Flying & Fighting in the Soviet Tu-142 ‘Bear: aircrew interview

Created at the height of the USSR’s global power, the Tupolev Tu-142 is a maritime patrol developed from the Tu-95 ‘Bear’ strategic bomber. With around 60,000 horsepower – the fastest, largest, loudest turboprop aircraft in the world thundered across the seas surrounding India for 29 years. Protecting the subcontinent this long-ranged beast earned the respect of its crews and the appropriate nickname of ‘Albatross‘. We spoke to those who flew the Albatross with the Indian Naval Air Arm to find out more.

“When we had a joint exercise with the US Navy P-3C Orion, they offered us a million dollars to have a peep inside the aircraft!”

Commander VC Pandey (Veteran)NM,VSM

Credit: Commander VC Pandey

Prior to the Tu-142, I was flying the Ilyushin Il-38. I was trained on the Il-38 in Riga in 1976, I flew this aircraft until 1985 in India and gained a great deal of experience. I was an Instructor and Examiner of Pilots on this aircraft. I was trained in the same centre at Riga to fly and command the Tu-142 in October 1987. Having vast experience of flying the Il-38 was very helpful in flying Tu’s thanks to the similar instrument concept. For example, the Artificial Horizon indicators of both these aircrafts are opposite to those of non-Russian type of aircraft!


To start the main engines, there is a turbo generator on board (similar to an APU) which is started up with the supply from a ground unit. Each engine has an inbuilt mini engine which is started first. Normally, the Flight Engineer starts the engines. The power levers can also be handled by the Flight Engineer in the cockpit.

Credit: Commander VC Pandey

The visibility from the cockpit is very good. We have done a few close formation flights for at air shows. The Short Range Navigation System (RSBN) is very similar to a VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) with distance measuring equipment (DME) and was available on board. However, it was incompatible beyond Russian territories. There was no GPS, INS, FMS, TCAS etc. on board the aircraft, yet it was able to fly around the world and navigate very accurately. The responsibility of navigation was the duty of the Flight Navigator, whose work station was ahead of the Captain’s seat in the nose area. He was required to power the ‘Stars Navigation System’ a couple of hours before the starting of the main engines.

The Star Navigation System known as MAIS in Russian was the main navigation system on board. The almanac of various stars around the globe was available in the computer of this system. After inserting our own position, the system locks on to stars available in the Zenith. The altitude and declination from a couple of stars would give a position accurate to a few metres. Thereafter during the flight, the system would automatically compute its own position.

Cdr. V C Pandey

The ‘Data Link System’ was displayed in the centre on the dashboard in the cockpit and with an electronic screen displaying the deployment of various sensors and some virtual images. This data was could be shared with another airborne or shore station for assessment and information of the current situation for decision making.

What should I have asked you?
Why Russians built the Tu-142 aircraft and from where did they deploy them? The US Navy developed the UGM-27 Polaris, a submarine- launched ballistic missile with a range of more than 1800 kilometres. Polaris became operational on 15 November 1960. The Soviet government consequently ordered Tupolev to study possible dedicated anti-submarine warfare aircraft. Initially they built Tu-95s and later various versions of the same platform modified for different roles, designated Tu-142M. I flew the Tu-142MK-E version. Nuclear submarines need not surface for many months, so Tu’s were positioned in Cuba, Murmansk and Vietnam and were able to track US nuclear submarines around the globe in real-time and transmit their position by data-link system to their operational bases.

“I had noticed that these American fighters were fully armed. In the aft section of the Tu-142 there is a gun with twin barrels and a gunner crew. The flight gunner reported that ‘The fighter is very close to me and almost touching our aircraft ‘. I told him not to provoke him and keep cool, soon they will go away.”

The thing I liked best about the Tu was its speed, ceiling, low-frequency analysis and underwater recording sensors and their armaments for the destruction of underwater targets. It had a unique concept of flight controls. It had a fly-by-computer system. Control columns and rudder pedals in the cockpit were connected by push pull rods to a computer, output of which would deflect the elevators, ailerons and rudders taking into consideration various flight conditions. The movement indications of these surface areas was available in the cockpit.


