This is a documentary on how a Soviet design team, led by a man who’d been a political prisoner during the Great Purges, conducted the single greatest feat of reverse engineering in engineering history: the knock-off of the B-29A bomber as the Tupolev Tu-4. The creation of this aircraft instantly made Soviet Long-Range Aviation (their equivalent of the USAF Strategic Air Command) a credible force worldwide. Got an hour and a half today?
Like most other European powers, the Soviets had experimented with long-range, four-engined bombers before and during the war, but depended instead on large fleets of twin-engined, medium-range medium and light bombers. Only the USA and Great Britain actually developed credible long-range bomber fleets.
But the B-29 was qualitatively different from first-generation fourmotors like the Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24, or the Avro Lancaster or Handley-Page Halifax. It used next-generation technologies throughout, including engines of greater complexity and power, much higher-technology defensive armament with remote-control, low-drag turrets, and a pressurized, shirtsleeve environment for the crew. Some parts were so sophisticated that new manufacturing processes were invented to suit. The entire airplane was a Hail Mary effort by the world-leading American aviation industry; at that, in came very close to failing. (The parallel effort that produced the Consolidated B-32 Dominator did fail).
The Soviet effort included espionage by the NKVD (later KGB) and GRU as well as direct reengineering of “captured” B-29s. How could the Soviets capture B-29s when the USA and USSR were allies, not enemies, in World War II? Ah, that was in the West. From the Soviet point of view, the war with Japan was Britain’s and America’s problem, and the USSR maintained neutrality. Thus, combatant aircraft of either nation that landed on Soviet territory, and their crews, were subject to being interned. As the 20th Air Force stepped up raids on Japan from bases first in China and later in the Marianas Islands, an occasional B-29 made an emergency landing in Soviet territory. The crews usually made their way back to the United States (minus anyone the KGB interpreted as a Soviet citizen, who vanished into the Gulag forever). The planes never did. What were the Russians doing with them? When the Tu-4 appeared in 1947, we had the answer.
The primary effort to copy the B-29, ordered by Stalin himself, was the re-engineering effort, but espionage was also involved, especially where novel industrial processes were involved. Fortunately for the Soviets, they had a comprehensive network of agents in place and potential recruits.
There’s a reason that Americans in the fifties and sixties were asked if they were, or had been, members of the Communist Party. The Party throughout its existence owed its loyalty to the USSR; while many misguided idealistic Americans cycled through its ranks, anyone who came and stayed was, not to put to fine a point on it, an agent of a foreign power already. (Additionally, the Soviet intelligence services recruited from within the Party. They would usually direct an espionage recruit to break with the Party for cover purposes, something our counterintelligence was slow to grasp and exploit). And nobody in 1942-45 cared if some guy was a Communist or liked the USSR — hell, everybody liked the USSR, they were bearing the brunt of the fight against Hitler. This network of willing ideological agents fanned out across the engineering firms, manufacturers, even steel and aluminum smelters and foundries, stealing not just the detail design of the B-29’s systems and components, but the industrial processes that made them possible.
The Russians also manipulated Lend-Lease to get some B-29 components. Lend-Lease reported to Harry Hopkins, a lifelong friend of President Roosevelt who was a committed Soviet agent. The US would not give the Soviets B-29s or their engines… so Hopkins arranged for them to get examples of an unarmed seaplane that had the same engine. Soon enough, factories in Russia turned out perfect, even improved, copies of the engines. This happened on a smaller scale with items like analog gun control computers, turbosuperchargers and pressure recovery turbines, electrical servos and lightweight hydraulics.
The classified Norden bombsight had already been acquired by agents in the design and production; vaccum tube production technology was stolen and improved Soviet production. Many of the American spies doing this didn’t think of themselves as traitors: why, they were just helping our best ally, “Uncle Joe!” Wartime propaganda, often produced by writers and artists who were Party members or fellow travelers, made it easy to rationalize as a patriotic duty, and one problem Soviet agent handlers had, in those pre-Cold War years of alliance, was convincing their American agents to clam up about their efforts to help the USSR. Even during the war, that kind of boasting caused the roll-up of agent networks, although with less fanfare than such events would have produced pre-1942 or post-1945.
The first flight of the Tu-4 was carried out by a test crew led by long-time test pilot Mark Lazarevich Gallai, who would also test the early jet MiG-9. Gallai’s memoir, Through Invisible Barriers, is available in several languages but not, as far as we know, English.
Having stolen the B-29, the Soviets found out that it still had a lot of teething problems, including a tendency to engine fires that made flying it one of Gallai’s most memorable experiences. They had plenty of engineers on the job, though, and tended to solve these problems by independent engineering, more than by redirecting the espionage apparatus to nick the American solutions.
The USA followed the B-29 with two amazing bombers that owed much to the concepts and processes of the B-29, but little to the actual aircraft: the Consolidated B-36 Peacemaker, and the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. The USSR, lacking the easy access of wartime, didn’t try to steal these in toto. Instead, the Soviets built directly upon their Tu-4 in the design of next generations of bomberr. Some trace Tu-4 DNA still exists in the Tu-95 NATO codename Bear, a 1950s design that still serves Russia today. But Soviet engineering, bootstrapped by the crash Tu-4 project, (and perhaps, especially in turboprop propulsion, some war-trophy engineering from Germany), would continue to serve Soviet needs. The USSR was never as far behind in aviation again as it had been at the outset of the Tu-4 program; indeed, after that remarkable catch-up it was often ahead (as it sometimes had been in the 1930s, before the purges).
And when native engineering fell short? Well, the spies were always willing to accept a tasking. But they never again stole a whole airplane design, and all the industrial processes to produce it.