Hey, if Charles Lindbergh could cross the Atlantic in a primitive aircraft with no provision for forward vision, who’s to say you can’t cruise at Mach 3 without a windshield? Meet the Sukhoi T-4, simultaneously one of the most original, derivative, and bizarre Soviet X-planes.
Just when you thought we’d exhausted the carbon-copy droopnose Soviet supersonic plane thing with the Tu-144 SST, the SuT-4 (as I’ll abbreviate it -and not to be confused with the Tu-4, the reverse-engineered B-29.) comes along appearing to be a shameless ripoff of the awesome-in-its-own-right North American Aviation XB-70 Valkyrie. “So what’s the deal?” you think. And then you think, “… and while we’re at it, the SuT-4 looks to have a perfectly functional windshield. What’s your deal, man?”
The deal, skeptical reader, is that the SuT-4 had a Concordeski-esque droop snoot, giving the pilot better landing visibility, but which in the “up” (or as I like to call it, “cross your fingers and pray”) position completely obscured the windshield. Thus, the pilot had no forward view. Well, that’s not completely true. Apparently below 373 MPH, you could deploy a periscope for a degree of visibility. Above 373 MPH, you’re S.O.L. I’ve never flown so much as a Piper Cub, let alone a Mach 3 experiemental bomber, but you can be damn sure I’d feel more comfortable being able to see out the front. Hell, one of the more distinctive features of Soviet military vehicles were the traditional window-studded conning towers of Soviet subamarines, whereas the American subs (wisely?) had none. So it’s somewhat interesting that the SuT-4 had this solution to an aerodynamic problem.
Then again, if you’re at the undoubtedly high altitudes that the Sukhoi was designed to travel at, there’s probably not a ton to look at. Plus, people have been flying in instrument-only situations since they had the bright idea to put altimeters into those glorified kites of the early days of aviation. And lest anyone make a “trust your life at Mach 3 with Russian instrumentation” joke inwardly, I’d like to point out that an enduring charactersitic of Soviet design philosophy was the almost Eastern philosophy sounding, “it cannot fail, because there is no backup.” Simply put, where most American engineers prefered a less-robust system with multiple failsafes and backups, the Soviets simply engineered the damn things not to break. When they did, your Commie ass was grass … but mostly they didn’t break. Ingest a Makarov in the starboard engine nacelle? No problem. You can probably still take off, whereas a F-16 would be a pile of charred aluminum.
Now, was the SuT-4 a copy of the XB-70, as it seems externally? The best answer I can find is “not in so many words.” It was clearly inspired by many of the innovative features of the American aircraft, and was intended for a similar recon/strategic bombing mission profile. But unlike the Tu-4 “Bull,” for example, it was an approximation rather than an exact copy. Its four Kolesov RD36-41 afterburning engines which produced a total of 142,000 pounds of thrust, and while the airframe was theoretically capable of that Mach 3 number I’m bandying about, it only ever reached Mach 1.3 before the project was cancelled in 1974 due to cost and mission irrelevance. Like the XB-70, cancelled over a decade earlier, the reality was that manned supersonic strategic bombers were a really expensive way to do a job that a cheaper ICBM could do more effectively. The Soviets redistributed the costs into air superiority fighters, and the SuT-4s (all two of them) were retired. One survives at the Central Airforce Museum near Moscow.