Air-to-air refuelling system
The fuel capacity of this aircraft was about 100 tonnes. This fuel could normally give about 16 hours of flight. This aircraft was operated by a single crew, therefore provision of this airborne refuelling system was a tactical decision by the Russians. Flexibility to takeoff from a short runway, fuel/ time availability was the deciding factor for this system.


Worst thing about the Tu-142

Credit: Commander VC Pandey


I think the philosophy of Russian aircraft designers in those days was to fill the aircraft with equipment first and only thereafter consider anything else. A rest-room (and even toilet) in the aircraft was not considered necessary. Every operator seat had a portable water bottle for collection of personal urine during the flight. The aircraft did not have any dry or wet rest-room for defecation. The crew member had to leave his seat, go to a corner and discharge urine in that bottle. The aircraft did not have any designated rest area. There was no provision for making tea or coffee in the aircraft, not even a microwave oven to warm up the food. It was very tough and all crew members were male.

Training and ferry flight to India, our aircraft training commenced in the month of October. The temperature had already dropped below freezing in Riga. In the month of December, the temperature was hovering around minus 20 to minus 30 degrees C. Icing was never a problem for this aircraft. In the month of December, every thing in Riga is covered with snow, all is white, including runways. Every landing was radar vectored Cat -1 ILS Approach, nothing visual till approx 500 feet or so. Thereafter , all that one could see was a small strip of black land mass. After landing and clearing the active runway, the runway disappears due to heavy snowfall. My training on the Tu was done under such extreme, difficult, conditions.

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Most memorable flight?
The maiden flight to India, Russians permitted all Indian crew to ferry fly this aircraft from Russia to India. They did all the planning. It was decided that the aircraft would depart from Simferopol, Ukraine, to Goa in India and it would be a non-stop direct flight. The route chosen was overflying Ankara – Larnaca -Cairo – Jeddah – Aden – Mumbai then land in Goa. Russian Air Traffic Controllers cleared the flight to fly at around 36,000 feet and at 0.76 the speed of sound. The moment we contacted Saudi Controllers they requested for Radial and DME from a particular position. We replied that VOR DME is not available on board. The controller became very furious and asked us to immediately descend to around 15000 feet. We had no choice but to comply, we had fully tanked up so fuel was no problem.

Credit: Commander VC Pandey


The Aden Controller was very nice and friendly. He cleared us to climb back to 36,000 feet and to fly direct to Mumbai. We climbed to the designated height, auto pilot ‘ON’. After reaching the level, we handed over the stick of the Auto Pilot controller to my Copilot. Yes, there was a long extendable stick with control buttons for manoeuvring the aircraft and it could be swung between the pilots. We were in an ‘I’m home’ mood – but it did not last long. American naval fighters came from nowhere and started formating and taking pictures of every inch of our aircraft. These aircraft would be with us for about 15-20 minutes, do a vertical Charlie and disappear. Soon another fighter would arrive to accompany us into the Arabian Sea. I had noticed that these American fighters were fully armed. In the aft section of the Tu-142 there is a gun with twin barrels and a gunner crew. The flight gunner reported that ‘The fighter is very close to me and almost touching our aircraft ‘. I told him not to provoke him and keep cool, soon they will go away. It happened so, at exactly 150 miles from Mumbai. The fighter departed and did not return to keep us company. Anyway, we were in contact with Mumbai controllers. Note – This aircraft is now in a museum in Vishakhpatnam in India, which is open to public.

Vinod Bhasin

Credit: Vinod Bhasin

Which types did you fly before and after the Tu-142? When did you start on the Tu-142?
I did my basic training on a single engine tail wheel Indian aircraft known as the Pushpak before moving onto the piston engine Britton Norman Islander. I then got selected for the Tu-142M, or ‘Bear-F’. After leaving the Navy I flew the Super King Air B200 turboprop for five years before graduating on to the bombardier BD700 Globals. Initially I flew the classic BD700 with the Honeywell avionics suite and then the BD700 vision with the Rockwell Collins suite.

