When Soviets Almost Beat The West: The Tupolev Tu-104

The One Time Soviets Almost Beat The West: The Tupolev Tu-104 Story

Okay, to clarify - we’re talking about commercial aviation here. I know the Soviets were the first to put a person in outer space, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves too much. The Tupolev Tu-104 was a commercial passenger jet that was powered by two Mikulin AM-3 turbojet engines. As it was introduced into Aeroflot’s fleet, the west was shocked that the Soviets built a very capable jet engine, after the Brits burned their fingers with the de Havilland Comet 4. This aircraft was a monumental stepping stone for the Soviet aviation, especially commercially. Tu-104 proved to the Soviets and the other side of the iron curtain, that the east can build commercial jets. But was that really the case?

Before we get into the nitty and gritty of the Tupolev Tu-104, there is a lot of context to go through. For the simple reason to understand why was the 104 so important to the Soviets. And it was very important, not even politically, but economically as well.

Why Jets, Not Propellers?

To sum up quickly why jet engines were looked at extensively at the time was that piston-powered propeller engines were coming to their final limits. As aerodynamics, avionics and electronic systems were moving forward, aircraft engines were starting to bang their heads on walls. To add more power, engineers designed more complex engines with a lot of extra superchargers and cylinders. Because of this reason, the engine maintenance costs shot up. More fuel was consumed, yet little benefit was added.

And piston engines were not the most comfortable to fly in. The massive vibration coupled with a lot of engine noise did not provide with the most comforting ride. Considering that aircraft tickets at the time were only available only to the richest people in the world, an alternative was needed. Badly.

The Beginnings Of The Jet Engine

In 1928, an RAF cadet Frank Whittle started working on a turbojet engine. January 16th, 1930 was the day that Frank Whittle submitted his first patent, which was granted to him in 1932. And while initial progress was promising, the British government was not very keen on the idea, thus the development slowed down.

Hans von Ohain was more fortunate than Frank. He developed a concept and presented it to Ernest Heinkel. Heinkel at the time was one of the biggest aviation businessmen in the world, so securing his interest was crucial. Fortunately, Heinkel was impressed. Heinkel set up Ohain and his machinist Max Hahn in the Hirth engine company to further improve their concept. This whole ordeal concluded in 1939 when their developed engine flew on the He 178 airframe. As nobody in the German command was impressed, nothing came out of it.

1944 rolled around and the world was surrounded by destruction and sorrow, the first jet engines were officially used on a larger scale. The first usage was military, as the Germans introduced the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter. 3 months later, the Brits responded with the Gloster Meteor carrying the same jet engines designed by Frank Whittle. Although both of these fighters saw limited action in the war and as it ended, the seed was planted. Jet powered aircraft made significant steps into airports and airfields around the world.

But Jet engines had a very negative outlook on them – they consumed a lot of fuel, did not provide a lot of power and were very unreliable. Or at least too unreliable for civil aviation. Somebody had to take a risk and invest a lot of money into developing the jet engine so that it would become commercially viable. As a matter of fact, someone did.

TWR, Jet Engines Are Clear For Take-Off

In 1943 it was quite clear that Germany was going to get their asses handed back to them in the war. Thus, the British government formed a committee to tackle the question of what was the future of British aviation after the war. American aviation was ahead of the British, as the Douglas DC-3 propeller aircraft dominated the commercial skies at the time. Various United States manufacturers also managed to gain a lot of experience building military transport aircraft. The experience transferred easily into building commercial aircraft. Besides, the American industry was as healthy as ever – nobody dropped a bomb on American factories. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, suffered heavy damage to its industry because of the war.

