Cold War

Tupolev Tu-128 Fiddler – The Bomber Sized Fighter

The Tupolev Tu-128 has been for long considered one of the biggest fighter planes ever produced. The Heavyweight Arctic Guardian, also known as the Fiddler by its adversaries at NATO, made its first flight in 1961 as the most important aircraft guarding the vast remote areas of the Soviet Union.

Judging by its size, it could very easily be confused with a bomber, which was the bases for its design. However, this aircraft was not a bomber, rather, its primary mission was to intercept the NATO bombers like B-52s that intended to enter the vast Northern the border of Soviet Union.

Equipped with 2 Lyulka AL-series afterburning turbojets with the thrust of 22,300lb each, the Fiddler could reach a supersonic speed of 1.5 Mach, while equipped with a fuel tank that enabled it to fly for up to 1,500 km.

The Fiddler in flight.
The Tu-128 in flight.

The four air-to-air missiles that the Tu-128 carried, constituted a threat to any aircraft in its vicinity (3 km). Two of those missiles were radar-guided (R-4R) and the other two were infrared-homing (R-4T).



In the 50s as the Cold War intensified, the United States had invested heavily into developing its aircraft capabilities, which included conducting long-range missions at any place on Earth.

The Soviet Union perceived that United States’ aircraft capability development posed an extreme threat to its military facilities and urban centers. In response, the Soviet Union strengthened its air defense with numerous investments in surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) as well as fighter-interceptor subsonic and later on supersonic aircraft.

While the Soviet air defense size and strength would make many countries envious, the sheer size of the Soviet Union required an even stronger defense.

Soviet SAMs and fighter-interceptor aircraft were very effective in static or positional defense, protecting key terrain, installations, or a small part of its airspace mainly because they were limited by the short flying range of their aircraft and SAM missiles.

An S-75 Dvina
A Russian S-75 Dvina Surface-to-Air-Missile. Photo Credit

The missiles could protect some couple of kilometers of airspace, while the fighter-interceptors were limited to some hundred kilometers by their small fuel capacity.

On the other hand, the northern part of the Soviet Union which extended for almost 5,500 km, required hundreds of SAMs systems lined up around the border, as well as building numerous airfields for the short-range interceptors to land.

Such investment would be unattainable for the Soviet Union’s economy, which pushed the Soviet government to explore more unconventional options. In the meantime, United States strategic bombers were given the advantage of penetrating the Soviet airspace from the poorly guarded Northern border.

Following detailed analysis, the Soviet Union identified the need for a fighter-interceptor plane, which would be big enough to carry sufficient fuel to exceed a thousand kilometers in range to guard their vulnerable north.

The Soviet Experimental Design Bureau came up with the Tu-28, later on, turned into the Tu-128, which was built using the design of a bomber aircraft.

This aircraft would offer sufficient fuel capacity to conduct long enduring operations in the not-so-well airfield connected north. In addition, the size of the plane would provide space for radar and missiles, but it would prevent the plane from conducting complex maneuvers.


Considering the ongoing threat from the US strategic bombers, the Soviet Union was incentivized to build interceptors to reduce the threat. The subsonic Yak-25 did not meet the requirements to challenge the US bombers.

The Yak-25 was substantually smaller than the Tu-128
A Yak-25 was subsonic Russian bomber. Photo Credit – Alan Wilson.

That’s why the Chief of Fighter Aviation of the Soviet Air Defense Force (IA PVO) decided to use the design of a supersonic bomber to build a fighter plane. The only suitable one to carry powerful radar and air-to-air missiles were the Tupolev OKB 156. In the initial phase, this model was worked on without any government funding and was codenamed “128”.

The formal development project for the loitering fighter was launched in July 1958 by the Soviet Council of Ministers.

The requirements included:

  • Speed between 1,700 to 1,800 km/h
  • Subsonic speed of 800 to 1,000 km/h for at least three and a half hours
  • The new K-80 missile (first IR seeker, second radar seeker)
  • The new RP-S Smerch radar set with a detection range of at least 60 km for bombers

In June 1959, the design for the aircraft was approved, which was followed by a mock-up model in 1960. In January 1961, the first prototype was completed and made its flight debut on the 18th of March, 1961.

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The new aircraft was huge, with a wingspan of over 57 feet and a total length of almost 99 feet – the Fiddler was 25 feet longer than a B-17! It was bigger in all dimensions than a Yak-28, which was a dedicated medium bomber.

Over a month later, on the 24th of April, it completed its first supersonic flight. In September 1962, the aircraft launched the first missiles against aerial targets.

After a series of changes to its name, equipment, and armament, the plane was commissioned into the Soviet Air Defense Force – PVO on 30 April 1965. That same year, the Soviet Air Defense Force, received the first batch of fifteen Tu-28s.

This delivery was followed by thirty-seven more in 1966. In total there were 198 produced, the last one of them in 1971.

Following its development, the Soviet Union continued to tinker with the craft, hoping to marginally improve it and to investigate advanced and training versions.

Surprisingly, this aircraft and its variants were not sold to any other partner country or satellite of the Soviet Union.

Tu-128 – Trainer Version

Considering the price of the aircraft, the Soviet Union did not plan to produce a trainer version for the Tupolev-128.