Credit: Cdr. V C Pandey

How did it differ from the type you were flying before?
The Tu’s were poles apart from the Islanders which is what I was flying earlier. From a 3-ton piston engine to a 185-ton aircraft – the heaviest and the fastest turboprop in the world – was a humongous change.

First impressions?
We were shocked and awed. Got goose bumps, literally, at first sight.

How would you rate the cockpit for the following:


Ergonomics.
Once we got acquainted we were quite comfortable. It was an entirely novel experience in the beginning because most of the stuff was done by others. The throttles were manipulated by the Flight Engineer who was actually facing aft, his seat located behind the copilot. Both the pilots of course had their own throttles and could override the Flight Engineer. Navigation was done by the flight navigator who was seated in the nose of the aircraft at a lower deck. The Flight Signaller, again facing aft, behind the pilot in command did all the long distance communications. The check list was done by the flight gunner with challenge and response. He was seated at the tail, facing aft, and with no access to the rest of the aircraft. He was indeed a lonely fella and was happy reading the checklist! So you see almost everything was provided on a platter to the pilots.

Being welcomed at a maintenance visit to Tagarog in 1987. Credit: Vinod Bhasin


Pilot’s view
Reasonably good


Comfort
The seats were quite comfortable I thought but other than that not much thought was given to crew comfort. Answering to the calls of nature by a crew of nine in the front crew area in one toilet over long flights was a big challenge

Instrumentation
Very compact for the pilots. As stated above many tasks were done by other crew.

What is the best thing about the Tu-142?
The fastest and the heaviest turbo prop in the world. We would cruise at 0.8 m during transit. Powerful engines each producing 15000 shp. The contra-rotating propellers were fascinating.

….and the worst?
Noise…and fuel consumption.

How would you rate the Tu-142 in the following areas:

Take-off Good except that it required long runways for take off because of its weight.

Landing She handles pretty well during landing and the engine response is pretty good despite throttles being manipulated by the Flight Engineer on command of the Pilot Flying (PF). The last time I flew these was in 2002, but the sequence of throttle orders coming in for landing will stick in my memory always. Outers to flight idle as we flare, inners to flight idle short of touch down, inners zero, unlock all and then outers zero!

Credit: Cdr. V C Pandey


Combat effectiveness.

Pretty effective overall. Avionics and equipment were archaic to begin with, but upgrades happened with the passage of time and this aircraft succeeded in keeping the enemy submarines down. The Western World were always intrigued and somewhat wary of this platform and the world perception of the Indian Navy in general changed once we acquired these planes.

All the co-pilots

Acceleration Great
Top speed Normal cruise was 0.8 and not to exceed 0.82
Reliability Spares was an issue from time to time but the dispatch reliability was well managed.
Weapons Effective
Climb rate Good for its weight
Range Enviable, almost unmatched
Sensors Effective with retro fitment as time went by.

What’s the biggest myth about the Tu-142? Perhaps, that it is an overrated machine.

What should I have asked you? How do the crew feel after taking off at 8pm and landing at about 9am the next morning after flying 400 metres over the sea for most part in a pitch dark night with the auto pilot unserviceable?

Credit: Cdr. V C Pandey

Describe your most memorable flight in a Tu-142

There were a few exciting ones including a test flight wherein an engine would not unfeather after intentional shutdown and the subsequent three engine landing. But the most memorable for me was a ferry flight from Cairo to Taganrog (sometime in 1996/97) wherein the destination was changed from Simferopol to Taganrog at the last minute due to some technical reason. Communication with the ATC controller was a big challenge since he couldn’t speak English. An Indian embassy official who had come to receive us was hurriedly summoned to the ATC to resolve the confusion.

