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Tu-95 – The Russian Bear with a Nuclear Bite

Designated ‘Bear’ by NATO because of its distinctive deep-throated roar, the Tu-95 has served Russia since the 1950s as a reliable bomber and reconnaissance platform.

Originally hailed as the answer to the Soviet Union’s discernible lack of native nuclear missile carriers, this iconic and incredibly versatile Russian aircraft and its numberless variants had a distinguishable presence throughout the Cold War, despite an explosive start to its developmental flight trials.


Origins and Development

In 1944 with no long-range heavy bomber force, the Soviet Union tasked two engineers, Andrey Nikolayevich Tupolev and Vladmir Mikhailovich Myasishchev, with creating a bomber that was capable of unleashing intercontinental nuclear missiles.

The Tu-4 was a predecessor to the M-4
The Soviet Tu-4 looked nothing like the American B-29…

In response, the duo came up with many different designs, including the Tu-64, M-202, M-302, and the Tu-4 Bomber, a reverse-engineered version of the Boeing B-29, which would become the most successful and well-known of this earliest generation, capable of reaching targets in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Japan and the Far East.

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But the Soviet’s new bomber was not perfect and did not have the required range to attack their main enemy, the USA, compelling Tupolev to work on a more advanced variant as soon as the Tu-4 entered production.

Over the next couple of years, Tupolev would come up with the Tu-80 and Tu-85 which both possessed more powerful engines, bigger dimensions, increased take-off weight, and most importantly greater ranges.

The Tu-85 was the Bear's predecessor.
The Tu-85 was another Tupolev’s attempts at a long range bomber. Photo credit – www.aviastar.orgairrussiatu-85.php

On the other hand, the production cycles of both were ultimately hampered by the realization that their reciprocal engines would make them extremely vulnerable to jet-powered interceptors, forcing a return to the drawing board, where top priority was now given to designs that could be powered by turboprop or turbojet engines.

With Myasischev diligently working on what would become the M-4 Bison, Tupolev was inspired to mount some competition of his own and began exploring the advantages of swept wings on large bomber craft to meet a list of performance specifications set out in 1951, which required a jet-powered strategic bomber with a maximum speed of 950 miles per hour, a range over 15,000 kilometres and an altitude ceiling of approximately 14,000 meters.

After the finalization of the blueprints on July 15th 1951 and the assembly of a full-scale mock-up in November, the first Tu-95 prototype was completed in the autumn of 1952.

A Tu-95 H model.
The Tu-95 would evolve significantly from the first model in 1952 to the aircraft used today.

Russian Bear

The original Tu-95 was an all-metal monoplane with space for nine crew, and was 46.17 meters in length, 12.12 meters high, and had an empty weight of 83,100 pounds.

Propelled by four NK-12 turboprop engines each with 12,000 horsepower, the Bear possessed a top speed of 890 kilometers per hour, a cruise speed of 750 kilometers per hour, a service ceiling of 11,800 meters, and a maximum range of 12,100 kilometers.

Bedecked with a semi-monocoque fuselage and retractable landing tricycle gear, the Tu-95 soared with sweptback wings that had a span of 50.04 meters and an area of 283.7 meters squared.

The Tu-95 is a large bomber with a huge wingspan.
An air-to-air overhead view of the Bear.

Able to carry up to 9,000 kilograms of bombs, the Tu-95 aimed its load using an RPB-4 radar sighting unit working in tandem with an OPB-11RM optical sighting system, and was equipped with three AM-23 machine guns that could be automatically controlled, and which fired off 23 mm bullets at 1,250 to 1,350 rounds per minute.

Lastly, following a modernization process in the 1970s, the Tu-95 was installed with state-of-the-art equipment including an AFA-42/100 aerial camera, an internal SPU-10G communications system, and FOTAB or SAB illumination flares.

Testing and Accident

Flight evaluations commenced on September 20th 1952 at the Flight Research Institute at Zhukovskiy, and were to be conducted by a skilled crew of operators consisting of captain A.D. Perelyot, co-pilot V.P. Morgunov, navigator S.S. Kirichenko, wireless operator N.F. Mayorov, avionics engineer I.E. Komissarov, and flight mechanic L.I. Borzenkov.

Although the maiden flight occurred on November 12th 1952 without incident, the next few trials would prove dramatically different. April 17th witnessed the first signs of trouble when the pitch control mechanism failed on all four propellors, with the crew only saved by the expert airmanship of Pereylot, who managed to land it on the runway.

An air-to-air right side view of a Soviet Tu-95 Bear-D strategic bomber aircraft.
The Tu-95 was not perfect and several issues had to be ironed out before it could be put into active service.

Consequently, the Tu-95 was grounded for a month, during which Tupolev staff addressed an issue with the gearbox before permitting the resumption of testing.

Taking off for its 17th flight on May 11th 1953, disaster struck when the number 3 engine caught fire mid-air. In his final words, Perelyot radioed what happened next:

“The engine has broken off. The wing and main landing gear fairing are on fire. I have just ordered the crew to bail out”.

As the prototype careened out of control, one crew member, Mayorov, jumped out of the burning wreck at 3,000 meters and activated his parachute. Next, the craft entered a vertical dive and crashed into the local town, producing an enormous fiery crater.

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Seven of the crew miraculously survived but four, including Pereylot, who was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, had died on impact.

The post-accident inquest determined that the engine had ignited due to an issue with the reduction gearbox failure. Scandalously, it was later discovered that engineering whizkid N.D. Kuznetsov had withheld information about its faults, but luckily for him, his life was spared only because of his technical genius.

