The Czar Bomb
October 30, 1961
Soviet Air Force Major Andrei Durnovtsev and his crew gathered in the gray, icy dawn for their final mission briefing, standing before the massive bomber on the Olenya airfield in northern Russia. That TU-95V “Bear A” bomber would either carry them to glory, or to death. Their survival chances were 50-50, he had been told. But Durnovtsev was a dutiful son of the Soviet Union, so standing on the tarmac bundled in a thick leather jacket, the stocky pilot calmly scribbled notes as their superior issued last-minute instructions.
He was also an experienced pilot. He had trained assiduously on TU-95V, with its long, slim fuselage and swept-back wings. It had been specially engineered to carry the superbomb code-named Vanya that was to be tested that day.
With its 164-foot wingspan and 151-foot length, the TU-95V was the only craft that could possibly carry the load. But its suspension still had to be reinforced, its release mechanisms redesigned, and its bomb-holder replaced by a heavier structure attached directly to the plane’s weight-bearing beams.
Even beyond that reinforcement, though, the bomber had been further transformed for the flight. Its gleaming metal surface had been sprayed with white reflective paint in hopes of preventing the plane from being seared by the blast that was to come. There was a real possibility that Durnovtsev and the crew could be incinerated in midair inside a flying crematorium.
The major ducked beneath the fuselage to inspect the ominous object that would generate that blast. The thermonuclear bomb was so large—26 feet long and seven feet in diameter— that the bomb bay doors had been removed and the bomb slung beneath the plane, spoiling the aircraft’s aerodynamic shape.
The bomb’s massive 30-ton weight and its added wind resistance would make the takeoff and flight extremely hazardous even if the bomb failed to detonate. And such a failure—a distinct possibility that some of its designers had whispered about—would in itself be life-threatening. Failure of the mission would at the very least mean life in a Soviet gulag for Durnovtsev and his crew and for the engineers and scientists. But more likely it would mean a bullet in the back of the head.
After all, detonation of the largest man-made explosion in history was not only meant as a technological coup for the Soviet Union. It was to be a propaganda coup of the highest magnitude for Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
The bomb designers and test supervisors would not be on the flight to witness first-hand their success or failure. They were huddled in the command post with Major General Nikolai Pavlov, Chairman of the State Commission. They would nervously drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and monitor the test, as Durnovtsev and his crew flew into history, or to annihilation.
Durnovtsev finished his inspection by minutely examining the bundle at the tail of the bomb. It held the 1,800-pound parachute that he hoped would be the savior for him and his crew. The huge parachute canopy would deploy as the bomb was released, aiming to slow its descent in time for the bomber and its accompanying TU-16 Badger observer plane to escape.
He and the crew climbed aboard the plane, donning their oxygen masks and harnesses and conducting their preflight check. That check accomplished, Durnovtsev ended the quiet by starting the four turboprop engines. They roared obediently to life, their contra-rotating propellers making the plane deafeningly loud.
He shoved the throttles forward and began the taxi. The plane rumbled down the runway for a seemingly interminable distance before finally heaving itself into the overcast sky. Durnovtsev banked toward the northwest and set a course for the Mityushikha Bay Nuclear Testing Range 600 miles away.
During the flight, the radio messages between his plane and the Badger were terse, as were the communications with the ground. The crews immersed themselves in their mission, trying to ignore the consequences of the potential holocaust that was to come.
Finally, the target slid slowly into sight—Novaya Zemlya Island, 34,000 feet below. Ground control transmitted the radio signal that automatically triggered the three bomber locks, releasing the bomb.
The plane lurched violently upward, freed of its load, and Durnovtsev slammed the plane’s controls into a banking turn seeking a safe distance, at least 30 miles. Thankfully, he saw the parachute deploy.
At 11:32 am Moscow time, a blinding flash lit up the clouds, its ethereal light expanding, causing the clouds to glow and become transparent. An immense, fiery orange ball emerged from a gap in the clouds—a sun born on earth, expanding, expanding, expanding.
Eight seconds later, the blowtorch of a blast wave slammed into the plane driving it into a plummeting uncontrolled dive of more than half a mile.
Durnovtsev strained at the controls, fighting for the craft’s, and the crew’s, survival. Finally, he managed to recover the plane, and in the distance, he could see a rising, roiling mushroom cloud the magnitude of which no human had ever witnessed. It thrust relentlessly upward, reaching 40 miles high into the stratosphere.
The blast’s ionization of the atmosphere blocked radio communication for 40 minutes, so Durnovtsev could not report their survival or determine the fate of the Badger. Finally, to his relief, he heard a report from the Badger that it had survived, and he contacted the ebullient and relieved scientists, engineers, and party officials.
He was well aware what would come next: immediate promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel, being named Hero of the Soviet Union, and very, very large quantities of vodka.
Although the bomb detonated at 13,000 feet, the rock-strewn terrain of the island beneath it was scorched for miles by the thermonuclear inferno.
The village of Severny 34 miles from the blast was completely destroyed, its wooden and brick houses leveled. More than 100 miles distant, wooden houses were flattened and stone dwellings lost roofs and doors. Witnesses 170 miles away felt the heat of the blast, and windows were shattered in Norway and Finland, hundreds of miles distant. The light flash was visible more than 600 miles away. The shock wave circled the Earth three times.
An American observation plane nearby, scorched by the blast, managed to measure its size, at the equivalent of 58 megatons—million tons of TNT.
Later, the Soviets would revise that figure to 50 megatons, making it by far the largest man-made explosion in history—1,500 times larger than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
January 16, 1963
Nikita Khrushchev announced with great fanfare that the Soviet Union had constructed an even more powerful 100-megaton bomb. He declared that it was hidden somewhere in East Germany. The Soviet people proclaimed their new superweapon, “Tsar Bomba,” the Czar Bomb.