Describe a typical mission

Take off, high level transit to operations/exercise area, descent to lower altitude, dropping of sonobuoys for detection, location and tracking of submarines, climb to transit altitude and return to base

How comfortable was a mission – how loud was it in the cockpit? Long missions by night were tiring. Noise levels were high.

What was life like between missions? Life between missions depended on the level of your responsibility. Adequate rest and recreation for the youngsters and back to the desk for those holding appointments.

Tell me something I don’t know about the Tu-142

Proper parachute deployment of any sonobuoy/weapon drop was confirmed initially by physical sighting by the Flight Gunner who was seated at the tail facing aft.

When we flew these planes from Simferapol to Goa for the first time we did not have GPS or even VOR on board and hence navigation was a challenge. In case the undercarriage did not go down, the emergency lowering was initiated by the Sonic Operator.

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Describe the Tu-142 in three words

The mighty props

What was its role in Indian service? What would the aircraft have done in a full scale war? Can we avoid this question?

How did you feel when it was retired? Sad. Couldn’t hold back the tears. I was part of the commissioning crew, was trained in the erstwhile USSR by the Russians as a copilot, went on to train other pilots and ultimately commanded the squadron.

What is your favourite memory of the type? The Russian instructor pilot standing in between two of us Indian pilots and instructing us to come in for landing in Russian language with the help of an interpreter.

Does it have a nickname in Indian service? The Albatross

Do you miss it? Immensely.

Was there anything unusual about flying it? A couple of unusual things amongst others, were the Flight Engineer facing aft and throttle orders without getting to look out and the flight gunner stuck at the tail of the plane all by himself at his crew stations

What was the greatest potential military threat to the aircraft? Carrierborne fighter aircraft.

Sergey © Photo : Sergey Krivchikov

Cmde MR Ajaykumar NM VSM (Retd)

I was an Observer in Tu-142, therefore I will be answering from an Observer’s perspective!

With which unit did you serve? I served in multiple units, commanded the air squadron, Naval Air station handling multiple air squadrons, I commanded multiple ships including being captain of a missile frigate.  

Which types did you fly before and after the Tu-142? I flew the Il-38 before the TU.

 When did you start on the Tu-142? I went to erstwhile USSR, Riga, for the aircraft induction training in 1987!

How did it differ from the type you were flying before? Both being Russian long-range maritime patrol aircraft, not much difference in terms of cockpit. However, the TU had more advanced systems!

First impressions? Impressive and menacing looks!

How would you rate the cockpit for the following:

Ergonomics Average

Pilot’s view- Comfortable

Comfort

Russians never cater for crew comfort. First, they install the systems and then check where to fit the man behind the machine! Flying at times more than ten hours on missions, were a test of human endurance sitting in an uncomfortable seat. The aircraft did not have a proper toilet also! But we felt proud to fly the highest and fastest flying turbo prop in the world!

Instrumentation 

Not the modern type. More of a second world war look!

What is the best thing about the Tu-142? It is rough and tough! Very forgiving and lots of importance to the man behind the systems!

…and the worst? The crew comfort

How would you rate the Tu-142 in the following areas

Take-off For full weight take-off cannot be done from average runways. Very long take off run.

Landing Long landing run and very high Load Classification Number runway required.

Combat effectiveness

Very effective, despite being from older technology.

Top speed Fastest turbo prop, 0.82 mach!

Reliability 

Very reliable.

Weapons  It had bombs, torpedoes, depth charges and a tail gun. It was later was modified to carry air-to-surface Harpoon missiles.

Range 12550 Km

Sensors – Radar, Magnetic Anomaly Detector, Air early warning radar for tail gun, ESM, Sonobuoys, radar transmission warner.

What’s the biggest myth about the Tu-142? No one really knew about the actual capability of the Tu. It was a well-kept secret! When we had a joint exercise with the US Navy, P-3C Orion, they offered us a million USD to have a peep inside the aircraft! So you can imagine the myth!