However, following the loss of some Tu-128s lost in incidents the Soviets were forced to convert some of their already existing aircraft into trainers. Pilots who had previously piloted light fighters like MiG-17, 19, and Su-9 had many difficulties piloting the giant Tu-128.

Tu-128 UT was a trainer version
The trainer version of the Tu-128 “Pelican”. Photo credit – Alan Wilson.

Through a trainer version, both pilots and navigators would have a smoother transition to the heavy fighter. The navigator would learn to navigate a much more complex plane while also managing the intercept system with air-to-air missiles.

The pilot would gain experience with landing this heavy aircraft, which was known to have difficulties in landing and taking off. The trainer version, designated as Tu-128UT was first commissioned in 1971 and received a new cockpit in the nose of the plane, substituting the radar.

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Due to its unique shape with the extended nose, it was nicknamed the “Pelican”. The trainer aircraft were initially modified from the standard Tu-128.

Despite, the development of the Tu-128 Trainer, the Soviets trusted the aircraft only to the most experienced pilots.

Improvements and upgrades

Following the initial production of Tu-128, the PSA was immediately interested in the improved version with upgraded specifications. The initial requirements were to increase the maximum detection range of the radar to 100 km and a lock-on range of 50 km.

The power plants would be substituted with VD-19 afterburning turbojets to increase the speed to 2,000 km/h. However, the list of desires for improvements was not approved.

Tu-128 was powered by two of these engines.
The Tu-128’s engines were upgrades from these Lyulka AL-7F engines. Photo credit – Varga Attila.

The initiatives to upgrade the aircraft continued for years but were rather ineffective. Only in 1979, the improved interceptor design was commissioned and designated as Tu-128S-4M.

There were no new aircraft produced with the improved design. For the update, the Soviets used the old Tu-128s. The changes included a new radar and electronic system among other changes.

Service History & Combat Engagements

Throughout its service, this aircraft was essential for 6 Soviet Air Defense Force Regiments – PVO. The first PVO regiment to integrate Tu-128s within its structure was the 518IAP at Talagi Airfield in 1966, which conducted field testing for the aircraft. Following the 518IAP regiment was the 445 IAP regiment at Kostlas in 1967.

On July the 9th of 1967, on the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, these 2 regiments used their aircraft at the Soviet Air Show at Domodedovo Airport, which was one the biggest air shows in history, if not the biggest.

The display of many new Soviet aircraft raised concerns among the West. The NATO countries had already seen the Tupolev-28 in an air show earlier in 1961, nevertheless, it still attracted their attention.

Four more regiments were equipped with Tu-128s:

  1. The 72nd Guards IAP at Anderma
  2. The 64th at IAP at Omsk
  3. The 356th IAP at Semipalatinsk
  4. The 350th IAP at Belaya

Following the integration of the Tu-128 into their structure, these regiments were classified as AP or Aviation Regiments as opposed to IAP or Fighter Aviation Regiments. That is mainly because the Tu-128 was not maneuverable enough to be not considered a true fighter aircraft.

Considering its size and specification, which differed largely from fighter aircraft, pilots selected to fly Tu-128 had to fulfill a list of requirements. In the 60s and early 70s, pilots were required to have flown a minimum of 400 hours on fighters (lightweight) as well as possess a first-class rating.

The main issue for the inexperienced pilots would have been high inertia at the landing which differed from the other fighter, especially due to often landing in ice-frozen airfields beyond the Polar Circle.

To serve its true purpose, the Tu-128 was deployed to the northern borderline of the Soviet Union. As expected, it often made encounters with NATO aircraft, such as the US Air Force’s SR-71, also known as Blackbird.

The Tu-128 was designed to intercept aircraft like the SR-71
The Tu-128 was never fast enough to catch a SR-71 Blackbird in combat.

In the case of Blackbird, the Tu-128 was tasked to shadow it (fly parallel to it), from the inside of the Soviet border. The encounters with the Blackbird did not lead to any engagements.

In the case of NATO/Western high-flying reconnaissance balloons which happened to cross the Soviet border, the Tu-128 stood up to its task and engaged these targets with its missiles.

The Tu-128 managed to destroy the balloons, with its missiles, though, it was noted that the Soviet aircraft had to use multiple missiles to shoot down a single recce balloon (Later on, these missiles were upgraded to IR-guided R-4T missiles).

The Su-27 replaced the Tu-128
The Su-27 replaced the aging Tu-128. Photo Credit – Jakub Halun.

Throughout its service, the Tu-128 proved to be reliable and a successful aircraft. By the late 70s, it was considered outdated.

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The last flight was conducted in 1988, and it was eventually replaced with the more advanced MiG-31 and Sukhoi Su-27, which, in addition to loitering, had better capabilities. 

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  • Crew: 2
  • Length: 98 ft 7 in (30.06 m)
  • Wingspan: 57 ft 6 in (17.53 m)
  • Height: 23 ft 5 in (7.15 m)
  • Gross weight: 88,185 lb (40,000 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 96,342 lb (43,700 kg)
  • Fuel capacity: 29,983 lb (13,600 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Lyulka AL-7F-2 afterburning turbojet engines, 16,400 lbf (72.8 kN) thrust each dry, 22,300 lbf (99.1 kN) with afterburner
  • Maximum speed: 1,035 mph (1,665 km/h) with combat load.
  • Range: 970 mi (1,560 km)
  • Service ceiling: 51,200 ft (15,600 m)
  • G limits: +2.5