Jet Race

In 1956, the Soviets held first place — briefly.

A source of national pride, the Tupolev Tu-104 jetliner drew a crowd at a 1959 national economy exhibition in Moscow, and at all its public appearances. (Ria Novosti)
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Anatoly Gorbachev remembers that he was supposed to be flying from Peking back to Moscow that moonless night in October 1958. But his friend Garold Kuznetsov asked if he could take his turn in the pilots’ rotation. Kuznetsov was trying to prove himself as a captain of the Tupolev Tu-104A, the Soviet Union’s leap into jet-powered civil aviation, and needed to log flight time. Gorbachev said okay.

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Both men knew what the Soviet public at large did not. Two months earlier, another Tu-104, flying across eastern Siberia, had encountered a powerful updraft and been pitched 4,000 feet above its cruising altitude. It then lost power and plunged 40,000 feet straight down. The bodies of the crew and passengers were strewn across more than a mile of forest-covered mountain terrain. Tupolev’s breakthrough airliner had experienced two other mid-flight engine failures in the first half of 1958, both of which had ended in miraculous recoveries.

Kuznetsov’s outbound flight to China passed without incident. But crossing the Urals on the return leg, his airplane hit turbulence and fell prey to the phenomenon ground crews already had a name for: podkhvat, or “the grab.” His -104 sailed helplessly upward, flipped over, and began diving, his descent looking like a gigantic corkscrew. Cockpit instruments failed, leaving Kuznetsov disoriented in the darkness.

Kuznetsov’s radio still worked, however, and for the last two minutes of his life he talked traffic controllers through whatever details he could gather of the aircraft’s performance—a human black box offering data for the great designer Andrei Tupolev and his workshop to study later.

At first, the imperious Tupolev refused to acknowledge any fault in his masterwork. “There is nothing wrong with the plane,” he is reported to have fumed after the 1958 string of accidents. “It is you who do not know how to fly it.” But prodded by the Soviet Council of Ministers, he eventually made changes that allowed the -104 to stay in use for two decades, ferrying 100 million passengers on visits to distant relatives or errands for the Soviet state.

Before the Space Race, before the fatal fire on Apollo 1 or the deaths of three cosmonauts returning to Earth aboard Soyuz 11, there was a Jet Race, whose tragedies and triumphs are now mostly forgotten. Begun in the last years of World War II, when the combatants struggled to get military jets into the skies, the competition continued into the 1950s, when the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union were scrambling to field the first passenger jets.

The British were the first to build a passenger jetliner, the de Havilland D.H.106 Comet, which was tested in 1949 and started flying scheduled routes in 1952. But two years later, when two of the airliners broke up in mid-air within four months of each other, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the fleet grounded. The Soviets can claim the first continuous commercial jet service, which they began with the -104 in 1956, two years ahead of the debut of the iconic Boeing 707 and the resumption of flights by the Comet. The -104 also had its share of disasters, but Tupolev and the Soviets managed to learn from them and keep flying.

Almost half a century after the accident that killed his friend, Gorbachev is sharing tea and cookies with two other fliers from the original group of -104 pilots and reminiscing about those pioneering days. In 1958, Gorbachev was, at age 26, the youngest captain in the Soviet Union. Now 80, he is still the junior member of his peer group. His companions, Nikolai Grokhovsky and Vladimir Ushof, are octogenarians, stalwart and still more than a bit stentorian. The setting is a soggy winter afternoon at the Aeroflot Museum, a scarcely visited three-room affair hidden in a faceless office complex across the road from the domestic terminal at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. Sitting at a foldout table amid a jumble of skyward-pointing model airplanes and jaunty stewardess uniforms from the 1960s, the three veterans talk about the old days until well after dark.

None of the pilots ever met the mighty Tupolev. But they remember him with respect despite his hot-blooded insult to their comrades who died flying his machine. “Tupolev did everything he could as a designer to ensure safety,” Ushof booms. “You have to remember that the Tu-104 flew at a completely new altitude, where meteorologists had no experience of the winds and currents.”

Considering the breakneck pace of the -104’s development, it seems a wonder that it flew at all. These days, when a new aircraft can spend a decade or more in design and testing, it is hard to imagine the pace of the early cold war, when aerospace manufacturers cranked out rapidly evolving generations of military aircraft and the technology spilled over somewhat haphazardly into civil aviation. The -104 was created in 14 months in 1954-55 on the platform of the Tu-16 long-range bomber, known in the West as the Badger, which was itself virgin technology.

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