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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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.”

Nevertheless, the Tu-104 entered regular passenger service in September 1956 and served Aeroflot faithfully for more than 20 years. About 200 were built. They enabled those Soviets privileged enough to be cleared for foreign travel to fly nonstop around Europe, and ordinary citizens to more conveniently reach remote domestic destinations like Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal.

To prove the first journey to London was not a fluke, Khrushchev sent the Bolshoi Ballet back on a -104 later in 1956. At one point, Aeroflot landed three -104s at Heathrow simultaneously, to disprove a British press report that only one prototype was operational.

When the -104 did run into trouble, it was not from the takeoffs and landings that harrowed the pilots, nor from the fuselage, which Tupolev’s measures indeed rendered sturdier than the de Havilland Comet’s. Rather, the aircraft could not always remain stable in the wicked currents it encountered at its little-explored cruising altitude.

After four incidents of “the grab” in 1958, an inquiry was launched. With no public outcry to fear, the Kremlin kept the -104 flying, though reducing its maximum altitude to 10,000 meters (32,841 feet), and gave Tupolev a month to come up with remedies. Soviet engineers identified the basic flaw in the aircraft’s angle of attack in flight, and changes were made in the wing design and flight controls, which resolved many, but not all, of the problems.

In the early 1960s, Ushof joined a -104 squadron devoted to ferrying government grandees, and flew Khrushchev’s successors, Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, on state business at home and abroad. (Khrushchev himself stuck mostly with a personal pilot named Nikolai Tsybin, who, the -104 flyers remember with some lingering superiority, never got the hang of handling jets.) But Soviet civil aviation’s moment of glory on the world stage was brief. In 1958 the Boeing 707 began offering passenger service with a range of 6,250 miles, more than triple the -104’s, and the Soviet Union never really caught up.

Transport bureaucrats wasted valuable years debating whether jet travel was suitable for civilians after all—today, the pilots guess that the doubts were partly spurred by the -104’s serial accidents. Tupolev’s own next effort, the Tu-114, was a conversion of the Tu-95 transcontinental bomber. The most prolifically produced Soviet airliner of the 1960s was another turboprop, the Ilyushin Works’ Il-18.

It wasn’t until 1972 that Tupolev returned with the first jet he designed from scratch as a passenger carrier, the Tu-154. Within the Communist sphere of influence, it was a hit. More than 1,000 Tu-154s were manufactured, and some 200 are still flying.

Aeroflot retired the Tu-104 in 1979. The military kept a few around for staff transportation until 1981, when a -104 crashed on takeoff from Pushkin, near Leningrad, killing 52, including most of the top commanders of the Soviet navy’s Pacific fleet. Investigations determined that the airplane was overloaded, but the catastrophe stirred the ghost of Garold Kuznetsov, and the rest of the fleet was mothballed.

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