The rabbit hole of aviation world record claims

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Everybody likes when aviation records get broken. Those events are tremendous technical achievements and a rare case of positivity in the sea of groundings and budget cuts. But more often than not, they are also a way to manufacture some publicity and, in some prominent cases, one does not even need an actual record for that.

Let’s study one particular case. On 19 September 2020, a number of media channels – including, but not limited to Russian TV stations and news sites – ran a headline about a flight of two Tu-160 Blackjack supersonic heavy bombers that broke the world record by flying non-stop for 25 hours. 

“Nobody else on the planet is capable of such a feat,” an excited Channel One reporter proclaimed. The story was picked up far and wide.

Some outlets (for example TV channel Zvezda) openly called the flight the furthest distance flown without landing, others (for example TASS) described it as the longest flight by duration. A mix of both versions can be found, for example, in The Eurasian Times’ article on the topic, which also claims Tu-160 to be “the fastest, largest and heaviest bomber ever built”, with only one of three assertions (the heaviest) being factually true.

One does not have to be intimately familiar with aviation history to raise an eyebrow at the 25-hour-record claim. Two days later, the U.S. Strategic command Twitter account responded with a subtle reminder.

It is possible that they themselves forgot the fourth check mark – a 94-hour globe-circling flight of B-50 Superfortress back in 1949, which makes all the other achievements seem rather tame. The famous three-month long flight of Cessna 172, conducted by Robert Timm and John Cook in the 1950s, puts the military achievements into perspective even more.

But the U.S.-Russia catfight is an attractive topic. The Drive was amongst the first media channels to pick it up, lightheartedly – and deservedly – making fun of the unsuccessful attempt at propaganda, and weaving it into the context of the current standoff between Russia and NATO.

Even before the U.S. rebuttal, numerous battles were raging on social media, with aviation geeks parading around with evidence of longer flights and original claimants backtracking to correct their statements. All the corrections were the same: it was a record for “this type of aircraft”, not the overall flight endurance and duration record, despite numerous outlets claiming exactly that.

Two points can be made here. Of course, just as the majority of world record claims, it is, primarily, a media stunt and has little to do with actual technical achievements. The goal here is to get publicity, and publicity is what Russian Aerospace Force got. A number of people saw catchy “world record” headlines and did not think about it twice.

But there is a second point and it leads slightly deeper.

Classic problems with classes

The ambiguity of the “record” was baked into the claim from the beginning. A lot of the media outlets, in fact, had the “this type of aircraft” disclaimer, but left it buried deep in their articles, with at least first three paragraphs emphasizing the world-shattering nature of the flight and never actually explaining what “this type” means.

Meanwhile, the original source of the information puts quite an emphasis on the specifics, but does it in a strange way. Most of the articles seem to be based on a press release by Russian Defense Ministry, whose opening line reads: “The new record of flight distance and duration on Tu-160 strategic missile carriers was broken by two long-distance aviation flight crews”. The last line of the release seals the deal: “Nobody made longer flights on the aircraft of such class”. 

Crucially, both of these statements can be considered true just with a small application of mental gymnastics.

The first one – especially in Russian language – can be interpreted in two ways: either as an assertion that this a Tu-160-specific record, that is, “nobody flew Tu-160 for a longer time”; or that it is simply a record broken by Tu-160. It is a simple case of double meaning.

The second one refers to an aircraft class and is much more nebulous. It can mean something formal – like an aircraft classification by I. G. Zhitomirsky, studied at the majority of Russian technical schools. If we go by it, Tu-160 shares all the classes it belongs to (jet aircraft, monoplane, variable-geometry wings, four engines, etc.) with B-1 Lancer, making the record claim completely false. Even the popular description of Tu-160 as a missile carrier (“ракетоносец”) does not give it any ground, as Blackjack has a capacity to carry both cruise missiles and bombs, just like B-1.

But if we consider the media coverage where precise technical terms are rarely used, the “class” may be looked at in an informal manner, as an expression of aircraft’s uniqueness. Sure, Tu-160 weighs 30% more than B-1, can carry a bigger payload, and is faster. It is iconic and recognizable. It is in a class of its own.

Therefore, technically – if we interpret both sentences of the original press release in a very precise way – the world record claim can be true. Nobody made such a long flight in Tu-160 before and nobody flew aircraft of this class – of which Tu-160 is the only example – for longer. Russian Defence Ministry did not lie, they just formulated their statements to be easily interpretable in an untruthful manner. 

What is arguably even more important is that they have been using precisely the same template quite for some time now. In 2018, several media outlets reported 24-hour flight of Tu-160, which broke the 2010 record supposedly set by the same plane. This decade-old claim has quite a lot articles written about it, just as Tu-95MS record 43-hour flight earlier the same year.

It seems, Russian Air Force is on a streak of reporting their own internal records and the rest of the world is just very keen on interpreting them as something else. 

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