Bear in the Air
Not since the Fairey Swordfish “Stringbag” biplane whacked the Italians at Taranto and crippled Bismarck has an airplane as archaic as the Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber threatened the Western powers. Yes, the Boeing B-52 is older than the Bear by seven months, but at least the Buff is a jet, for heaven’s sake. The Bear is prop-driven, with four turbine engines and eight huge contrarotating propellers so loud that the rate of deafness among former Tu-95 crewmen is famously high.
Bears began confronting USAF and NATO fighters in 1962, during long-range patrol missions intended to probe Western defenses and gather information on their electronic and interception capabilities. Bears were intercepted until 1991 by everything from F-89s and F-94s to early Century Series fighters, F-106s, F-4s and F-14 Tomcats. And now, suddenly, by F-15s and -16s and RAF Tornados and Eurofighter Typhoons.
During the old days, American fighter pilots famously displayed Playmate centerfolds to goggled-eyed observers aboard the Bears, and the occasional U.S. pilot pulled on a rubber gorilla mask or hung fuzzy dice from his canopy-frame mirror before pulling abeam his assigned Tu-95.
After a 15-year stand-down, Russian Bears suddenly reappeared in Western airspace near Alaska and Canada in September 2006. Canadian CF-18s and USAF F-15s were scrambled to intercept them, beginning a new a game that had become commonplace during the Cold War.
In May 2007, the RAF launched two Tornado F3s from Scotland to turn back a Bear that was peeking at a Royal Navy exercise. In July it was the Norwegian F-16s’ turn, and in August two Tu-95s posed a threat to a U.S. carrier off Guam, which may or may not have launched F/A-18s.
On August 17, the most newsworthy incident occurred, and the Brits went ballistic: A Bear cruised along the coast of England, just outside British airspace, and was intercepted by a pair of brand-new Eurofighters—the first time the type had ever been scrambled for real.
Russian President Vladimir Putin soon announced that he was reinstituting long-range Bear patrols. “Our pilots have been grounded for too long,” he said. “They are happy to start a new life.”
“If Russia feels that they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that’s their decision,” said a U.S. State Department spokesman.
A comment posted on a Times of London Web site forum seemed to sum up the incidents: “Boys with toys!”
National Geographic readers and televiewers are familiar with Oetzi the Iceman, whose frozen and mummified remains were found in the Swiss Alps by hikers in 1991. Oetzi had died some 5,300 years ago, almost certainly shot from behind by an enemy’s arrow.
Yet few remember Leo Mustonen, a 22- year-old Minnesotan whose frozen and mummified body was also found by hikers, but on the Mount Mendel Glacier in the Sierra Nevada of California a little over two years ago. Mustonen had died in the crash of an Army Air Forces Beech AT-7 trainer on November 18, 1942. Nothing was found but Mustonen’s body and one of the light twin’s two engines.
Now the remains of a second victim of that tragedy have been found, though they are as yet unidentified. (There were four crewmen aboard the airplane—a pilot and three trainee navigators.) Peter Stekel, a writer who is doing a book about that final flight, was with a friend, searching for the Beech’s remaining 9-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-985 radial engine, when last August they came across the remains. The body was badly decomposed and legless after being exposed to the elements by glacial shifts and rapid icemelt.
The U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Base in Hawaii will do the necessary autopsy and DNA matching in an attempt to determine the identity of the second set of remains. Incredibly, more than 78,000 Americans are still unaccounted for 63 years after the end of World War II. Though more than 40,000 were lost at sea or entombed in sunken ships, JPAC considers some 35,000 to be potentially recoverable.
AT-7s were a subset of the ubiquitous “Twin Beech,” typically categorized as a C-45. The AT-7 variant had space for three navigator trainees and their plotting tables in the small cabin, while the AT-11 version was equipped with a multipaned Plexiglas pug nose that allowed aspiring bombardiers to practice drops.
What led to the 1942 AT-7 crash remains a mystery, though weather records show heavy snow at higher elevations was almost certainly the cause. The Beech hit the mountains at 13,700 feet, which would have been a struggle for the unturbocharged twin, particularly if it had been in an icing layer. The airplane was 200 miles off its intended course when it crashed.
