A Brief History Of Soviet Jets

The Soviet Union played a significant role in the course of aviation for much of the 20th century. During the Cold War, many aeronautical feats were achieved across the federal socialist state, including the development of several passenger jet aircraft.

Ilyushin 86
An Aeroflot Ilyushin Il-86 in 1987. Photo: Getty Images

The pre-war market

Before World War II, the government of the Soviet Union wanted the state to be self-sufficient and not rely on foreign planes. Therefore, it tried to focus on using aircraft that were designed domestically.

According to the United States Centennial of Flight Commission, by the mid-1930s, the national carrier, Aeroflot, was using developments such as the Kalinin K-5, Tupolev ANT-9, and Bartini Steel-7. The Tupolev ANT-20 was also making waves, which was a massive six-engine unit.

Primarily, Soviet civil aviation during this time remained closely related to the military. For instance, many saw Aeroflot as a reserve for the Air Force’s Military Transport Aviation. Moreover, an officer was the head of the carrier for much of this era.

A new generation

Passenger aviation started to take off in the Soviet Union only after WWII, which coincided with jet engine advancements. According to Russia Beyond, in the 1950s, Aeroflot received its first jets. Therefore, just like across the Western Hemisphere, it swiftly became more efficient to fly. In the 1930s, a flight from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod took four hours. However, there was now a reduction to this duration to just an hour and a half.

Groundbreaking technology

The jet engine revolutionized passenger aviation worldwide. For the first time, many members of the general public could now fly thanks to reduced costs and smoother operations.

The Tupolev Tu-104’s maiden flight was from Moscow to Irkutsk via Omsk in 1956, replacing the Ilyushin Il-14. It became the world’s second jetliner to enter regular service, following the United Kingdom’s de Havilland Comet.

The Tu-104 had the nickname of Camel. Photo: SDASM Archives via Flickr

The introduction of the jet helped to better connect the capitals of the Soviet republics, along with regional centers. Before the war, the country had as many as 150 airports. However, many were basic fields with unsurfaced runways.

Airports started booming during the 1960s. By the early part of the decade, Moscow had four hubs, which were Vnukovo, Bykovo, Sheremetyevo, and Domodedovo. These airports connected over 200 cities across the Soviet Union.

There were a number of USSR-based innovations over the decades. One of the major jet projects of the 1960s was the Ilyushin Il-62. The plane was the first Soviet long-haul jetliner and was created for intercontinental flights. This type conducted its first flight in 1963, and Russia Beyond highlights that it was the world’s largest passenger aircraft at the time.

The Yakovlev Yak-40 was also a significant product of that decade. It was both the Soviet Union’s and the world’s first turbojet aircraft for local airlines. Noticeably, it had no luggage section. Therefore, all bags were delivered during landing and kept in a special chamber.  

Supersonic success

Even though Concorde is always in the limelight when it comes to supersonic passenger jets, it was actually the Tupolev Tu-144 that was the first to fly. The plane performed its first flight on December 31st, 1968, which was a month before the Western European production.

Nonetheless, much like the other supersonic experiments across the globe, the project did not realize its full potential. It was introduced in December 1975 and conducted approximately 100 scheduled services but did not gain much ground over the years.

Subsequently, the jet’s program was scrapped by a Soviet government decree in July 1983. However, in the 1990s, NASA worked with the aircraft’s manufacturers to develop a new variant – the Tu-144LL, which was effectively a flying testbed.

The Tupolev Tu-144 had a maximum speed of 2,430 km/h (1,510 mph) Photo: RIA Novosti via Wikimedia Commons

Further developments

Tupolev was part of another ambitious creation in the form of the Tu-154. This was the most produced Soviet plane with 1,026 units completed. The jet’s introduction saw it reach speeds of 850 km/h, which was one of the fastest in the USSR.

Despite its abilities, the type was part of an infamous tragedy on July 10th, 1985. Aeroflot Flight 7425 crashed in Uchquduq, Uzbekistan, causing fatalities to all 200 people on board.

The Tu-154 was produced between 1968 and 2013. Photo: RIA Novosti via Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to widebodies, the Il-86 was the most produced model in the union. The manufacturer completed 106 units of aircraft. The jet had first hit the air in December 1976, and it was introduced in December 1980. It was the world’s second four-engined widebody and could fit 350 passengers on board.

The Il-86’s successor, the Il-96 is a shortened, long-range advancement. It entered service with Aeroflot after the collapse of the USSR. However, it made its first flight in 1988, while the union was on its last legs. A modification still serves an important role in the form of Il-96-300PU, which is used as the Russian equivalent of the Air Force One.

The Ilyushin Il-96 is still in service. Photo: Getty Images

End of an era

The USSR went through dissolution by December 1991. However, the Russian Federation continued to develop on the projects that were being worked on within the previous union. The initial years that followed saw a significant upheaval within the country and a 50% decline of GDP and industrial output. However, Russia has bounced back since and continues to produce its own range of modern airliners such as the Sukhoi Superjet 100.

Today, several of these Soviet-rooted plane types remain floating around the globe. Notably, still showing its close historical relationship with the union, Cuba has a handful of these jets through its national carrier of Cubana. The airline holds Ilyushin Il-96, Yakovlev Yak-42, and Tupolev Tu-204 aircraft.

Altogether, the Soviet Union played an essential part in the advancement of aeronautical technology over the last century. Along with commercial triumphs, there were also various military and space flight breakthroughs.

Additionally, the progress of the USSR also pushed other global powers to advance on their projects. Nonetheless, the focus on jet-powered passenger aircraft during the middle of the 20th century is once again evident in the Soviet realm.

What are your thoughts about the Soviet Union’s jet aircraft? Have you flown on any of these planes over the years? Let us know what you think in the comment section.