Getting back to my point, the Brits had to do something not to lose out on a lot of money and political influence via aviation. The Brabazon Committee had laid out the basic foundations for a new civilian aircraft. The recommendations, among others, were that a Type IV aircraft were:

  • Powered by a jet engine;
  • With a pressurized cabin;
  • Capable of trans-Atlantic non-stop flight;
  • Cruised at speeds of at least 640 km/h or 400 mph.

de Havilland Wins

de Havilland aircraft manufacturer won the design competition. Ironically, Geoffrey de Havilland, the president of the company at the time pushed for the jet engine requirement for Type IV aircraft. A lot of people were skeptical, as jet engines were seen as too unreliable and they consumed a lot of fuel. But, Geoffrey and de Havilland thought overcoming the challenges of the jet engine would propel British aviation forward. He was right about one thing – it would move aviation forward. Just not the British one, as the Comet ultimately was a commercial failure.

Without getting into too much detail, the Comet’s design had a lot of issues. Yet it proved to the world that commercial jets are the future. Additionally, commercial aviation became comfortable to fly in. Bit unreliable still, but at least comfy.

De Havilland Comet De Havilland Comet

Start Your Engines. RACE!

Ultimately, British aviation authorities grounded the de Havilland Comet in 1954 after two of them disintegrated mid-air. To determine the issue, the British RAE revoked Comet’s airworthiness license indefinitely. This forced de Havilland to go through a complete redesign.

This was crucial to Comet’s competitors. Using its disasters, they learned the hard lessons about the design of a jet aircraft. Most importantly, they now had the time to regain ground in the commercial aviation market. Boeing, Douglas and Sud Aviation jumped the opportunity and started developing their own commercial jets. The race was on to build a new commercial jet and yield as much profit as possible in the new market.

To spoil a bit, Sud Aviation with their Caravelle shot themselves in the foot. The French developed a commercially successful jet, do not get me wrong. But it had one major flaw. Sud knew that Boeing and Douglas were developing a medium/long-range jet, so they decided to build a short/medium-range jet. The plan was wonderful on paper – to undercut the Americans and gain a monopoly on the short-range jet market. While the program gained a small profit, ultimately it was not competing in the same race.

Because of that, this left Boeing and Douglas in a one versus one fight. Or was it a two horse race?

Sud Caravelle Sud Caravelle

A Surprising Contender – The Tupolev Tu-104

In the early 1950s, the Soviet-run Aeroflot had the same problems as other airlines around the world. Piston engines were becoming unreliable, maintenance costs were rising and flights were taking up too much time, thus reducing profitability. Aeroflot needed something new, something that would be much more efficient than the piston-engine aircraft of the time. Namely, the Ilyushin Il-14 and the Lisunov Li-2.

The Tupolev design bureau accepted Aeroflot’s design request in 1953 and the story of the Tupolev Tu-104 began.

To be fair, the race to build a commercial jet was still between Boeing and Douglas. There was no way that the Soviet government would allow Tupolev to sell the Tu-104 outside the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence.

To The Drawing Board

Anyways, getting back to the story of the 104, Tupolev was confident. Just recently it had built the Tu-16 bomber, which was very successful. The bureau had built over 1.500 Tu-16s over the years. Tupolev decided to copy a lot of the design features from the Tu-16 and transfer them to the Tu-104. This would allow the Soviets to reduce costs significantly, as the design and the production were already there. Tupolev assessed the main requirements for the new jet:

  • Ability to withstand between 25.000 and 30.000 flight hours;
  • Capacity to carry between 50 and 100 passengers;
  • Cruise speed between 750 and 800 km/h. (460 – 500 mph)

And of course, knowing the story of the Comet, the Soviets also defined the key requirement – a reliable airframe. As I mentioned earlier, Tupolev already decided to re-use the design of their Tu-16 bomber. Albeit, a completely new fuselage would be used for the 104, which was longer. Engineers also attached new wings. Instead of being mid-wing, the new jet would be low-wing.  Tupolev presented an initial design with 50 passengers, with an option to increase the seating space to 70 passengers.

After the USSR government approved the decision to build a long-range passenger jet, the council designated the new jet as the Tu-16P. Later on, it became the Tu-104, with the 4 meaning that it carried passengers. Tupolev assigned the number 4 to passenger aircraft for the first time. This has stayed to this day.

Apart from a new fuselage, engineers had to come up with a completely new cabin. That included air conditioning systems, electrical units, lighting for the cabin. The Soviets did not have much experience there, as their previous aircraft cabin designs were pretty basic.


