The Soviets Built a High-Flying Jet to Shoot Down Balloons
Project 34 'Seagull' eventually developed into a plane serving science
During the Cold War, the United States sent hundreds of high-altitude surveillance balloons on meandering intelligence-collection missions over the Soviet Union — a practice which continued after the Soviet shootdown of American U-2 pilot Gary Powers in 1960.
Difficult to detect and largely out of reach at altitudes of up to 100,000 feet, the floating aerial spies provoked the Soviets into developing their own high-flying balloon-busting interceptors.
That was the genesis of Subject 34 or “Seagull,” produced by the Myasischev Design Bureau, which was also responsible for designing the M-60 nuclear-powered bomber — a far-out concept which was never built — and the problematic M-4 Bison strategic bomber.
The single-seat Subject 34 was the first in a series of ultra-high-flying jet planes from Myasischev. While there is limited information about the lone Seagull, the aircraft carried a RD-36-52 jet engine with more than 26,000 pounds of thrust. Its name referred to its long, inverted gull or “cranked” wings.
In the center mounted on top of the fuselage sat an upward-facing, remote-controlled 23-millimeter GSh-23 gun — the balloon buster. The design could have potentially included two anti-aircraft missiles. A nose-mounted radar would search for targets.
Subject 34 never saw action. During a Dec. 24, 1978 taxi test in a snowstorm, pilot K.V. Chernobrovkin “had not meant to take off but in a snowstorm became airborne to avoid hitting the wall of snow on the right side of the runway,” aviation historian Yefim Gordon wrote in his 1992 book Soviet X-Planes. “In zero visibility he hit a hillside.”
A 1999 Russian language aviation encyclopedia adds further detail to the incident. Chernobrovkin carried out one runway taxi test in the afternoon and lifted briefly off the ground. During a second test later that day, the plane jumped into the air again, tilted to the side and struck a UAZ on the edge of the runway with its wingtip.
Chernobrovkin, attempting to avoid crashing into the show buildup — and standing observers — on the side of the runway, lifted further into the air and disappeared into the storm. Remarkably, Chernobrovkin managed to bring the plane around to land but, tragically, crashed short of the runway into a hill — fatal for the experienced pilot.
The crash prompted a redesign of the Seagull. The follow-on M-17 Stratosphera ditched the gull wings — which possibly contributed to the crash due to a faulty cable mechanism — in favor of more common straight ones with tapered tips, and swapped the engine for an RD-36-51V, derived from the high-performance jet engine used on the Tu-11, the Soviet equivalent of the Concorde.
There was a conceptual shift, too. The American balloon program fell out of favor by the late ’70s in favor of spy satellites, invalidating the need for a balloon interceptor. The M-17 — known by NATO as the Mystic-A — was thus primarily a reconnaissance aircraft. The M-17 was also rather large with a 132-foot wingspan and a length of 73 feet, larger than the U-2.
But the new design wasn’t entirely for reconnaissance. The Soviet Union produced at least two flyable M-17s, the second of which — designation CCCP-17103 — possessed a GSh-23 machine gun like the original Seagull. The first, CCCP-17401, had a different sensor suite, according to Gordon, but no weapons.
Neither M-17 is still in service and both appear to have retired to the Central Air Force Museum in Monino, Russia.
Photographs of 17401 show it in pieces, but 17103 and its machine gun appears intact — although it’s not visible in the above photo.
An M-55 Geophysica. Alex Beltyukov photo via Wikimedia
The Soviet Air Force liked the Stratosphera enough that it commissioned another follow-on design, the M-55 Geophysica, in 1985 — the first one flying in 1985, for a total of four produced.
This new aircraft, designed for environmental science, included a new shorter wing, redesigned surfaces, new flight controls and a stronger structure allowing for greater takeoff weight and endurance. While the M-55 shares a similar profile to the M-17, it is a fundamentally different plane.
Most importantly were the sensors — a combination of IR, optical and side-looking imagers for atmospheric studies. The planes are still flying scientific missions, but haven’t escaped geopolitical tensions. In 2016, Sweden expelled an M-55 rented by E.U.-funded scientists who planned to use the plane for high-altitude experiments.
The Swedish Ministry of Defense was not happy about the presence of the Russian former spy plane flying overhead during a military exercise. The month before, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet did a barrel roll over a U.S. RC-135 spy plane above the Baltic Sea, which may have informed the Swedish decision