This Week In Aviation History: Big Russian

On December 22, 1930 a new aircraft lifted into the skies and immediately overshadowed the work being done anywhere else in the world. The craft was the Tupolev ANT-6 and it was flown in the Soviet Union.

When most other countries were still upgrading and modernizing their air forces with fabric covered biplanes, the Tupolev design bureau had built a metal monoplane of such rugged and useful construction it was to see service well into the ‘Great Patriotic War’ or World War Two. With a crew of eight, this craft was a bomber, but with provisions for carrying paratroopers (one of the earliest airplanes to do so), it carried 40 troops.

Some 818 were built, under the production designation of TB-3, and of these 600 served in the War. Four ANT-6s were used in 1937 for servicing Russian explorer Ivan D. Papanin and crew at the North Pole. For that time in history, it would be an accomplishment just to do this once, but this was an ongoing event — one of the four craft was used continually, while the others returned to Moscow. To be sure, these were not standard ANT-6s, as the military equipment had been removed, some metal components replaced with non-ferrous metals, and autopilots were installed. These latter changes were made to aid in navigation near the North Pole.

The tests performed by the ANT-6 to extend aviation knowledge are numerous. There were many experiments in air dropping supplies, both with and without parachutes, and mass airdrops of troops. Some of the tests involving troops including the additions of handrail on the wings, and soldiers were not only carried aloft inside the fuselage as per the norm — soldiers also rode aloft (quite literally) on the ANT-6’s wings and departed by releasing their hold on the rail, to tumble off the wing before releasing their parachutes!

One of the most spectacular tests involved parasite fighters. An idea that comes and goes over time, the German and the Americans had experimented with aircraft carried by airships, but the Russians went one better. After testing the ANT-6 with a fighter strapped under each wing, eventually, the ANT-6 flew with five — one on top of each wing, one below each wing, and a fifth that joined the assemblage after airborne by hooking onto a cradle on the underside of the fuselage. An impressive sight no doubt when all five fighters were signaled to depart at the same instant! These tests were not for naught, in World War Two pairs of parasite dive-bombers were carried into action beneath the wings of the ANT-6/TB-3s. Overall, an impressive career by a relatively unknown aircraft, and proof that innovation can be found anywhere.

Tupolev ANT-6 (prototype): Length: 79 feet, 4 inches; Wingspan: 132 feet, 10 inches; Max Weight: 176, 890 pounds (in flight); Height: 18 feet, 1 inch; Powerplant (4): Curtiss V-1570 Conquerer V-12 of 600hp; Max Speed 140 mph; Service Ceiling 16,700 feet; Wing Area 2,480 sq ft.