Describe your most memorable flight in a Tu-142

The first flight, from Simferopol in the USSR to India, routing via, Ankara, Cypress, Cairo, Djibouti, and Goa in India! Almost 13hrs nonstop flight… In the midst of Iran-Iraq war in full swing. Occasionally the US Navy’s F-14 Tomcats flying with us in formation!

An F-14A Tomcat aircraft of Fighter Squadron 111 (VF-111), bottom, investigates a Soviet-built Tu-142 Bear F maritime reconnaissance aircraft of the Indian navy.

Describe a typical mission

Mostly anti-submarine missions. Drop sonobuoys in the area and locate and track the submarine. Otherwise typical maritime missions.

How comfortable was a mission – how loud was it in the cockpit?

Crew comfort was not really good. The cockpit was a bit loud.

What was life like between missions? There used to be adequate breaks between routine missions. It was generally compressed only during major exercises or operational missions. But generally ensured a 24-hour break after a 10-hour mission.

Tell me something I don’t know about the Tu-142 A Tu has been converted into a walk-in museum in the Port city of Visakhapatnam in India. So, there is no more secrets!

Describe the Tu-142 in three words The Mighty Props!

What was its role in Indian service? What would the aircraft have done in a full scale war? It was extensively used in maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare missions. Also, the ESM was put to good use in electronic snooping.  

How did you feel when it was retired? I felt really sad to see the aircraft being retired, which I saw from commissioning and was the Commanding officer of the squadron!

What is your favourite memory of the type? Lots. Many operational and camaraderie memories. It never failed us!

Did it have a nickname in Indian service? The Albatross!

Do you miss it? Yes!

Was there anything unusual about the aircraft or flying it? The mission commenced almost two hours before the take-off, because the Inertial Navigation System took about 90 minutes to settle down! So, we had to man the aircraft 90 minutes before take-off!

What was the greatest potential military threat to the aircraft? Long range SAMs and fighter aircraft!

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Name          Jasbir Singh

Rank           Commander

Unit             Navy


Before the Tu-142  I flew the HT2, Harvard, Vampires, HJT-16, Alize, Illusion-38 and Tu 142, after Tu-142 I flew the Airbus 310, B747 and B7771A. The Tu-142 was a very heavy aircraft to fly and the first power control aircraft to fly. It was a very impressive aircraft with good anti submarine warfare equipment.

   

How would you rate the cockpit for the following:

Ergonomics Good. Auto pilot could be controlled by both the pilots in the comfort of their seats. 

Pilot’s view Good Comfort Moderate Instrumentation Moderate. No VOR, DME good only in Russian airspace.


Best thing  Very sleek and high speed turbo prop aircraft with long range.

Worst thing  No proper toilet facilities. A bucket was kept with a curtain around.

               

How would you rate the Tu-142 in the following areas: 
A.Take-off 6 out of 10 B. Landing 7/10 C. Combat effectiveness 8/10 D. Acceleration 5/10  E. Top speed 925 Km/h     F. Reliability Good  G. Weapons Torpedoes and depth  H. Climb rate Poor

I. Range 12500 Km J. Sensors  Good 7 out of 10

It was a myth was that Tu-142M is a deadly platform, which was not the case because of poor navigation equipment. However, the Indian Navy made upgrades and improved the performance.

Most memorable mission            

An aircraft Islander crashed near Visakhapatnam. We took off from Goa and the weather en route and in the search area was very bad. It was a night operation. We completed the  mission with CBs (cumulonimbus)all around us. It was the most tense flight we had.

Noise level in the cockpit was moderate.

What was life like between missions?  Great

Describe the Tu-142 in three word Big, fast, good. 

What was its role? In Indian service it performed the role of maritime and anti-submarine warfare. Same maritime  and antisubmarine warfare.

How did you feel on its retirement? Emotional when it came in after its last flight in a grand function which I attended.

Do you miss it? Not really   

What was the greatest potential military threat to the aircraft? Ships anti-aircraft guns, anti aircraft missiles etc.

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