Harry, 76, lives in Fairfax County, Va. His parents ran Beacon Field Airport, an air strip on Route 1 that was an emergency runway for early airmail pilots. He ordered the gray T-shirt from the USPS online store. When he received it, he immediately recognized that the plane depicted under the word “Fly!” bears a striking resemblance to the Tupolev Tu-95, a Soviet strategic bomber known in the west as the Bear.
Harry emailed the Postal Service, which insisted it was a “generic style commercial aircraft” and pointed out that the Bear doesn’t have windows all along its fuselage.
Harry wrote back acknowledging that and saying the plane on the $17.95 shirt is actually a Tu-114, the civilian version of the fearsome Soviet bomber. He never got a response, so I got involved.
This is what USPS spokesman David Partenheimer wrote to me in an email:
“The T-shirt image was selected by a private third party vendor, not the U.S. Postal Service, using stock imagery and was not meant to be reflective of any specific aircraft model. The plane in the design is an interpretation of a commercial airliner. It could be the vendor was looking to use a variation of [a] stock image of a Douglas DC-4 Skymaster which actually carried U.S. Mail and was depicted on a 1946 U.S. Air Mail stamp. The Tupolev Tu-114 has nothing to do with the U.S. Postal Service. The wing shape and angle are different when comparing the two planes.”
There’s a lot hanging on that “it could be the vendor was looking” to use a DC-4. The USPS wouldn’t let me talk to the vendor — or tell me the vendor’s name — so I couldn’t ask a pretty basic question: Where exactly did you get that stock art? But let me point out some points of comparison between the DC-4 and what I will call “the T-shirt plane.”
The DC-4 has a relatively small tail that is rounded at the top. The T-shirt plane has a large tail that is straight at the top.
The DC-4 has wings whose leading edges stick out straight from the fuselage. The T-shirt plane has wings that are swept back.
But the main clues are the propellers on the T-shirt plane. There are quite clearly two on each engine.
“Only the Russians built a twin, counterrotating propeller airplane,” said Harry, who in his 33-year career worked on such U.S. aircraft as the F-14, the F-18 and the F-35. “I bet if some of the Air Force guys and Navy aviators saw this they would go, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”
I sent the images to my father, who in his two decades in the Air Force flew multiple types of airplanes, as both an instructor pilot and a reconnaissance pilot over Vietnam.
“Yep,” Dad emailed back. “Looks Russkie to me.”
The Tu-114 was a famous plane in its day, the pride of the Soviet Union. Its twin turboprop engines allowed it to fly fast and far. In September 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in one.
“When it touched down with a puff of blue smoke, there was a gasp of awe from the waiting crowd at its size,” wrote the New York Times.
Harry finds it ironic that at a time when Russia is intent on messing with our country, the Postal Service has been selling a shirt emblazoned with a plane of our Cold War foe.
Where’s the vetting?
The rest of the T-shirt doesn’t engender much confidence. Under the airplane are the words “United States Post Service.”
“Post,” not “Postal.”
What’s up with that? “Regarding the phrase used on the T-shirt, this was an error and is being fixed,” the Postal Service’s Partenheimer wrote.
Harry said the Postal Service offered to take the shirt back and refund his money.
“I told them no way. I’m keeping this shirt,” he said. “It’s far from a low-end T-shirt, in terms of how it’s put together. But the artwork’s just bad.”
Alas, if you want a USPS T-shirt with a Soviet airplane, you’re out of luck. It has been removed from the Postal Service website.
Fortunately, I already ordered two: one for me, one for my dad. The Russian shirt may not be as valuable as that upside-down airplane airmail stamp, but I think it’s going to be a collector’s item all the same.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.