Gaps to be Filled
The former Soviet Union had great success in the early years of jet based airliner service with their Tupolev Tu-104. The Tu-104 was the world’s second jet to enter regular airline service after Great Britain’s DeHavilland Comet. While both machines had their share of imperfections associated with being the first of a new breed of aircraft, the Tu-104 had more success than the Comet in providing sustained and dependable service during the 1950s due to the British aircraft being grounded from 1954 to 1958 after a series of accidents. For a period in the late 1950s, the Tu-104 was the only jet airliner in regular scheduled service and was a message, wherever it went, that the west was falling behind in the jetliner stakes.
With the return of the Comet to the skies in 1958 and the arrival of France’s Sud Aviation Caravelle to airline service in 1959, the jetliner race was back on.
By the early 1960s, two new Soviet airliner designs had flown for the first time. The twin jet Tupolev Tu-134 had short haul routes as its target while the four engine Ilyushin Il-62 was designed for the long range intercontinental routes. Both aircraft entered airline service in 1967 and the Tu-154 flew for the first time in 1968.
The Tu-154 was introduced to airline service in 1972, filling the medium range gap between the Tu-134 and Il-62 and becoming a workhorse for Aeroflot and many other carriers in nations which came under Soviet influence in the Cold War period and continued to serve many of them well past the fall of Socialism.
Neither a Copy nor a Competitor
As was the western habit in the prevailing “us and them” mindset of the Cold War; there was no shortage of people dismissing the Tu-154 as an “inferior copy” of western trijets such as the Boeing 727 from America and the Hawker Siddeley Trident from Great Britain. Indeed, when the Tu-154 prototype made an appearance at the 1969 Paris Air Salon, western observers were brutally critical of every aspect of it. In the NATO codenaming system for Soviet aircraft, the Tu-154 was dubbed “Careless”.
However, such comparisons were an extreme case of the west grasping at straws to discredit the east. The Tupolev trijet was really in a class by itself and was produced for much longer than either the 727 or Trident.
Beyond having a similar general design, the three aircraft had nothing in common. The American and British trijets had both been in airline service for at least half a decade before the Tu-154 first flew and had been designed specifically to compete in the burgeoning short haul feeder line market that was opening up in the early 1960s. By comparison, the Tu-154 was designed as mid range liner to most immediately satisfy projected requirements of the Soviet national airline, Aeroflot, before anything else.
The Tu-154 was designed and built to rigorous specifications that included the ability to operate from austere or improvised runways in the most remote regions of the former Soviet Union. Even before it first flew, things were being asked of it that had not been asked of jet airliners before. For a jet airliner to operate from a gravel or packed earth strip was unthinkable at the time the Tu-154 was being designed, and yet such abilities were specified for it.
Part of why the Tu-154 had such abilities in its specification was so it could replace the Antonov An-10 and Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop airliners which had been serving those remote areas.
The Tu-154 was built as a trijet for no other reason than that it didn’t need four engines to do what was wanted of it. Aeroflot’s four engine jetliner requirement was well filled by the Ilyushin Il-62.
The Tu-154 also put performance ahead of efficiency. With a top speed of 975 kmh, the Tu-154 was one of the swiftest airliners ever put into regular scheduled service. It also could operate at altitudes above most other civilian air traffic.
Further testament to the Tu-154’s flight performance was the choice to use it as a landing trainer for cosmonauts preparing to crew the failed Soviet space shuttle, the Buran. The Tu-154 was capable of the same steep angle descents that the cosmonauts would face when landing the Buran.
In short, the Tu-154 was a much more specialised aircraft than initial appearances let on and the west simply had nothing that was fully comparable.
Moving the Masses
It did not take long for the Tu-154 to find its way into widespread service after its first Aeroflot passenger flight in 1972. The aircraft formed the backbone of not only Aeroflot, but also a number of airline fleets in the Eastern Bloc and in Soviet friendly states.
In a flying career spanning approximately three and half decades, the Tu-154 served the militaries and numerous airlines of no fewer than forty countries.
In airliner form, the Tu-154 cabin could be configured for two class, single class or high density passenger arrangements. The high denisty layout was accomplished by removing the aircraft’s galley.
