The history of aviation is littered with promising designs that never quite got it all together. Such was the Myasishchev M-4.
Developed in the early 1950s, the M-4 "Molot" (Hammer) was supposed to give the Soviet Union an intercontinental jet bomber. They got the jet part, the intercontinental - not so much.
When the Soviets wanted a jet bomber with the range to strike targets in North America, they turned to talented designer Vladimir Myasishchev. Myasishchev had worked with Tupolev in the 1920s. After falling out of favor in the late 1930s, he actually helped design the famous Pe-2 bomber from his prison cell. He was released from prison in 1940 to assist the Soviet war effort.
In 1951 he was given his own design bureau and in a surprising move tasked to design the new bomber. The result was the promising M-4, given the code name "Bison" by NATO.
The Russians are often dismissively accused of copying Western designs, and the M-4 does have some similarities to Western aircraft. The landing gear configuration mimics the B-47 and the wing-root mounted engines mimic several British designs. Otherwise it looks like most modern jet aircraft with a swept wing and a conventional tail. For a first try they got a lot right.
Let's look at the numbers:
Length: 154 feet
Wingspan: 165 feet
Height: 46 feet
Empty weight: 175,700 lb
Max takeoff weight: 400,000 lb
This puts it in the same class as the B-52 but roughly 20% smaller.
Defensive armament consisted of six 23mm guns grouped in 3 turrets. The upper and lower turrets were remotely controlled while the tail turret was manned.
Offensive weapons load two nuclear bombs or 28 conventional bombs of up to 1000 lbs each.
Myasishchev managed to get this aircraft from design to production in a very short time, one year by some accounts. Having Stalin looking over your shoulder would be plenty of incentive. Talk about being under the gun!
The aircraft had some advanced features for its time. Flight controls were hydraulically powered. There was a system to automatically balance the fuel between the 18 fuel tanks. An inert gas system helped prevent fuel fires in the event of combat damage. There was a fire extinguishing system for the engines. This turned out to be a good thing since the engines were prone to fires.
Another interesting feature was the nose strut that would automatically extend to position the nose for takeoff. Due to the fore-aft landing gear configuration this was the only way to get the wing to the proper angle for the aircraft to un-stick. It also caused a few accidents until crews were trained not to attempt to rotate like a normal aircraft.
Each crew member had a downward firing ejection seat. Since there were only 5 ejection hatches for the seven forward crew members, an ingenious pneumatic system shuttled the navigator and the two pilots around to fire through the same hatch in succession.
The CIA claimed the Russians would have 800 of these by 1960 ready to rain nuclear destruction down on the United States. Politicians and the Pentagon screamed about a "bomber gap".
There was, of course, no bomber gap. We built 744 B-52s and they built 93 Bison of which only 35 or so were even configured as bombers. More on that later.
It seems that the Soviet flyby was a clever ruse. Those devious commies flew the same group of bombers over twice. Doh!
Fortunately we learned our lesson and that's the only time we've ever overreacted to the Russians unveiling a new piece of military hardware (yeah right).
Then there was the minor problem of the M-4 not having the range to hit targets in the United States. Like I said initially, it was a promising design but they could never quite put all the pieces together. The Soviets knew how to make a jet engine with plenty of power, but even to this day have trouble making one that's efficient. The Mikulin AM-3 turbojets put out an impressive 19,000 lbs of thrust each but they were huge gas hogs.
So what to do with a bomber that can't get to where it's supposed to bomb? By equipping it with better engines and considerably lightening the aircraft they were able to give it enough range to make a decent naval reconnaissance aircraft, designated the 3M.
There was also a tanker version which ironically enough ended up refueling Tupolev's TU-95 bomber. The Soviets had been smart enough to hedge their bets and develop two bombers at the same time, as the British had done with their "V bombers". It was the TU-95 that ultimately became the backbone of the Soviet bomber force.
Don't worry, we'll be looking at the TU-95 later. I got to sit in one. It was cool.