Last Tuesday evening, two Russian jetliners crashed within minutes of each other after takeoff from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. First to go down, near the city of Tula, was a Tupolev Tu-134 in the colors of Volga-Aviaexpress. Moments later, a Sibir Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 fell near Rostov-on-Don, scattering wreckage over a 25-mile circle. Eighty-nine people were killed in the accidents.
Though “accident” is likely the wrong word. The last time two or more airliners crashed on the same day was, need you be reminded, September 11th, 2001. Now as then, the downings appear to be the work of terrorism. “Now Russia has its own 11th September,” proclaimed the headline of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
Well, sort of. At this point in the investigation there’s no evidence of attempted skyjacking aboard either Tupolev, early reports to the contrary discounted. Suicide bombers, possibly a duo of Chechen women, are instead the alleged culprits. The disaster struck five days prior to elections in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where Islamic rebels have been battling Russian forces for the past five years. It has become something of a tradition for widows of Chechen fighters to carry out suicide attacks.
I don’t know about you, but having spent a month obsessed with Annie Jacobsen and the finer points of air terror, I was simultaneously bemused and annoyed at the timing of this. Allow me a moment to congratulate myself — if that’s a mannerly enough term after 89 people are dead — for correctly pointing out that bombings, not September 11th sequels, are the likeliest threat. Just this morning a story from Reuters, “Gap Seen in Airport Screening,” discusses how hand baggage at US airports is not being checked for explosives. Corkscrews yes; bombs no. Don’t get me started, because the last thing I feel like doing right now analyzing this latest tragedy.
So, let’s do something more fun instead. Doubtless you were startled by the news, no? Aghast at the idea of two airplanes crashing simultaneously? How could it happen? Who did it? Why? But there’s probably something else you were wondering too:
What the hell is a Tupolev?
Unbeknownst to many, the Soviet Union manufactured tens of thousands of civil airliners, from piston biplanes to supersonic jets. The design bureaus of Tupolev, Ilyushin and Antonov (that’s Mssrs. Andrei, Sergei, and Oleg) churned out planes for the better part of seven decades, rivaling the factory totals of their free world counterparts. New models too have been unveiled in recent years from ex-Iron Curtain republics.
My friends and I became fascinated with Soviet planes in junior high school, marking up our books and desks with drawings of IL-62s or Tu-144s. It was the late 1970s, and there was something rebellious, maybe, in sketching out the products of our sworn communist enemies. We were like that: geeky, but contrarian troublemakers no less.
You could say the same for the planes themselves. Soviet designs were certainly peculiar. In the West, an airliner’s wings are canted upward from the root — a contributor to aerodynamic stability called “dihedral.” The communists angled their wings downward — same purpose, opposite aesthetic — in a bend called “anhedral.” They were oversized and underpowered, with lines that seemed to zig where they should have zagged; curved where they should have gone straight; punctuated with all manner of weirdly rakish fairings, nacelles, and hatches. In a way their jets were pure statements of proletarian functionalism: not very advanced; easy to break and easy to fix. In another way they were ugly, scary, menacing machines of Cold War intimidation.
My favorites then are my favorites today:
The handsome IL-18, a four-motor turboprop of the ’60s
The elegant IL-62, Moscow’s first long-ranging jet
The apocalyptic, mantis-like Tu-114. The eight-propped monster — derived from the “Bear” bomber — that carried Krushchev to Idlewild
The Russians take credit for the world’s sustained jetliner service. Modeled on the Tu-16 twin-jet bomber, the Tupolev Tu-104 was launched on the Moscow-Omsk-Irkutsk run in September, 1956. I say sustained, as Britain’s embattled Comet, officially the first commercial jet, was pulled from service in 1954 following two mysterious crashes (redesigned, it would later reenter the market).
Some — okay, me too — are prone to describe this or that Russian as a copycat of a similar Western model. The IL-62, for one, with its foursome of aft-mounted powerplants, is a doppelganger of the old Vickers VC-10. But this is only somewhat fair. The three-engine Tu-154 looks to be a 727 knockoff, as nicely displayed here. http://www.airliners.net/open.file/134308/M/ Then again, the 727 was itself styled on the De Havilland Trident. From the mid-1950s through tabout 1970 it was hard to tell who mimicked whom. The jetliner biz was a busy and rapidly developing one: Britain’s Comet, Trident, and BAC One-Eleven; France’s Caravelle; America’s Boeings, Douglases and Convairs.