As Tupolev found a shortcut on how to copy the Tu-16 design, in just 2 years a Tupolev Tu-104 was ready for its first test flights. Test captain Y.T. Alasheev with his first officer B.M. Timoshok performed the first Tu-104 flight in 1955. Data obtained by the bureau proved that the Tu-104 had a sturdy and great design. The council of soviet ministers were satisfied by the test results and approved further production of the 104. Tupolev built the first Tu-104 in a factory without a roof. I don't know whether that is dedication or a showcase of terrible decision making when deciding on priorities.

Usually, when you build a completely new aircraft type, you have to put a lot of effort into preparing the flight crew, namely the pilots, to fly the new aircraft. But as Soviets found a workaround for the design, they found a shortcut here as well. Tupolev trained pilots on mail flights with the Il-28 and Tu-16 bombers.

So, with successful tests and the flight crew ready for first flights, the new Soviet jet was ready. But the Soviets wanted to take care of one thing first.

Tupolev Tu-104 in Moscow Tupolev Tu-104 in Moscow

Showing up in London

With the Comet failing drastically, the Soviets decided it would show the middle finger to the West and show up with their own jet in London. They wanted to surprise and prove to everyone and the world that the Soviets were the first ones to build a successful commercial passenger jet. Well, nobody was surprised – the CIA already knew about the Tu-104, codenamed CAMEL. Soviets showcased the new Tu-104 in the 1955 Moscow/Tushino air show. Though, funnily enough, the official Tupolev history website depicts the journey to London in 1956 quite differently:

“The emerging of Tu-104 in Western Europe caused a real furor in the aviation and general public at the other side of the "iron curtain". It became clear for Europe that the Soviet Union had brilliantly mastered the complex technologies of the aircraft industry and was capable of producing not only modern combat jet airplanes but also first-class passenger jets.”

The same year, in 1956, Aeroflot began the first scheduled passenger services with the Tu-104. Aeroflot chose the inaugural route to be Moscow – Irkutsk. First international flights departed a few months later to Prague.

Tupolev Tu-104 Newspaper article Tupolev Tu-104 Newspaper article

Regular Service

The new jet significantly reduced the travel times, equally increasing the comfort of the passengers to new levels. Aeroflot began to expand the network of Tu-104 and the jet began flying to multiple destinations domestically and internationally.

In 1957, Czechoslovak Airlines purchased 6 Tupolev Tu-104 from the Soviet Union. Not shortly after, the airline had to write 3 of them off. Errors and crashes followed the Tu-104 throughout its history. Airlines lost 37 out of 201 aircraft built due to crashes or error. Pilots noted that the aircraft was unstable, had terrible controls and was prone to do the Dutch roll. On some occasions, the aircraft suddenly picked up altitude and consequently stalled. This resulted in 2 fatal crashes.

Aeroflot retired the Tupolev Tu-104 in 1979, after a fatal crash that killed 58 passengers near Moscow.

CSA Tupolev Tu 104 CSA Tupolev Tu 104

Legacy Of The Tu-104

I would sum up the legacy of the Tupolev Tu-104 in one word - mixed. In no way it was perfect, but the Soviets showed the west that they are very capable of building a proper, not-blowing-up-midair passenger jet aircraft. This was the first stepping stone for Soviet commercial jet aviation, as many more jet-powered aircraft followed the Tu-104. The 104 changed air travel in the Soviet Union, as the jet took passenger comfort to the next level. The new jet accelerated traveling times as well.

On the other hand, the Comet was the only bad example. Boeing, SUD, Douglas and de Havilland themselves have learned from the design mistakes. In the late 1950s, as the Tu-104 had just started gaining ground, the Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8 and Sud Caravelle showed up. Those jets completely overshadowed the Soviet jet, as they were much better. And the Tu-104 started showing signs of bad designs, as 2 fatal crashes happened in a span of 2 months. After 2 years in service, the Tupolev design bureau had to change the maximum allowed cruising altitude. The Tupolev engineers also modified the tail. Maybe the factory with an open roof didn't help out.