When The Soviet Tupolev Tu-104 Became The 2nd Jetliner In Service

It will soon be 70 years of commercial jet travel. The United Kingdom’s de Havilland DH.106 Comet entered service in 1952, becoming the first jetliner to be introduced for passenger operations. This aircraft was soon followed by the Tupolev Tu-104. This Soviet vehicle often goes under the radar in jet aviation history, but it was one of the pioneers in the scene.

A Tupolev TU-104 Aircraft Takes Off From Novosibirsk
The twinjet was the sole jetliner flying commercially for two years, between 1956 and 1958, amid the Comet’s grounding. Photo: Getty Images

A new global climate

Flag carrier Aeroflot was becoming frustrated with the piston engines of the time. There were new requirements following World War II, and countries around the world were looking at modern technology to overcome the difficulties of costly, unreliable vehicles. Thus, the Tupolev Design Bureau accepted the challenge and was determined to beat the likes of Boeing and Douglas amid the early days of the Cold War.

Approximately 10,000 workers took part in the Tu-104 program, spreading across a complex in eastern Moscow. As a result of the waves of employees working on the jet, the plane managed to bring its maiden flight forward by two months.

Y.T. Alasheev and first officer B.M. Timoshok conducted the first flight on June 17th, 1955. Soviet ministers were happy with the rest results and gave the go-ahead for further production units of the plane.

De Havilland Comet 1
There were early concerns about passenger jet operations following crashes with the Comet, forcing the model’s grounding. Photo: Getty Images

Showing off

With the plane now in the air, the Soviet Union’s leadership was keen to show off its new fleet member. Thus, it was quickly deployed across the skies to foreign lands.

“By March 1956, Khrushchev was ready to use Tupolev’s creation to score an international PR victory. He ordered the -104 to fly to London carrying officials who were laying the groundwork for an East-West summit there. According to a Russian TV documentary, Khrushchev himself wanted to ride the little-tested jetliner into Heathrow, and Tupolev had to race to the impetuous leader’s dacha to talk him out of it.” Air & Space shares.

“For British aviation professionals still mourning the loss of the Comets, the -104’s arrival was a mini-Sputnik moment: an unsuspected Soviet technological advance falling from the sky, causing both admiration and anxiety. ‘The Russians are far ahead of us in the development of such aircraft and jet engines,’ retired RAF Air Chief Marshal Philip Joubert de la Ferté told the BBC at the time. ‘Many in the West will have to change their views on the progress made by Soviet aircraft technology.’”

Hitting the skies

Aeroflot introduced its first unit on September 15th, 1956. The first scheduled service was between Moscow and Irkutsk. Following this, international flights opened up to Prague.

The airline’s Tu-104B had a crew of seven and had a capacity of between 50 and 115 passengers, helped by a length of 40.06 m (131 ft 5 in). Two Mikulin AM-3M-500 turbojet engines, with 95 kN (21,400 lbf) thrust each powered the plane, assisting it in reaching a maximum speed of 950 km/h (590 mph) and a range of 2,120 km (1,140 NM).

Tupolev TU-104
It wasn’t the space race that the countries were competing in when it came to Cold War aeronautics. Photo: Getty Images

CSA Czechoslovak Airlines followed Aeroflot as the next operator, purchasing six units from the Soviet Union in 1957. However, AeroTime notes that three of these and to be written off. This would be a pattern in subsequent years, with 37 of all produced units being lost due to errors or accidents. Several crew members shared that the plane was unstable and had tricky controls. It was also prone to do the dutch roll.

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The wider impact

Despite the rocky roads, this jet’s entry to service undoubtedly helped kick off jet travel across the Soviet Union in the middle of the 20th century. Republics of the union were now far better connected with a faster and more comfortable form of travel.

The impact was evident across the land. Before World War II, there were 150 airports in the country, which were mostly bare fields with unsurfaced runways. However, as the 1960s got into full swing, Moscow itself had four airports that connected to more than 200 cities. The sites of Domodedovo, Vnukovo, Bykovo, and Sheremetyevo all worked together to bring the population together.

TU-104 airliner during a trans-siberian flight, july 1956.
Smiling passengers on a Tu-104 trans-Siberian flight in July 1956. Photo: Getty Images

The Tu-104 inspired further jet breakthroughs in subsequent years. For Instance, the Ilyushin Il-62 conducted its first flight on January 3rd, 1963, and went on to be introduced as the first Soviet long-haul jetliner. It was designed for intercontinental flights, and at one time, it was the largest passenger plane in the world.

The Yakovlev Yak-40 was also introduced before the 1960s were over. Aeroflot was once again the airline to debut the new aircraft, with the type tipped for local operations. The turbojet, notably, had no luggage section, meaning that all baggage was delivered during landing and stored in a specific chamber.

Looking back

Following a series of incidents with the Tu-104 across the industry, the last straw for Aeroflot was on March 17th, 1979, when one of its units failed to take off due to shifting cargo. 57 passengers and one member of the crew died on flight 1961 when the narrowbody crashed in Moscow. As a result, the carrier removed the type from service.

In total, 201 units of the Tu-104 were built between 1956 and 1960. There were up to 20 variants, including prototypes, testbeds, freighter conversions, and VIP productions.

Altogether, there were only six operators. Apart from Aeroflot and CSA Czechoslovak Airlines, the Soviet Air Force, the Czechoslovakian Air Force, and the Military of Mongolia held units.

Boeing 707 Headed for Paint Hangar
United States-based manufacturers would soon take the lead in the global jet race. Photo: Getty Images

Ultimately, early jet innovations were riddled with errors. Like the Comet, the Tu-104 was plagued with incidents that led to its demise. Subsequent introductions learned from their predecessors’ mistakes and refined the jetliner over the years. Nonetheless, despite the underwhelming number of operators and the series of incidents, the Tu-104 stayed in regular operation for a quarter of a century.

What are your thoughts about the Tupolev Tu-104? What do you make of its journey over the years since its introduction? Let us know what you think of the aircraft and its operations in the comment section.