The December 1, 1958, issue of Aviation Week magazine ran an article titled “Soviets Flight Testing Nuclear Bomber,” which included a simple 3-view drawing of the supposed nuclear powered supersonic craft. The article claimed that the aircraft was indeed flying, and had been seen by multiple observers.
Small problem: it didn’t exist. Aviation Week was wrong.
The drawing that Aviation Week included was clearly a crude, close-but-not-quite-right representation of the Myasishchev M-50, NATO code-named “Bounder.” But the Bounder was not nuclear powered. While Myasishchev did design nuclear powered versions of the Bounder, they never built one, much less flew one. The incident, while little known to the general public today (go ahead… ask a hundred of your closest friends, family and co-workers if they’ve ever heard of the article), is infamous in aviation journalism. It was a case of stating the factually inaccurate as the factually certain. It is occasionally brought up as a cautionary tale to not believe everything you read, even if it comes from a seemingly authoritative source.
But a question has lingered for more than fifty years: where did Aviation Week get this story? Was it, as some sources claim, a hoax? Did the author of the article make it up out of whole cloth? If so, how did he know about the configuration of the Bounder, which was not publicly shown until 1963?
As it turns out, Aviation Week and the articles author did not invent the story. A month earlier, a secret briefing was held for officials (USAF and Atomic Energy Comission) of the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Office by staff of General Electric, Atomic Products Division at the Evenbdale, Ohio, GE facility. The 11-hour session covered a range of topics, one of which was Soviet nuclear aircraft activity. The aircraft described is clearly the aircraft upon which the Aviation Week article was based on. Interestingly, one of the charts shows that the design was already code named Bounder.
How did Aviation Week gain access to this presentation? One possibility is that a copy of the presentation charts were simply handed over to the Av Week staff in order to “get the word out.” Av Week did, after all, also publish an editorial about the disturbing development of Soviet nuclear powered aircraft, and called for the development of Americas equivalent. However, while clearly similar, the drawing of the Bounder in the GE presentation materials differs in important ways from that contained in the Aviation Week article. It looks more like the Aviation Week article was going off of a good verbal description, or just a brief glance. I can’t imagine that the details would be changed on a whim. And as it turns out, the GE drawings of the Bounder were in some ways closer to the actual Bounder than the Aviation Week drawings of the Soviet atomic bomber. Additionally, the available pages are just the charts that would have been either handed out or slide-projected at the briefing; it’s unknown what the presenter actually said. As with any presentation, the charts are a horribly incomplete part of the story… they tend to be jsut illustrations and bullet points, while the narrative is given out verbally via prepared remarks and answers to questions. Did the presenter (one J. H. Guill) say that the nuclear powered Bounder had flown, as Aviation Week claimed? That is unknown, though one of the charts seems to indicate that.
It seems not unlikely to me that someone at Aviation Week spoke to someone in attendance at the briefing, possibly an Air Force officer, who told them what had been said and described – perhaps with a simple sketch – the design of the supposed Soviet atomic bomber. The Aviation Week sketch includes dimensions, something not shown in the presentation charts… but possibly given out verbally.
Another possibility, of course, is that the Air Force simply gave Aviation Week the article to publish, complete with a slightly mutated bomber drawing. If the Air Force believeed that the Bounder drawing was accurate, they might not want to publicise it… a less-accurate public version of the drawing might confuse the Soviets as to the source the the Americans information.
In any case, it would hardly be the first – and certainly not the last – time that a news outlet was used for propaganda purposes. While arguably unfortunate, and in the end embarassing for Aviation Week (they were, after all, wrong), the evidence shows that Aviation Week itself was not hoaxing the public, but rather they themselves were working off of information that came from what should have been a reliable source.
But after all this, it turns out to be a matter of simply moving the goal posts. Where did GE get their – clearly partially right, clearly partially wrong – information?