The Tupelov Tu-160 “White Swan” (NATO reporting name “Blackjack”) — a legacy Soviet airframe that has of late gotten a new lease on life. Credit: National Interest.

It’s the fastest bomber ever built, the largest bomber ever built and the heaviest bomber ever built.

Enter the Tupelov Tu-160 “White Swan” — NATO reporting name “Blackjack.”

And now, it is a record holder, after a pair of 1980s era Russian Tu-160 supersonic bombers set a new record for the longest non-stop flight for that type of aircraft, with both crews in the air for more than a full day, Peter Suciu of National Interest reported.

“Two crews of the Long-Range Aviation have set a new record for distance and duration on Tu-160 supersonic strategic missile-carrying bombers,” Lieutenant-General Sergey Kobylash, the Russian Aerospace Forces’ Long-Range Aviation Commander told reporters.

“The pilots of the Russian Aerospace Forces were in the air for more than 25 hours, covering a distance of more than 20,000 kilometers.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said the two Tu-160 bombers, which were commanded by Major-General Oleg Pchela and Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Volkovitsky respectively, took off and landed at Engels Air Force Base outside of Saratov, the report said.

The base, which is solely operating location for Tu-160 aircraft, is named after the Communist philosopher Friedrich Engels.

During the twenty-five hour flight, the aircraft flew over the neutral waters of the central part of the Arctic and Pacific Oceans as well as the Kara, Laptev, East Siberia, Chukchi, and Barents Seas. The aircraft were refueled mid-air three times from six IL-78 tankers, the report said.

The Russians will likely build about 50 of the new Tu-160M — production versions of which will feature new avionics and upgraded versions of the Kuznetsov NK-32 after-burning turbofan. Credit: National Interest.

“The Tu-160 strategic missile-carrying bombers were accompanied by Su-35S fighter jets along with foreign aircraft along certain sections of their route,” the defense ministry added, and the flight was conducted in strict compliance with international airspace rules, the report said.

The Soviet-designed variable-sweep wing Tu-160 entered service in 1987. It was the last strategic bomber designed by the Soviets, and currently, there are at least sixteen in service.

The Tu-160 is outwardly somewhat similar to the American Rockwell B-1 Lancer which spurred its development. Both have variable-sweep wings, both are supersonic and both are not stealths. However, that is where the similarities end.

The B-1 Lancer is somewhat smaller, and is a bomber in the classic sense.

The Tu-160, on the other hand, is used more as a stand-off weapons platform, in which missiles are launched from the bomb bay doors while the “White Swan” would speed off at Mach 2+ to safety, the report said.

It is the only Soviet-designed bomber that does not carry any defensive weapons, although its prodigious 88,000 pounds of payload capacity can carry a dizzying array of conventional and/or nuclear weapons.

Why the nickname “White Swan” you ask? Because the entire plane is coated in a brilliantly white reflective coating — it’s meant as protection for the crew from thermal energy nuclear explosions.

By reflecting some of that thermal energy (light), the crew is at least, in theory, somewhat more protected than otherwise, the report said.

While this set the record for the longest flight of the Tu-160 bombers, and is still an impressive achievement, the Russian Aerospace Forces would have to log another eight hours to reach the thirty-three hour-long duration mission time that many B-2 Spirit bomber pilots have had to make. 

Unlike the B-52, which is flown by a five-person crew that includes two pilots, two navigators and one electronic warfare officer — the B-2 has a crew of just two pilots who share all the tasks.