In 1956, the Soviets held first place — briefly.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, November 2013
(Page 4 of 6)
Tupolev also opted for round windows instead of the Comet’s square ones, eliminating the corners as pressure points. He built an enormous testing pool at TsAGI’s headquarters, outside Moscow, where jet mockups could be submerged to simulate atmospheric pressures. And he outfitted the -104 with avionics that Soviet aircraft hadn’t used before, such as radar.
By the late 1950s, Tupolev’s shop had burgeoned to about 10,000 employees and occupied a sprawling complex in the industrialized eastern part of Moscow; across the street from the design center was a factory for prototypes. This mass of humanity was efficient enough that the -104’s first test flight took place two months ahead of schedule, in June 1955.
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.
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.”
Julia Tupolev’s interior for the -104 was a sensation in itself. Confounding stereotypes of Bolshevik austerity, it offered lavish comfort in the air. “The cabin fittings seemed to be from the 1930s Orient Express school of luxury,” with porcelain toilets and heavy curtains, a former ground staffer at Gatwick recalled decades later in an online enthusiasts’ forum. Pilot Vladimir Ushof remembers that the cabin was “in the style of Catherine the Great.” Within a year or two, economy conquered Mrs. Tupolev’s aesthetics, and the -104 was reconfigured with standard row seating for 70 passengers rather than the original 50.
The aircraft’s triumphant reception could not mask trouble under the hood. Tupolev had not managed or bothered to control the fiery exhaust the hastily converted bomber emitted at takeoff. “Sheets of flame from the aircraft’s ‘wet start’ [starting a turbine engine with fuel already pooled in it] would cause a spectacular exodus of ground staff,” a former Gatwick employee recollected.
Back home in Russia, first-generation -104 pilots were doing their best to iron out other serious wrinkles before the airplane took on innocent members of the general public. For one thing, runways both inside and out of the Soviet Union were too short for the new jet, which took off at 186 mph, compared with an average of 124 mph for piston-engine aircraft. According to the -104’s specs, safe takeoff and landing required a 1.5-mile runway. When the airplane started flying, only one Soviet civilian airport, at Omsk in central Siberia, met the requirement. The tarmac at France’s Le Bourget, where the -104 was naturally sent to show off at the biannual Paris airshow, was 1.4 miles long. Amsterdam, an early commercial destination, offered just 1.1 miles.
Landing was further complicated by the -104’s absence of a reverse gear. If a pilot felt the brake was insufficient to halt the barreling 67-plus-ton craft, he could deploy two parachutes from the tail. This strategy held its own risks, though. “If you had a crosswind, the plane could start spinning like a weather vane,” Gorbachev recalls, adding an understatement: “This created certain complications.”