12 November 2009

With the shortest routes to attack American targets laying across the North Pole, Russian research efforts in the Arctic which began in the 1930s took on strategic urgency with the start of the Cold War. Work began in earnest on 23 April 1948 when the first Soviet expedition, designated SP-2, was airlifted to the North Pole. An even larger expedition followed using assets of the Soviet Polar Aviation (a civil aviation agency in the USSR that supported Arctic research) and that of Long-Range Aviation (DA, or Dalyniya Aviatsiya, the Russian version of the Strategic Air Command). Two Tupolev Tu-4 "Bull" bombers from the DA were seconded to Polar Aviation and used as cargo transports with supplies carried in the bomber's spacious bomb bays. Other aircraft were part of the early expeditions and even used at one point an ex-Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor. Also accompanying the bombers and transports were Lavochkin fighters to assess the feasibility of fighter operations in the Arctic.

By the early 1950s a network of deployment airfields large enough to take heavy bombers of the DA like the Tu-95 "Bear" and the Myasishchev M-4 "Bison" had been built across the Russian Arctic along with a chain of radio navigation beacons. However, the DA general staff recognized the vulnerability of these forward bomber bases and in 1956 began investigating operating jet bombers off the polar ice pack itself. By 1958 a special unit of DA Tupolev Tu-16 "Badger" twin jet bombers was created to test the feasibility of operating off ice runways on the polar ice pack.

On 26 April 1958 Colonel Anton Alekhnovich landed a Tu-16 bomber at the SP-6 research station's ice runway. However, on takeoff, the port main gear hit an area of ice that wasn't fully frozen and the bomber veered off the runway and hit an Ilyushin Il-14 transport. Attempts to repair the bomber were unsuccesful and due to fears that the SP-6 ice floe was moving too close to the United States, the Tu-16 was destroyed. Due to the variable nature of ice stability on the polar ice pack, further DA bomber operations were conducted from land bases built in the tundra.

Source: Soviet Strategic Aviation in the Cold War by Yefim Gordon. Hikoki Publications, 2009, p75-82.

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