When The Soviet Tupolev Tu-104 Became The 2nd Jetliner In Service

It will soon be 70 years of commercial jet travel. The United Kingdom’s de Havilland DH.106 Comet entered…

When The Soviet Tupolev Tu-104 Became The 2nd Jetliner In Service

It will soon be 70 years of commercial jet travel. The United Kingdom’s de Havilland DH.106 Comet entered service in 1952, becoming the first jetliner to be introduced for passenger operations. This aircraft was soon followed by the Tupolev Tu-104. This Soviet vehicle often goes under the radar in jet aviation history, but it was one of the pioneers in the scene.

The twinjet was the sole jetliner flying commercially for two years, between 1956 and 1958, amid the Comet’s grounding. Photo: Getty Images

A new global climate

Flag carrier Aeroflot was becoming frustrated with the piston engines of the time. There were new requirements following World War II, and countries around the world were looking at modern technology to overcome the difficulties of costly, unreliable vehicles. Thus, the Tupolev Design Bureau accepted the challenge and was determined to beat the likes of Boeing and Douglas amid the early days of the Cold War.

Approximately 10,000 workers took part in the Tu-104 program, spreading across a complex in eastern Moscow. As a result of the waves of employees working on the jet, the plane managed to bring its maiden flight forward by two months.

Y.T. Alasheev and first officer B.M. Timoshok conducted the first flight on June 17th, 1955. Soviet ministers were happy with the rest results and gave the go-ahead for further production units of the plane.

De Havilland Comet 1
There were early concerns about passenger jet operations following crashes with the Comet, forcing the model’s grounding. Photo: Getty Images

Showing off

With the plane now in the air, the Soviet Union’s leadership was keen to show off its new fleet member. Thus, it was quickly deployed across the skies to foreign lands.

“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.” Air & Space shares.

“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.’”

Hitting the skies

Aeroflot introduced its first unit on September 15th, 1956. The first scheduled service was between Moscow and Irkutsk. Following this, international flights opened up to Prague.

The airline’s Tu-104B had a crew of seven and had a capacity of between 50 and 115 passengers, helped by a length of 40.06 m (131 ft 5 in). Two Mikulin AM-3M-500 turbojet engines, with 95 kN (21,400 lbf) thrust each powered the plane, assisting it in reaching a maximum speed of 950 km/h (590 mph) and a range of 2,120 km (1,140 NM).

Tupolev TU-104
It wasn’t the space race that the countries were competing in when it came to Cold War aeronautics. Photo: Getty Images

CSA Czechoslovak Airlines followed Aeroflot as the next operator, purchasing six units from the Soviet Union in 1957. However, AeroTime notes that three of these and to be written off. This would be a pattern in subsequent years, with 37 of all produced units being lost due to errors or accidents. Several crew members shared that the plane was unstable and had tricky controls. It was also prone to do the dutch roll.

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The wider impact

Despite the rocky roads, this jet’s entry to service undoubtedly helped kick off jet travel across the Soviet Union in the middle of the 20th century. Republics of the union were now far better connected with a faster and more comfortable form of travel.

The impact was evident across the land. Before World War II, there were 150 airports in the country, which were mostly bare fields with unsurfaced runways. However, as the 1960s got into full swing, Moscow itself had four airports that connected to more than 200 cities. The sites of Domodedovo, Vnukovo, Bykovo, and Sheremetyevo all worked together to bring the population together.

TU-104 airliner during a trans-siberian flight, july 1956.
Smiling passengers on a Tu-104 trans-Siberian flight in July 1956. Photo: Getty Images

The Tu-104 inspired further jet breakthroughs in subsequent years. For Instance, the Ilyushin Il-62 conducted its first flight on January 3rd, 1963, and went on to be introduced as the first Soviet long-haul jetliner. It was designed for intercontinental flights, and at one time, it was the largest passenger plane in the world.

The Yakovlev Yak-40 was also introduced before the 1960s were over. Aeroflot was once again the airline to debut the new aircraft, with the type tipped for local operations. The turbojet, notably, had no luggage section, meaning that all baggage was delivered during landing and stored in a specific chamber.

Looking back

Following a series of incidents with the Tu-104 across the industry, the last straw for Aeroflot was on March 17th, 1979, when one of its units failed to take off due to shifting cargo. 57 passengers and one member of the crew died on flight 1961 when the narrowbody crashed in Moscow. As a result, the carrier removed the type from service.

In total, 201 units of the Tu-104 were built between 1956 and 1960. There were up to 20 variants, including prototypes, testbeds, freighter conversions, and VIP productions.

