tanks were drained, but details are unclear.
The fuselage was of circular cross-section, with a prominent dorsal spine for control and fuel lines. The wings were very thin, which is why there were no fuel tanks in them, with a thickness-chord ratio of 3.7% at the root; and of delta configuration, with a sweep of 57.57 degrees inboard of the midwing engine and a slightly lower sweep of 54.42 degrees outboard. The wing featured large flaps and ailerons, and there was a wing fence as a topside extension of the midwing engine pylon. The tail surfaces were all-moving, and all had classic Soviet anti-flutter weight "barbs" on the tips.
The landing gear was very similar to that of the "Bison", being of bicycle configuration, featuring four-wheel bogies fore and aft of the bombbay, and an outrigger with twin side-by-side wheels just inboard of each wingtip engine. The nose bogie was steerable, and featured an auxiliary skid that could be lowered for use as an emergency brake. The landing gear was hydraulically actuated, with hydraulics also used for the flight control surfaces. There was a three-chute brake parachute system.
MYASISHCHEV M-50A "BOUNDER": _____________________ _________________ _______________________ spec metric english _____________________ _________________ _______________________ wingspan 25.1 meters 82 feet 4 inches wing area 290.6 sq_meters 3,128 sq_feet length 57.48 meters 188 feet 7 inches height 8.25 meters 27 feet 1 inch empty weight 78,860 kilograms 173,855 pounds MTO weight 145,000 kilograms 319,670 pounds max speed at altitude 1,950 KPH 1,210 MPH / 1,055 KT service ceiling 13,800 meters 45,275 feet range 13,160 kilometers 8,175 MI / 7,110 NMI _____________________ _________________ _______________________
The two crew sat in tandem on downward-firing ejection seats in a pressurized cockpit; since the M-50 was to cruise at very high altitude, the crew had to wear full pressure suits to deal with abrupt cabin depressurization or ejection. The crew got into the aircraft through separate bottom hatches, and there were emergency hatches on top, forward of a compartment containing a life raft and other survival gear. A sophisticated avionics suite was planned for the M-50, featuring the latest in bombing and navigation gear, including a stellar navigation system; it is unclear just how much of the suite was fitted to the prototype.
* After a number of changes as indicated by taxi tests, in October 1958 the M-50A was disassembled, put on a barge, and hauled to the Zhukovskiy flight test center. Further tests and fixes were performed on the aircraft at Zhukovskiy; it wasn't until 27 October 1959 that the M-50A made its first flight, with test pilots Nikolay Goryainov and A.S. Lipko in the cockpit. For the initial flights, all four engines were nonafterburning VD-7BAs.
Subsequent flights pushed the aircraft farther and farther into its performance envelope -- though the test program was delayed by a ground accident on 12 May 1960, mentioned above, in which the wheel chocks gave way during what was supposed to be a static runway engine test. The aircraft lurched forward, running down and killing a mechanic, and smashed into the nearby 3ME prototype. The 3ME had to be scrapped; the M-50A was flying again in two months.
In April 1961, the two inner VD-7A turbojets were swapped with afterburning VD-7MAs. The machine seemed to be flying right, and work was proceeding on the prototype of the "M-52" that featured an IFR probe on the nose; modified wingtip engine installation; an auxiliary tee tailplane; a tail turret with twin cannon; and a warload of two Kh-22 (NATO AS-4 "Kitchen") stand-off missiles. However, by this time the program was running on empty. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was not enthusiastic about strategic bombers, believing with some valid reason that the new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) then being fielded were a cheaper and potentially much more effective strategic nuclear delivery system.
On 9 July 1961, the M-50A made a flypast at the annual Tushino air show, escorted by two MiG-21 fighters. Western observers were impressed by the big, sleek machine -- apparently it made a awesomely thunderous noise, even though the flypast wasn't in afterburner -- and NATO dutifully assigned it the codename of "Bounder". What Westerners did not know was that this flight, the M-50A's 19th, was also its last. The M-50A eventually ended up parked at the Monino air museum, where it remains to this day. The M-52 prototype was scrapped before completion.
The cancellation of the M-50 program remains a hard call: Khrushchev had legitimate reasons to kill it off, but it set back Soviet development of big, high-performance aircraft for years. The Myasishchev OKB had a number of concepts for further development, such as a supersonic transport (SST) derivative of the M-50A, but none of it ever happened. As mentioned, the OKB was shut down, with Myasishchev becoming director of TsAGI.BACK_TO_TOP
* The following table gives "Bison" variants and production:
type NATO built mod notes _________________________________________________________________________ M-4 Bison-A 34 Initial variant, AM-3 engines, includes 2 protos. M-4-2 Bison-A - ? M-4 tanker conversions. 3M Bison-B 74 2 Update with new wing, nose, IFR probe. 3MS-1 Bison-B ? 3M with AM-3 engines. 3MSR-1 Bison-B ? Late production 3MS-1. 3MS-2 Bison-B - ? 3MS-1 tanker conversions. 3MN-1 Bison-B ? 3M with VD-7 engines. 3MNR-1 Bison-B ? Late production 3MN-1. 3MN-2 Bison-B - ? 3MN-1 tanker conversions. 3M-5 Bison-C - 1 Kingfish missile carrier conversion. 3ME Bison-C - 1 Testbed with Rubin radar, new nose. 3MD Bison-C 11 - Missile carrier, 3ME nose, includes 2 protos. VM-T - - 3 "Bison-B" bulky cargo carrier conversions. _________________________________________________________________________ TOTAL: 119 __________________________________________________________________________
* As concerns copyrights and permissions for this document, all illustrations and images credited to me are public domain. I reserve all rights to my writings. However, if anyone does want to make use of my writings, just contact me, and we can chat about it. I'm lenient in giving permissions, usually on the basis of being properly credited.
* Sources include:
* Revision history:
v1.0.0 / 01 nov 07 v1.0.1 / 01 oct 09 / Review & polish. v1.0.2 / 01 sep 11 / Review & polish. v1.0.3 / 01 aug 13 / Review & polish. v1.0.4 / 01 jul 15 / Review & polish.BACK_TO_TOP