The Tupolev Tu-104 was developed as the Soviet Union’s answer to the rapidly evolving jet age in the post-Second World War era. Following the British-built De Havilland Comet, it was the second jet airliner in the world to begin commercial operations and for a brief period was the only jet passenger plane in service.
Like the Comet, the Tu-104 was found to have flaws in its performance and safety but played an equally significant role in setting a precedent for a new era of commercial aviation.
By the end of the Second World War, jet power had established itself as the future direction for military aircraft and with the onset of the Cold War, both East and West sought to use it to their best advantage. Although improvements and new design features were constantly being made to jet technology for military planes, it was also considered to be the future of commercial aircraft too.
In 1949, the United Kingdom produced the world’s first operational jet airliner, the de Havilland DH.106 Comet. The Comet entered passenger service in 1951 and was considered a comfortable, fast and above all a hugely advanced plane to travel in.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union wanted an airliner that was bigger and more advanced than existing piston engine propeller planes for the state airline Aeroflot. Like many Western airlines, Aeroflot determined that piston engines were becoming unreliable, expensive to maintain and both regional and international flights were slow and becoming unprofitable.
The Soviet government approved a specification for a new, long-range jet powered airliner.
Tupolev were one of Russia’s most renowned aircraft manufacturers and their designers began assessing the idea of a plane that could carry fifty to one hundred passengers and cruise at a speed of around 500 miles per hour at 30,000 feet.
The specification for the new passenger plane was granted to Tupolev, and Aeroflot asked if an airliner could be made from the existing airframe of the Tupolev Tu-16 “Badger” bomber to speed up the process. The Tu-16 had been designed as a fast, long-range bomber with swept wings to maximize aerodynamic efficiency, and Aeroflot believed it could fulfil all the requirements of passenger service.
Tupolev’s designers kept the Tu-16’s wings, engine design and tail surfaces, while the fuselage was pressurized and widened to accommodate 50 passengers. The total length of the aircraft was 131 ft, with longer versions being able to seat up to 115 passengers.
Although the Soviets did not have much previous experience in designing an interior for a passenger plane, Tupolev were keen to replace the electrical system of the aircraft to ensure more comfort-oriented amenities for those on board.
Unusually for a commercial aircraft, the plane was also fitted with a drag parachute to help it stop as many Russian and indeed international runways at the time were too short to safely accommodate a landing jet airliner, especially one based on a bomber.
The new aircraft was powered by two Mikulin AM-3 turbojet engines giving it a maximum speed of 590 miles per hour and an average cruising speed of 470–530 mph. Like the de Havilland Comet design, Tupolev encased the plane’s engines in units within the wings.
The first prototype completed its maiden flight on the 17th of June, 1955.
Data obtained by the Soviet state aviation bureau concluded that the Tu-104 was a sturdy aircraft that met all the requirements of the specification. The Council of Soviet Ministers were pleased with the test results and approved commercial production of the Tu-104.
The first production model was flown on a test flight in November 1955.
Although the Soviets had intended the aircraft to come as a surprise to the West and hoped to showcase it as a symbol of Soviet technology, the CIA were already aware of its development and had given it the NATO codename Camel (C names being given to Soviet commercial aircraft).
Both test and commercial pilots considered the Tu-104 to be a challenge to fly due to its clunky, somewhat heavy controls and fast speeds on final approach. While the swept wings enabled for an efficient speed once airborne, they hampered the aircraft’s performance at lower speeds.
Aeroflot designated pilots with experience flying the Tu-16 to the Tu-104, and despite the aircraft’s drawbacks, those with experience were able to master flying it. Other pilots were trained for Tu-104 service using the Ilyushin Il-28 bomber before graduating to performing cargo services using the Tu-16 and then graduating to fly the Tu-104.
In September 1956, the Tu-104 first entered passenger service with Aeroflot for domestic flights.
It was first put to use on the Moscow-Omsk-Irkutsk route, replacing the propeller-driven Ilyushin Il-14 which had been one of Aeroflot’s main workhorses. Replacing the propeller plane with a jet reduced flight time from 13 hours to 7. In 1957, Aeroflot began using the Tu-104 on international flights from Vnukovo International Airport (VKO) in Moscow to Budapest, Copenhagen, Beijing, Brussels, Delhi, London, Ottawa, and Prague.
