Key Point: The Russian bomber was used as recently as the Syrian Civil War.
Few aircraft are as distinctive as the massive Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear,” a four-engine Russian strategic bomber and maritime patrol plane with a gigantic unicorn-like refueling probe, giving it the appearance of a monstrosity lurching in from prehistoric times—or at least from shortly after World War II, as is in fact the case.
Don’t let its looks deceive you. Over sixty years later, the Tu-95 remains in service because few aircraft can cover such great distances for such long periods of time while carrying a hefty payload. Which is to say, the Tu-95 is Russia’s B-52—but one with a decidedly maritime bent and a habit of knocking at the door of coastal air-defense systems in Europe, Asia and North America.
Cold War Nuclear Bomber
The Bear was born from the Soviet Union’s desire to develop its own strategic bomber force to match the one fielded by the United States in World War II. Soviet planners requested in 1950 a four-engine bomber that could fly five thousand miles to hit targets across the United States while hauling over twelve tons of bombs.
The jet engines of the time, however, burned through fuel too quickly. Thus, the design bureau of Andrei Tupolev conceived of an aircraft using four powerful NK-12 turboprop engines with contrarotating propellers.
Each of the NK-12s has two propellers, the second one spinning in the direction opposite the first. This not only counteracts the torque created by the rotational airflow of the first propeller, but harnesses it for greater speed. Contrarotating propellers are therefore modestly more efficient—but because they are more expensive to produce and maintain, and also unbelievably noisy, they have not been widely adopted. In fact, the noise produced by Tu-95s has reportedly been remarked upon by submarine crews and jet pilots.
On the Tu-95, however, the unconventional engines paid off: the enormous Tu-95 is actually one of the fastest existing propeller planes, capable of going over five hundred miles per hour. The tips of its eighteen-foot diameter propellers actually spin at slightly over the speed of sound. The Bear is also one of very few propeller planes with swept-back wings, which only benefit aircraft capable of flying at higher speeds.