WHEN THE RUSSIAN AIR FORCE decommissions its fleet of Tupolev Tu-95 bombers sometime after 2040, the gigantic plane will have had a nearly 100-year service life.
The Tu-95, designated ‘Bear’ by NATO, is a 164-foot-long, four-engine turbo-prop bomber that can fly more than 8,000 miles without refueling.
The Bear was designed in 1952 as a replacement for the Tu-4, the Soviet Union’s reverse-engineered copy of the American B-29 bomber of World War Two. At the time, military planners in the U.S.S.R. sought a long-range, heavy bomber that could deliver a 30,000-lb. nuclear payload to any point within the continental United States.
Unfortunately for the designers, conventional piston engines simply didn’t provide the raw power necessary to haul such heavy ordnance. And while jet engines offered the needed thrust, those available at the time were too heavy and burned way too much fuel, thereby curtailing the plane’s range.
Instead, the Tupolev bureau opted for a comprise: turboprops. The emerging technology would give the bomber speeds approaching that a jet, while still enabling the aircraft to fly long distances. For additional power, Tupolev outfitted each of the plane’s four 12,000-hp engines with a pair of contra-rotating, four-blade propellers. This gave the Tu-95 top speeds in excess of 500 mph. And to reduce drag, the Bear featured a jet-like 35 deg. swept wing design.
The bomber’s size, payload and range shocked Western defence planners when it was introduced in 1956. And not surprisingly, the monstrous Tu-95, was a major source of national pride for the Soviet Union. 
Although rendered obsolete by the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1960s, the Bear would go on to serve as a maritime reconnaissance platform as well as a potent conventional bomber for decades.  Armed with a full suite of sensors, torpedoes and anti-ship missiles, later variants posed a formidable threat to both NATO surface vessels and submarines.
Currently the Tu-95 Bear is operated by both Russia and the Ukraine.
• Throughout much of the Cold War, a pair of Tu-95s would fly a weekly long-range patrol from the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic, out into the Atlantic and down to Cuba. The planes would run parallel to the North American coastline and were invariably intercepted and escorted by U.S. and Canadian fighters. Even now, with the Cold War over for more than 20 years, Russian Bears still probe North American and European airspace. These incursions continue to make headlines. Just last summer (2011), a group of Russian Bears on an 11-hour flight, penetrated Japanese territorial waters. Tokyo scrambled F-15s and F-2s to intercept them.
• With a range of more than 8,000 miles, the Tu-95 can reach any point in the Northern Hemisphere without refuelling (and depending on where they are based – much of the Southern Hemisphere as well.)
• Each of the Bear’s eight four-blade propellers break the sound barrier as they turn, making the Tu-95 perhaps the loudest plane on the planet. In fact, Bears are so noisy that they can be detected by U.S. underwater sonar sensors and submarines. Fighter pilots sent up to intercept Bears have reported that the planes’ unmistakeable drone can even be heard over the sound of their own jets.
• The Soviets built a civil airline version of the Tu-95. Known as the Tu-114 Rossiya, it still holds the world record for the fastest propeller-driven aircraft, reaching speeds of 540 mph.
• A Tu-95 dropped the world’s largest nuclear device ever tested, the 50 megaton, 60,000 lb. AN602 Tsar Bomba. The detonation occurred in October of 1961 over the Russian Arctic. A Bear V, specially modified to carry the outsized bomb, delivered the AN602 from an altitude of more than 30,000 feet. The bomb descended using a massive parachute, enabling the bomber to fly nearly 30 miles out of range before detonation. The shockwave from the blast caused the Bear to instantly drop 1,000 meters. The explosion was visible for 160 km.