Attrition: Elderly Russian Bombers Falling Out Of The Air


November 9, 2009: A Russian Tu-142M3 reconnaissance aircraft recently crashed twenty kilometers off the Pacific coast, during a training mission. The Tu-142 is an unarmed maritime patrol aircraft that, in the last few years, have resumed long range patrols. Such activity had been halted in the early 1990s.

The Tu-142, which was introduced in the 1970s, is the patrol version of the Tu-95 heavy bomber. This aircraft entered service 51 years ago, and is expected to remain in service, along with the Tu-142 variant, for another three decades. But these elderly aircraft are increasingly expensive to maintain, and prone to developing unexpected problems. The one that recently crashed, disappeared without any message from the crew, and none of the eleven man crew appears to have survived. The aircraft went down in 44 meters (135 feet) of water, and that makes it possible to recover the wreckage, and try to determine the cause of the accident.

Over 500 Tu-95s were built, and it is the largest and fastest turboprop aircraft in service. Russia still maintains a force of 60 Tu-95s, but has dozens in storage, which can be restored to service as either a bomber or a Tu-142.   The 188 ton aircraft has flight crew consisting of a pilot, copilot, engineer and radioman, and an unrefueled range of 15,000 kilometers. Max speed is 925 kilometers an hour, while cruising speed is 711 kilometers an hour.

Originally designed as a nuclear bomber, the Tu-142 version still carries up to ten tons of weapons (torpedoes, mines, depth charges, anti-ship missiles, sonobuoys) and a lot more sensors (naval search radar, electronic monitoring gear). There are two 23mm autocannon mounted in the rear of the Tu-95 bomber version.

The mission crew of a Tu-142 usually consists of eight personnel, who operate the radars and other electronic equipment. Patrol flights for the Tu-142 can last twelve hours or more, especially when in-flight refueling is used. Maximum altitude is 45,000 feet, although the aircraft flies much lower when searching for submarines.

Last year, the Russians announced that the Tu-142s were unarmed. There's no way to confirm that a Tu-142 is unarmed, as you cannot see what is in the bomb bays, unless the Russians open them up when fighter jets, from nearby countries, come to check out the Tu-142. The Russians requested that these nations take their word for it, and only send fighters that were also unarmed.