Guilty as charged though when it comes to Tupolev’s Tu-144, a.k.a. “Concordski.” The -144 beat out the Anglo/French Concorde by two months, and its development is a tale of serious Cold War espionage, complete with Concorde specs smuggled into Russia by train, carefully concealed in toothpaste tubes. Faster and bigger than Concorde, yet lighter and even less efficient, the -144 debuted on the always glamorous Moscow-Alma Ata pairing. Though quickly withdrawn from passenger service, it flew research missions into the 1990s.
Russia also lays claim to the first mass-produced regional jet. Powered by three tiny turbofans, the Yakovlev Yak-40 was 30 years ahead of its time, taking to the air in 1968. With seating for about 30, the mini-liner became a mainstay of intercity short haul, with more than a thousand built.
Conversely, the engineers at Antonov brought us two of aviation’s biggest aircraft: the An-124, roughly the size of a 747, and the six-engine behemoth An-225. Although only two examples of the latter were constructed — commonly spotted with the Russian space shuttle, Buran, perched on to — it’s easily the largest airplane ever made, with a maximum takeoff weight of 1,332,000 pounds and a 290-foot wingspan.
Aside from limited numbers sold to China, Africa and the Middle East, the Reds never found many buyers beyond the Iron Curtain. Upon dissolution of the USSR, what few foreign customers there were, mostly in Eastern Europe, began the grinding process of swapping out Cold War pumpkins for Boeings and Airbuses. Take a ride on the national carriers of Poland, Hungary, or Czech Republic today and you’ll find yourself on a 737 or an A320. Fifteen years ago it was different (and I imagine the turnover must have been as painful and expensive as when, in those same years, I began converting my vinyl albums into compact discs). A few distant holdouts remain. Castro’s airline, Cubana, and the enigmatic Air Koryo of North Korea, to name a pair. Within the prior Soviet republics, however, many hundreds of Tupolevs, Ilyushins, Antonovs and Yaks continue to fly.
And why not? Taxiing at Mexico City one morning, we passed a Cubana IL-62, and our captain remarked: “Look at that old thing!” I jotted down the registration and checked it against my books. The Cubana jet was vintage 1990. That’s 22 years younger than the freighter jet in which we sat. The mere exotica of the Soviet designs — the multitundinous cockpit windows, the downward anhedral — seems to say old. In truth, many models were kept in production for several decades. Tu-154s were rolling from the factory until 1996. Old blueprints; new metal.
Tupolev’s Tu-204 and Ilyushin’s IL-96M head the list of legitimately modern designs, premiering in 1989 and 1993 respectively. Look at the performance specs and there’s not a lot of difference between either of these and a comparably sized Boeing or Airbus. (you’ll note the -204 looks strikingly like a 757). Decent exports I’m sure, but in an industry where tiny percentages of efficiency tip the scales from profit to loss, “almost as good” isn’t enough. And performance aside, Westerners are forever loath to take on a fleet of stigmatized Tu-‘s, An-‘s, IL-‘s.
The Aviaexpress jet from last Tuesday’s bombing, if you’re curious, was assembled in 1977. That’s substantially younger than many of the DC-9s and DC-10s still in service — perfectly safe service, I’m obliged to add — with Northwest Airlines. Of course, age alone doesn’t tell the whole story. Take a glance at the forward instrument panel of a relatively fresh Tu-154. Don’t even ask me what that periscope-looking thing is.
On the outside at least, the -154 is a sexy plane, notable for its sharply tapered tail fairing and triple-bogey landing gear — a style emulated by Boeing’s 777. Rather than retracting into the belly, the gear swings backwards into teardrop nacelles protruding from the wing.
It also has a questionable safety record. According to Airsafe.com, the past 15 years have seen ten fatal events involving the Tu-154, last week’s mishap incluced. To be fair, this was and remains a fairly ubiquitous staple in many nations, much like our own 737, and several of the crashes were not the machine’s doing (a missile attack, a midair collision, a skyjacking).
The common perception, really, is that all Russian planes are clunking death traps. Is this a bum rap? Yes and no. Mostly yes. It’s essential to remember that the bulk of this tainted reputation owes to past accidents of the much maligned Aeroflot, neglecting to consider that airline’s tremendous size, which we’ll get to in a minute. And if you’re looking at statistics, be mindful to toss out wrecks involving jets like the IL-76, ostensibly airliners but more accurately cargo planes built chiefly for the military.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.