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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Even in this frenzy of military invention, Tupolev did not forget airliners. He scavenged parts of his precious Superfortresses to make a trial civilian version of the Tu-4. And as soon as the Tu-16 was aloft in 1952, he began lobbying the Communist hier­archy for a passenger variant. Tupolev’s conversion plans made little progress while Stalin was alive. The dictator traveled, with rare exceptions, by train, and thought ordinary citizens should do the same. In Stalin’s mind, airplanes and the limited resources available to build them were for war.

On the other hand, Nikita Khrushchev, the premier who took power after Stalin died in 1953, loved flying. He saw civil aviation as a pillar in his grand strategy to “catch and overtake” the West. Tupolev was invited back in late 1953 to pitch the civilian Tu-16 idea to the Communist Party Central Committee, and by June 1954 had an order to get cracking. The Tu-104 was on its way.

Converting a spanking new jet bomber to civilian use turned out to be not so simple. The bomb bay, for example, had to be transformed into a baggage compartment. But the core problem was that a passenger liner needed a pressurized cabin, and numerous extra holes cut into the fuselage for windows and doors.

The British investigation into the Comet failures was delayed because both crashes had taken place at sea, making wreckage recovery difficult. Tupolev from the first rightly suspected the airplane’s body had suffered metal fatigue. One of his adjustments was simply to add heft to the -104, thickening the fuselage skin to 1.5 mm, compared to the Comet’s 0.9 mm. The extra weight halved the -104’s range to 1,900 miles and considerably increased fuel costs, but the apparatchiks approved of Tupolev’s caution.

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.

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