After a huge delay, in February 1955 the much improved second prototype took to the air for the first time, with a series of less eventful examinations over 168 flying hours wrapped up by January 8th 1956 as the Tu-95 was approved for production.


The Tu-95 has a mind boggling array of variants designed to fulfill numerous military, research and civilian functions.

A Tu-95 LL of the Russian Airforce parked at a museum.
The Tu-95LL was used as a testbed for various modifications. Photo credit – CC BY-SA 3.0.

Militarily these included: the Tu-95A Nuclear Capable Bomber, the Tu-95V Hydrogen Bomb Carrier, the Tu-95 ECM Aircraft Prototype repurposed as an electric countermeasure platform, the Tu-95MR Bear-E Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft, the Tu-95 Military Airlifter, the Tu-95K Bear-B Missile Carrier which could fire cruise missiles, and finally the Tu-95N ‘Mothership’ which could carry a jet aircraft as part of a supersonic strategic reconnaissance and strike system.

One of the more interesting was the Tu-95PLO ASW, an anti-submarine device and integral element in a planned ‘hunt and kill’ system equipped with sonobuoys, and anti-submarine bombs, mines, and homing torpedos.

The Tu-142 is another of the many variants derived from the Tu-95.
The Tu-142 is still in service with the Russian Navy. Photo credit – Fedor Leukhin CC BY-SA 2.0.

Another was the Tu-95LAL Nuclear Research Aircraft, perhaps the most bizarre edition, which was used to explore the possibility of nuclear-powered propulsion and featured an onboard nuclear reactor, while the Tu-142 Long Range ASW Bear was a revamped version of the original Tu-95.

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The Tu-95 has also been the basis for many civil aircraft since its ability to transport goods and passengers over long distances made it an ideal commercial airliner. The first attempt in this mould was the Tu-114 Cleat Long-Haul Airliner, which served the Russian company Aeroflot for 17 years operating on its Moscow-Montreal, Moscow-Havana, and Moscow-Tokyo services.

A side on photograph of a Tu-114 airliner parked at an airport.
The Tu-114 was an airliner derived variant and was in service until the 90s. Photo credit – www.airlinefan.comairline-photoslarge1003909AeroflotTupolevTu-114CCCP-76490

Developed concomitantly was the Tu-116 Long Range VIP Transport, replete with luxury interiors and facilities, which accommodated Soviet statesmen and government officials. Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev used it only once before the entire project was scrapped because derived from an early model, it did not have automatic propellor feathering; a crucial safety feature.

Operational History

In 1956 the Tu-95 was first introduced to the public at the traditional flypast at Moscow’s Tushino Airfield. By the late 1950s, several had been integrated into Long Range Aviation units stationed in the North polar regions and put on standby in the event of an attack on US soil.

From 1963 onwards the Tu-95 was assigned to maritime reconnaissance missions and helped pinpoint the movements of US Navy ships over the surrounding oceans of Russia. In 1982 they were once again used for surveillance in the Atlantic Ocean to track British Royal Navy units partaking in the Falklands War.

A Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Typhoon F2 from Number XI Squadron at RAF Coningsby is pictured escorting a Russian Bear-H aircraft over the North Atlantic Ocean.

QRA procedures entail aircraft being held at continuous ground readiness, so that they can take off within minutes - without pre-warning - to provide air defence.
Tu-95s are often intercepted when encroaching into European airspace.

Throughout the 1970s Tu-95s were deployed in a variety of countries including Cuba, Angola, and Guinea, while in 1982 a detachment was posted to a Da Nang in Vietnam at the site of a former US Army base.

Also, in 1992 Soviet pilots from the 76th Regiment were posted to Goa to teach Indian pilots how to operate their 8 newly acquired Tu-142MK-Es exported from the Soviet Union.

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Despite being slowly decommissioned during the 1990s, many TU-95s are still actively serving today in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On November 28th 2022, twenty reportedly took part in missile attacks in the Caspian Sea, while at the beginning of 2023, many were relocated to the Far East after a Ukrainian attack on the 5th and 23rd of December on the Engels-2 Russian military base significantly damaged Tu-95s and killed several personnel.

How many Tu-95 have been destroyed?

The exact number of destroyed Tu-95 bombers is unknown, but there are reports of incidents at Russia’s Engels-2 Airbase. According to various sources, at least two Tu-95s were damaged, with Defense Express suggesting a possibility of five. Unconfirmed reports by activist Volodymyr Zolkin hinted at damage to Tu-95MS aircraft at the Engels airbase.

One incident involved a significant drone attack, causing substantial damage to a Tu-95 at Engels-2 Air Force Base. Separate reports from Defense Mirror suggested three Tu-95s might have been damaged in blasts at two Russian airfields, with two slightly affected at Engels airfield.

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  • Crew: 6–7; pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, communications system operator, navigator, tail gunner, plus sometimes another navigator.
  • Length: 46.2 m (151 ft 7 in)
  • Wingspan: 50.1 m (164 ft 4 in)
  • Height: 12.12 m (39 ft 9 in)
  • Empty weight: 90,000 kg (198,416 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 188,000 kg (414,469 lb)
  • Powerplant: 4 × Kuznetsov NK-12 turboprop engines 15,000 PS (15,000 hp; 11,000 kW)
  • Maximum speed: 925 km/h (575 mph, 499 kn)
  • Range: 15,000 km (9,300 mi, 8,100 nmi)
  • Service ceiling: 13,716 m (45,000 ft)
  • Rate of climb: 10 m/s (2,000 ft/min)