After World War II and the development of the jet engine, the Tupolev Tu-104 was the only operational jet aircraft flying between 1956 and 1958, after the grounding of Britain’s Comet de Havilland.
Developed by de Havilland, the DH.106 Comet was the world’s first jet-powered commercial airliner. Following three fatal crashes, all Comets were withdrawn from service, while de Havilland launched a major effort to build a new version of the aircraft. Commercial Comet flights resumed in 1958 after several modifications to the airframe.
Aeroflot wanted a jet airliner
In the early 1950s, the Soviet national airline Aeroflot needed a modern airliner with greater capacity and better performance than a piston-powered aircraft. They asked Tupolev if they could build an aircraft based on the Tu-16 Badger, a Soviet Air Force strategic bomber.
While the Badger’s wings, engines and tail surfaces were retained, the fuselage was widened to accommodate 50 passengers. The plane was also equipped with a drag parachute to help it stop, as many runways at the time were too short for jet planes. Like the Comet, Tupolev placed the aircraft’s two Mikulin AM-3 turbojet engines in the wing roots.
Although the aircraft was considered difficult to fly, pilots experienced in flying the Tu-16 soon switched to the airliner.
The Tu-104 entered commercial service in 1956
On September 15, 1956, the aircraft entered service with Aeroflot and was put on the Moscow-Omsk-Irkutsk route, replacing the Ilyushin Il-14. Replacing the propeller plane with the jet reduced flight time from 13 hours and 50 minutes to 7 hours and 40 minutes.
A year later, Aeroflot deployed the aircraft on flights from Vnukovo International Airport (VKO) in Moscow to Budapest, Copenhagen, Beijing, Brussels, Delhi, London, Ottawa and Prague. In the same year, ČSA Czechoslovak Airlines purchased six Tu-104s which it used to fly from Prague Airport (PRG) to Brussels, Moscow and Paris.
Between 1956 and 1958, the Tu-104 was the only commercial jet airliner to fly. Photo: Getty Images.
While the Tu-104 remained in service with Aeroflot throughout the 1960s and 1970s, its safety record was poor compared to Western-built aircraft. The aircraft was prone to stalling at low speeds, requiring pilots to make landings at speeds higher than those recommended by Tupolev.
When Aeroflot withdrew the Tu-104 from service in March 1979 following a fatal accident, the Soviet military used the aircraft to train cosmonauts in weightlessness.
In February 1981, 50 people, including 17 high-ranking officers, were killed when a Tu-104 crashed while taking off from Pushkin Airport near Leningrad. Following the incident, the aircraft was retired from military service. The last time a Tu-104 flew was for a ferry flight to the Ulyanovsk Aviation Museum in 1986.
General characteristics of the Tu-104
- Crew: 7
- Capacity: 50 to 115 passengers
- Length: 131 feet 5 inches
- Wingspan: 113 feet 4 inches
- Height: 39 feet 1 inch
- Wing area: 1,970 square feet
- Curb weight: 96,562 lbs.
- Gross weight: 172,181 lbs.
- Fuel capacity: 46,297 lbs normal or 58,422 lbs maximum
- Powerplant: 2 × Mikulin AM-3M-500 turbojet engines
- Top speed: 590mph
- Cruising speed: 470–530 mph
- Range: 1,320 miles
- Service ceiling: 39,000 ft
- Rate of climb: 2,000 ft/min
While the Tu-104 was in the spotlight when the Comet was grounded, the aircraft’s initial success was overshadowed by the arrival of the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8.