I really shouldn't call the TU-95 a "relic" because it's still in service and likely will be for years to come. Like its B-52 counterpart, it's such an adaptable aircraft that it's managed to change with the times while many would-be replacements have come and gone.
Whenever you read some breathless news story about "Eek! Russian bombers fly near __ !!!" it's almost always a pair of TU-95s. Just flying a couple of them near Guam a while back was enough to send defense hawks into conniptions.
As one Russian general quipped "That's why they call it International Airspace."
I'll say one thing for the Russians, when they find something that works they stick with it.
In 1950 a request was sent to both the Tupolev and Myasishchev design bureaus for a new strategic bomber. The new aircraft was to have the ability to deliver an 11,000 kg bomb load to a target 8000 km (4,970 mi) away.
Myasishchev came up with the jet powered M-4, which was a monumental disappointment.
Andrei Tupolev knew that the jet engines he had to work with would be just too fuel thirsty to give him the range and payload required. He cleverly decided to go with turboprops. This was directly in contradiction to Stalin's orders, by the way. Stalin wanted a jet bomber dammit. Gutsy move Andrei.
There weren't just any turboprops either. He used 4 massive Kuznetsov NK-12s. To this day the most powerful turboprops ever built. These monsters produce 14,800 horsepower each and swing an 18-foot, 8-bladed contra-rotating propeller.
These engines were based on late-war German research with some help from a team of German engineers. Now before you scoff and say "Well sure, they had German scientists build it" there was plenty of Russian know-how that went into this as well, especially the metal alloys that allowed it to be built.
Andrei's gamble paid off. The TU-95 was highly successful while its jet-powered competitor (the M-4) didn't have anywhere near the range required. The TU-95 became the mainstay of the Soviet (and Russian) bomber force with over 500 being produced. They were still building these as recently as the early 1990s!
This is one of the fastest propeller driven aircraft ever built, cruising at .73 mach. The absolute speed record for propeller-driven aircraft is still held by its airliner counterpart the TU-114.
To put that in perspective, most jet airliners cruise at .80 mach. The Bear's top speed, depending on which source you believe, is somewhere between .82 and .87 mach.
This is the Russian all-purpose, do-anything airframe. Bomber, missile carrier, AWACS, maritime surveillance, anti-submarine, electronic warfare, reconnaissance, test platform, airliner - you name it. There's a Bear for almost any occasion.
For as long as these things have been in service it's amazing how little information is out there. A quick Google search will return hundreds of pictures of TU-95s being intercepted by everything from F-102s to F-22s. I can't, however, find a single description even on a Russian web site of what it's actually like to fly.
The instruments are standard Russian "steam gauges". There is a flight engineer, so the pilots only have limited engine instruments. That's why the instrument panel looks fairly sparse.
Acceleration and rate of climb are reported to be exceptional. The turboprops would give instant response versus the spool-up time characteristic of jet engines.
Takeoff and landing speeds are in the 150 - 160 knot range, similar to jet airliners of the same time period.
Based on the large control tabs evident on the rudder and elevator, I'm going to say that the flight controls may be manual via standard cables and pulleys. I've found no documentation to suggest hydraulic flight controls although it could have hydraulic boost with manual backup. Either way it must handle well enough since they manage to do probe-and-drogue air refueling with it.
The curtain allows access to the nose compartment. This may be a holdover from earlier models that had a glass nose.
There is little information to be found concerning the Bear's combat record. They reportedly flew bombing missions during the Afghan war and may have seen action in Chechnya. Most web sites that reference the TU-95 tend to just repeat the same information. First-hand accounts by former crew members are almost nonexistent. This may be due to the secretive nature of the Soviet Union and the fact that this is still an operational aircraft.
In exercises where I simulated a TU-95 the instructions were "Fly straight and level at 20,000 feet" (and wait to get shot down by the F-15s).
So why do we even care about these planes? They're old, slow and have the radar cross-section of an apartment building. Those big props have to be huge radar reflectors. They're so freakin' loud that submarines can hear them. Even with modernized electronics these would still be very vulnerable to Western fighters.
My opportunity to see one of these up close and personal was in 1991. We never would have thought it possible a few years prior. Two Barksdale B-52s plus a KC-10 visited Russia and two TU-95s with an AN-124 for support came to Barksale AFB. I watched them circle the field and land. Who would have thought it? Our former adversaries coming to pay a friendly visit.
The sound of those big props was something else. Not the deep "thrum" of a big piston engine. More high pitched, like a giant buzz-saw.
I got to sit in it, very cool. Thanks Ivan!
The cockpit layout is similar to a B-29, which is no surprise. The TU-4 was a close copy of a B-29 and the TU-95 was a follow-on to the TU-4.
I wouldn't have traded my BUFF for one, but it was an experience.
Like the B-52, the Russians plan to keep these around until the end of time or the Cubs win the World Series, whichever comes first. Actually 2040 is the date I've heard. Hey, if it ain't broke why replace it?