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Tupolev Tu-104

By Patrick Mondout

The first Soviet civilian jet, the Tupolev Tu-104, had at least as much impact in the Soviet Union as the Comet did in England. The Soviet union was quite large and turboprop airliners such as the LI-2 (which was actually a Douglas DC-3 copied under license), Il-12, and Il-14 were painfully slow over such distances. In fact it took such aircraft over 32 hours and seven refueling stops to get from Moscow to the easternmost outreaches of the USSR. While the need to keep pace technologically with the West in the Cold War was a motivating factor, an aircraft like the Tu-104 was needed in any case and legendary Soviet aircraft designed Andrei Tupolov, whose design bureau Tupolov designed over half of the Soviet jets during his lifetime, was up to the task.

Tupolov, who had been imprisoned by Stalin along with most of his colleagues in the 1930s, didn't have to look far for inspiration for what would become the only the second jet in the world to enter passenger service*, he was at the time putting the finishing touches on the Tu-16 twin turbojet bomber (see a picture here). By simply modifying the bomber to fit Aeroflot's needs, the time needed to engineer the Tu-104 was short - the major upgrade being a pressurized cabin needed for the high-altitude passenger flights.

News reached England that a group of Soviet officials were going to arrive in London in March 1955 on this new still-secret jet. When they did it caused a sensation at Heathrow Airport. As the Tu-104 appeared from out of the fog, Westerners got their first glimpse of the design and one of the more astute called out, "It's a badger!" (Badger being the NATO codename for the Tu-16 bomber. For the record, the NATO codename for the Tu-104 is "Camel.")


OK-NDD - A Czech Airlines (Ceskoslovenské Aerolinie - CSA) Tu-104 seen in Stockholm in March 1970. Sadly, this Tu-104 crashed after two missed approaches in Tripoli, Libya on June 1, 1970 killing all 13 on board.

Image courtesy of Lars Söderström. Find more of his photos at


All Aboard!

On September 15, 1956, the Tu-104, with over a year of test flights behind it, was truly put to the test. It flew Aeroflot passengers for the first time along the Moscow-Omsk-Irkutsk route - which usually took 17 hours but took only seven on this day.

All Alone!

When the Comet became the first jet to fly passengers in 1952, it was all alone. But the Comet had a serious design inadequacy and was grounded. From the Tu-104's first flight in 1956 until October 1958, when BOAC introduce transatlantic service on its newly-designed Comet 4s, the Soviet aircraft was alone in the world as the only jet transport actually flying passengers.

While these aircraft were important historically and certainly to the people of the former Soviet Union, they were nevertheless inferior to those being produced elsewhere in the world and there was little chance of sales to airlines outside the Soviet Bloc. In fact only the Czech national airline CSA, the Soviet military, and Aeroflot made purchases. Aeroflot, the national airline of the Soviet Union, flew these aircraft until 1981.


The first model carried only fifty passengers. A second version, the Tu-104A, using more powerful engines had accommodations for 70 while the the Tu-104B could carry 100.

* The Tu-104 prototype was the fourth jet to make a flight (behind the British Comet, Boeing Dash-80 (707 prototype), and French Caravelle), but it beat the French and Americans to the real finish line when Aeroflot quickly put it into service flying passengers.


Tupolev Tu-104 at a Glance
Engines2 Mikulin RD-3M-50 turbojets
Cruising Speed590
Span113ft 4in
Length131ft 5in
Height39ft 5in
Final Production1960
Mesurements refer to Tu-104B


Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about the Tupolev Tu-104? Were you a member of the flight crew on one? Have you any interesting stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)



Soviet-era stamp

Model: Tu-104

Manufacturer: Tupolev

Country: Soviet Union (Russia)

First Flight: June 17, 1955

First Passenger Flight: September 15, 1956

Launch CustomerAeroflot

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