Altogether, there were only six operators. Apart from Aeroflot and CSA Czechoslovak Airlines, the Soviet Air Force, the Czechoslovakian Air Force, and the Military of Mongolia held units.

Boeing 707 Headed for Paint Hangar
United States-based manufacturers would soon take the lead in the global jet race. Photo: Getty Images

Ultimately, early jet innovations were riddled with errors. Like the Comet, the Tu-104 was plagued with incidents that led to its demise. Subsequent introductions learned from their predecessors’ mistakes and refined the jetliner over the years. Nonetheless, despite the underwhelming number of operators and the series of incidents, the Tu-104 stayed in regular operation for a quarter of a century.

What are your thoughts about the Tupolev Tu-104? What do you make of its journey over the years since its introduction? Let us know what you think of the aircraft and its operations in the comment section.

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British Airways Considers Dropping Gatwick To Preserve Heathrow

Reports have emerged that UK flag carrier British Airways may be planning to abandon its operations out of…

British Airways Considers Dropping Gatwick To Preserve Heathrow

Reports have emerged that UK flag carrier British Airways may be planning to abandon its operations out of London Gatwick. The motivation for this prospect is reportedly to consolidate its operations at its Heathrow hub, ahead of the present coronavirus-induced slot waivers potentially coming to an end next year. The airline has already temporarily suspended its flights from London’s second airport multiple times since the pandemic began.

Some of BA’s Gatwick flights are seasonal, and rely on leisure traffic. Of course, this sector has been decimated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Shutting up shop?

According to reports in The Telegraph and Head For Points, British Airways is considering axing its Gatwick-based operations to preserve those at Heathrow. London’s second airport has been one of the pandemic’s most significant casualties in terms of lost passenger traffic, with the figure for the first week of June this year a staggering 92% lower than in 2019.

Ceasing its Gatwick operations would allow BA to consolidate flights through its Heathrow hub. This would be a good way of ensuring that it can fill all of its slots, should the present pandemic-induced waiver on slot usage come to an end.

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London Gatwick
Gatwick’s traffic is presently down by more than 90%. Photo: Andre Wadman via Wikimedia Commons

If not, the airline would run the risk of being penalized for not using its allocated slots. The waiver that is currently in place prevents this, as demand remains too low for airlines to operate full schedules and fill their allocated slots. BA is part of the International Airlines Group (IAG), whose CEO Luis Gallego reportedly stated last month that:

“Gatwick is an important decision that we need to take as a group. It’s true that we have the issue with the slots. [It] has some strategic value, but we need to be competitive there. This crisis is going to change the profile of the demand. So we are analyzing the different options.”

Where does BA fly from Gatwick?

While Heathrow is British Airways’ main hub, Gatwick plays an important role in its network by making the carrier’s flights more accessible to passengers in England’s southeast. It serves short and long-haul destinations from the airport, many of which have a leisure focus.

British Airways Boeing 777-236(ER) G-VIIB
BA will continue to operate long-haul flights from Gatwick. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

With this emphasis on leisure, some of the routes served are only done so on a seasonal basis. Examples of summer seasonal destinations include the Greek islands of Kos and Rhodes. Meanwhile, flights to Grenoble and Innsbruck are well suited to winter ski holidays. In any case, a British Airways spokesperson confirmed to Simple Flying that:

Until the end of October, most of our short-haul flights will continue to operate from Heathrow. This enables us to ensure a smooth, uninterrupted, and efficient operation across our business at a time when demand is yet to return and international travel restrictions remain in place. We’re still flying some of our long-haul flights from Gatwick.”

British Airways Airbus A320 Innsbruck
A British Airways Airbus A320 in Innsbruck, Austria. This service is one of several seasonal routes that BA operates from London Gatwick in the winter. Photo: Rob Hodgkins via Flickr

Multiple temporary suspensions already

BA’s Gatwick operations have been the subject of continued uncertainty since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the airport has been hit so hard that, on multiple occasions, the airline has temporarily suspended its flights from the airport. Following a suspension on March 31st last year, there were even fears that BA may not return.

However, it eventually resumed its operations there that July. Meanwhile, it initiated a second temporary suspension last November, after a ban on non-essential travel came back into place. Overall, it will be interesting to see what sort of a role Gatwick ends up playing in BA’s future network plans, particularly when the existing slot waivers run out.

What do you make of BA’s rumoured plans to axe its Gatwick services? Have you flown with the airline from London’s second airport in the past? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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