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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In the post-Soviet period, Russian civilian aircraft makers have performed dismally. Aeroflot, which is still in service as Russia’s international flag carrier, and the new privatized airlines that have taken over most domestic routes have all moved to retool with Boeings and Airbuses, despite steep import tariffs. Russian-made MiG and Sukhoi warplanes continue to sell around the world, but the only recent Tupolev sale on the civilian side was to Syria, whose national airline agreed in 2011 to buy three Tu-204s for a reported $108 million. Given subsequent events in Syria, even that deal looks questionable.

The Kremlin focused its civil aviation efforts over the past decade on developing the so-called Sukhoi Superjet, a 75- to 90-seat single-aisle craft designed to compete with Embraer and Bombardier in the global short-haul market. So far, the Brazilians and Canadians have little to fear.

While the Superjet made what was supposed to be its maiden flight in 2008, just a dozen or so are actually in service today, mostly with Aeroflot. The only international customer to date is Armenia’s national airline, Armavia.\A contract with Indonesia’s Kartika Airlines was set back—along with the Superjet’s prospects in general—when a demonstration flight in May 2012 crashed into a mountain in West Java, killing all 45 people on board. Even the patriotic ex-Tu-104 pilots can muster little enthusiasm for the unlucky short hauler. “They can build it, but who will buy it?” quips Anatoly Gorbachev as he waits for a crowded bus that will creep through the evening rush-hour traffic from Sheremetyevo into Moscow.

Back in town, the great Tupolev Works on the Yauza River is physically as well as economically diminished. The design center soldiers on in the same unprepossessing building as Vladimir Rigmant’s museum. But the factory has been torn down and in its place stand gleaming new condos sporting the name “Tupolev Plaza.” Yet the humble rooms, for decades, spawned technology that matched the world’s best and sometimes claimed the title.

Craig Mellow is a freelance journalist in Staten Island, New York.

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