The most recent remains were found just 50 feet from the location of Mustonen’s body. Inevitably, warming temperatures and glacier melt will soon reveal the rest of the crash site.
A WASP’s Last Landing
A woman who sold her accordion during World War II to pay for lessons so she could fly with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, made her last flight in July. She stepped out of the cockpit at Vancouver and gave her favorite airplane to Pearson Air Museum located there.
It wasn’t just any aircraft, either. It was the 1953 model Cessna that pilot Jan Wood flew solo around the world in 1956 and 1957.
“I’m not crying out loud—not yet,” said Wood, 85, of Reseda, Calif., who was a little unsteady on her legs in the 100-degree heat after landing.
Male military pilots were deployed to combat zones, so in 1942 the WASP organization was created to handle tasks such as ferrying military planes from factories to docks for shipment to the war zones, training gunners and towing targets for military drills in the United States. About 25,000 women applied, 1,830 were accepted into training and 1,074 completed training and served. The women were stationed all over the country. Thirty-eight died during the war, and most who survived found private pilot slots closed to them after they’d done their duty.
Congress disbanded the WASP program after men began to return from the war. WASP records remained sealed and classified until 1974, when the Army finally released the information, and the former WASPs organized for reunions. Like their male counterparts, the WASP ranks are thinning as members reach their 80s and 90s.
A California native and a longtime physical education teacher, Wood always reserved time for flying. She learned about the Vancouver museum when she flew in for a WASP reunion there in 2006. At the time, she was joined by 75 of her comrades, who were in Vancouver for their biennial reunion. They gathered among the Stearmans, the Texans and the modern aircraft displays to reminisce about the war years.
“She kind of fell in love with the place then,” said Kyle Kihs, museum manager. The Pearson Air Museum will put Wood’s Cessna on display and tell the story of the aircraft and its pilot. The museum is currently promoting a program to encourage young women to fly. See www.pearsonairmuseum.org. for more on museum programs. To learn more about the WASPs, see www.wings acrossamerica.us.
February 23, 1909, Lake Bras d’Or, Nova Scotia—Piloted by one of its designers, John A.D. McCurdy, Silver Dart made the first controlled powered flight in Canada, traveling about three-fourths of a mile above the frozen lake. That was far from its first flight; the 30-foot-long flying machine had taken to the air several times during trials in Hammondsport, N.Y.
Silver Dart was also known as Aerodrome #4, as it was the fourth aircraft developed by the Aerial Experiment Association, the group formed by Alexander Graham Bell (and bankrolled by his wife) in 1907 to construct “a practical flying aerodrome or flying machine driven through the air by its own power and carrying a man.” McCurdy’s pusher aircraft, similar to the AEA’s better-known June Bug design but with a more efficient propeller and a water-cooling system, got its nickname from the silver silk that covered its wings. It was constructed of steel tubing, wood and bamboo (held together by wire and tape), and powered by a 35-hp V-8 provided by Glenn Curtiss.
The Canadian flight took place on a brutally cold day, but many townspeople from nearby Baddeck braved the frigid temperatures to watch. McCurdy recalled:
The town…consisted largely of very doubtful Scotsmen. Most of them were mounted on skates….With an extra snort from the motor, we scooted off down the ice. Behind came a crowd of small boys and men on their skates—most of them still doubtful I would fly. With a lurch and a mighty straining of wires we were in the air. It was amusing to look back and watch the skaters—they seemed to be going in every direction—bumping into each other in their excitement at seeing a man actually fly. In taking off I had to clear one old Scot, so doubtful I would fly that he had started off across the ice with his horse and sleigh. I think they both had the daylights scared out of them.
Silver Dart’s flying career came to an ignominious end on August 2, the same day it carried the first passenger aloft in Canada during military trials. During a fifth landing, with McCurdy again at the controls, one of its wheels struck uneven ground, and the silken-winged machine was wrecked beyond repair. The pilot and his passenger, F.W. Baldwin, escaped uninjured.
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.