The same year Czechoslovak Airlines (ČSA) bought six Tu-104s from Tupolev which they used on routes from Prague Airport (PRG) to Brussels, Moscow, and Paris. ČSA helped to cement the Tu-104’s legacy in history by becoming the first airline to operate a route exclusively with a jet airliner on their flights from Prague to Moscow.
Despite the CIA’s knowledge of the plane, the Tu-104 was still considered a significant achievement for the Soviet Union in service, which had lagged behind the West in commercial aviation. The aircraft was renowned within Russia in terms of speed, comfort and range of 2,500 miles. The pressurized cabin, air conditioning, and cabin noise-reducing measures made it one of the quietest airliners of its time.
The Soviet government promoted the aircraft as a symbol of the country’s technological prowess and it was featured prominently in Soviet propaganda. The Tu-104 was used to carry VIPs, including Soviet leaders, as well as regular passengers.
Read More The Quest to Build a Flying Submarine
In the West, the Tu-104 was noted with some amusement and curiosity for its luxury interior which included seats and fittings made from mahogany, copper and lace.
The source of Soviet pride in the Tu-104 grew following the grounding of the Comet. Metal fatigue was found to have caused the explosive decompression and crashes of three Comet units. As a result, the Tu-104 was the only jet airliner operating in the world from 1956 to 1958, while the Comet was grounded indefinitely to rectify its technical issues and go through a complete redesign.
Aeroflot responded with a publicity stunt by flying a Tu-104 to London to state that the Soviets were now ahead of the West with jet airliner production.
However, the statement was somewhat short lived as the Tu-104 was found to have safety issues of its own, some of which proved fatal. These issues were often related to its habit of stalling at slower speeds and many pilots had to land their Tu-104s above the recommended speed to avoid an accident.
As Aeroflot continued to operate the aircraft throughout the 1960s and 1970s, its safety record was considered poor in comparison to Western made jet airliners. The American Flight Safety Foundation estimated that throughout the Tu-104’s service, at least fifty two units were written off or lost in accidents largely caused by engine trouble, stalling or landing at high speed.
Tupolev responded by changing the design and issuing new training procedures for pilots, but the problems continued to persist.
Aeroflot began to replace the Tu-104 with more advanced Russian built jet aircraft, including the Tupolev Tu-134 and Tu-154, which were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. In the West, the aircraft became overshadowed by the arrival of the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 on the civilian market and both were quickly established as safe, reliable airliners for long haul travel.
Aeroflot continued operating some Tu-104 units before withdrawing all their remaining examples following a fatal crash in March 1979 in Moscow.
Some Tu-14 aircraft continued to perform passenger duties in other countries into the 1990s, including Cuba and Indonesia, before they were retired.
After withdrawal from Russian commercial service in 1979, all branches of the Soviet military began to use the Tu-104 for a variety of purposes.
A prototype named the Tu-107 was developed from the Tu-104 for use as a military transporter. It was designed to feature a loading ramp and defensive gun turrets, but only one example was completed and it was never deployed into service.
Instead, the Soviet air force used the Tu-104 as a VIP and staff transport plane and later for zero gravity training for cosmonauts.
However, the Tu-104’s safety reputation continued to plague it in military service. One of the most notorious incidents which essentially sealed the plane’s fate occurred in February 1981; a Tu-104 operating for the Soviet Navy crashed while taking off from Pushkin Airport near Leningrad (now St Petersburg). All fifty people on the plane, including seventeen senior Soviet army and navy officers, were killed in the accident.
Following this, the plane was entirely retired from military service.
The Tu-104 made its final Russian flight in 1986 when it was ferried to a public display at the Ulyanovsk Aircraft Museum.
The Tupolev Tu-104 played a significant role in the history of civilian aviation and initially helped to establish the Soviet Union as a major player in commercial aviation.
Although the Tu-104 had a relatively short operational life and was marred by a checkered safety record, its impact on aviation was still significant and it proved itself to be a major stepping stone in advancements in jet airliner history.
- Capacity: 115 passengers
- Length: 131 ft 5 in (40 m)
- Wingspan: 113 ft 4 in (34.5 m)
- Height: 39 ft 1 in (11.9 m)
- Empty weight: 91,700 lbs (41,500 kg)
- Gross weight: 167,550 lbs (76,000 kg)
- Powerplant: Mikulin AM-3M-500 – 20,100 lbs of thrust each
- Maximum speed: 590 mph (950 km/h)
- Range: 1,647 mi (2,650 km)
- Service ceiling: 37,700 ft (11,500 m)