Columnist recalls once catching a 99-ton ‘Bear’ at 400 mph

By BENNY HORNSBY,

I have one up on Phil Difatta, our outdoor/nature writer. He might write about bears, but I’ve actually caught one. Of course, when dressed out, (empty), mine weighed nearly 99 tons, was doing around 400 mph, and was about 500 feet in the air.

You see, I caught my “bear” with a camera, and it was a Russian Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber, designated the “Bear” by NATO, on a long-range maritime patrol. 

If an airplane ever deserved the reputation of looking “evil, nasty, and mean,” that was it. Early in my Navy career, I spent three years in a ship whose sole mission was as an afloat place-keeper in the DEW (Distance Early Warning) Line, a system of radar stations set up in the far North, off Greenland and Iceland, to detect incoming Soviet nuclear bombers during the Cold War.  We would go out for three months, riding 40-foot waves, dodging icebergs, monitoring the radar scopes and communication channels, running out of fresh food, and getting no mail unless we had to pull into Halifax, Nova Scotia, for some emergency. 

You had to make somebody in the Navy head shed in DC pretty mad to get orders to that ship. 

Those Bear flights were a pretty common occurrence.  They would check us out at least once a month, often flying so low that we would wave at the pilots. They were just testing our ability to detect them and training their air crews for the real thing. I heard this one before I saw it. The Tu-95s are known as the loudest propeller-driven airplanes ever built. 

This is because of their contra-rotating propellers. 

They have a total of 32, with eight in each of four engine nodules, and the tips of the propellers are rotating faster than the speed of sound. The four inner props rotate counterclockwise, and the four outer props rotate clockwise. It seems to me, with those opposing forces, that the plane should just stand still, but that’s how much I know about aerodynamics. It’s pretty fast, however, with a top speed of 575 mph.

The Tupolev Tu-95 was to the former Soviet Air Force what the Kalashnikov AK47 rifle was to the army. Even though it’s an ancient platform, first flown in 1952, it’s much like our B52 bomber in that it’s been modified extensively over the years.  

It is famous for having dropped the “Tsar Bomba” which was the most powerful thermonuclear device ever detonated, with an explosive power equal to all of the aerial ordnance dropped during World War II; however, it now also carries cruise missiles. Still in use, when we pulled out of Vietnam, the Russians even based a squadron of Bears at our former Cam Rahn Bay Air Base.

On that day, I was 90 feet up in the air, atop the highest mast, working on the air search radar antenna when the plane flew over. It was so cold, I think the rotating mechanism had actually frozen up, and I had gone up to bust it loose. I carried a camera just in case I needed to photograph some broken machinery, and I snapped the picture as the plane flew overhead.

Since I was the Leading Electronics Petty Officer, I could have sent some junior sailor up, but I always did the job because I got the big bucks: $300 dollars a month, 3 hots, and a cot. My biggest fear was that some joker in the radar gang would mistakenly light off the radar while I was on the antenna, and that I would be fried alive, actually cooked from the inside out, which is what excessive radiation does. It often happened to little land birds that would light on the antenna array for a rest and promptly drop dead. If they radiated the radar, I would have been “lit up” like a mocking bird at Chernobyl. Plus, I had a pretty fatalistic attitude back in those days.

My heart had been broken so many times I had lost count. 

When they saw me coming, my friends would crank up the old record player we had down in the engine room, which was the warmest place around, play Jerry Lee Lewis singing “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” and laugh. These are the same “friends” who said I “would never make it on the outside” as a civilian, and I guess they were right.I asked one of the Spooks (intelligence specialists) onboard where the plane came from, and he said probably Murmansk, in the north of Russia on the Barents Sea. There’s a big naval base there. It had flown over the Pole and dropped down on us. In his opinion, it was at the far limits of its range, and probably turned around for home once it got out of sight. 

I thought to myself: “Gee, they came all that way, just to see us.”

The ship changed homeports to Key West, Florida, to keep an eye on Cuba right after I got transferred to the Armed Forces Police Detachment in New York City. 

I was disappointed, not only because of the warmer Caribbean climate, but also because I had been looking forward to seeing Ernest Hemingway’s six-toed cats. One day I might write about my experiences in the South Bronx, which later became famous as “Fort Apache.”

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Drop him a note at bennyhornsby.com