A number of the aircraft were also converted for air freight duties.
In military circles, the Tu-154 found favour as a VIP transport and many Eastern Bloc leaders used the type as their personal transport.
Even after the fall of Socialism, the Tu-154 remained in regular airline service for some time. The final scheduled Tu-154 flight from Europe was conducted by Belavia in 2015, from Geneva, Switzerland to Minsk, Belarus.
The very last European based Tupolev Tu-154s belonged to the Slovak Government Flying Service and these were retired in summer of 2017.
As of 2017, the only confirmed airline to still be using the Tu-154 for passenger service is North Korea’s Air Koryo.
Increased availability of more efficient airliners through the 2000s and 2010s and increasingly strict international regulations on exhaust and noise emmissions made Tu-154 operations financially unappealing in many markets and most operators divested themselves of the type in that period.
Later in its life, the aircraft came to world attention in the wake of some very high profile accidents. However, in the bigger picture, for an aircraft of which more than 1,000 were produced and served for more than 30 years, the Tu-154 has an average safety record and is not considered an unsafe aircraft. In fact, a significant number of accidents involving the aircraft were attributable to non-technical factors such as human error, poor weather or runway conditions as well as highjackings. At least five Tu-154s are known to have been shot down.
As airliners go, the Tu-154 is a very solidly built aircraft that has withstood emergency landing situations intact and with no loss of life that would have torn some other airliners apart and most certainly have resulted in fatalities.
The Tu-154 Family
With a production run spanning from 1968 to 2013 ans 1,026 of the type made, the Tu-154 family consists of four main branches:
The baseline Tu-154 debuted in 1970 and had a capacity for 164 passengers. Production totalled around 40 aircraft.
Appearing in 1974, the Tu-154 A improved on the baseline model through increased fuel carriage, more powerful engines, refined flight controls and avionics as well as more flexibility in cabin configurations.
Produced from 1975, the Tu-154 B and its subvariants featured a new wing of higher strength to replace the wings of earlier variants which were cracking from fatigue. The B series improved the Tu-154 further through an increased maximum take off weight. Several baseline and A models were converted to B standard through wing replacement.
The real drive behind creating the B series of the aircraft was to make it more economical to operate. The Kuznetsov NK-8 engines were very thirsty regardless of the variant being used and the only answer to better ecomonics was to increase passenger load.
The B1 variant was specifically for Aeroflot to increase profits on domestic routes within the Soviet Union. Beyond some minor modification to some systems, it differed little from the B model.
The B2 model was designed to have the high density cabin option via a removable galley. The B2 brought with it additional increases in maximum take off weight. A number of B models were converted to B2 standard. The B2 found favour as a VIP transport as well as an airliner.
The Tu-154 S was a cargo conversion variant based off the B model that featured a strengthened floor and large cargo door on the forward fuselage. A very small number were converted to S standard.
A major change to the Tu-154 came in 1982 with the first flight of the M version.
With the M came new, more efficient engines in the form of the Soloviev D-30. The D-30 gave the aircraft economic performance through lower fuel consumption and increased range that the NK-8 engines had always denied it. The aircraft’s performance was further enhanced by aerodynamic refinements nose to tail. The lower operating costs of the M model gave the Tu-154 a new lease on life with many operators.
The new engines also allowed the Tu-154 to be fitted with hush kits to reduce engine noise. This was something that could not be done with the NK-8 engine and kept the Tu-154 flyable into areas that had increased restrictions on noise emissions. The M models were still allowed to operate, for a while, in places where the B models no longer were permitted.
As with the B model, the M model was liked as a VIP transport and was often referred to as Tu-154 M Lux when configured as such.
The M model formed the basis of some minor versions of the aircraft family that include an electronic intelligence gathering variant, the aforementioned cosmonaut trainer and a one-off variant for exploring alternative fuels.
What Remains and Learning More
As of 2017, less than 50 Tu-154 aircraft are known to still be active on civil or military registers and they are primarily in Russia with a handful scattered between China, Kazakhstan and North Korea. As such, your chances of seeing an active example of the type these days are quite slim and not getting better.
Preserved examples are known to exist in museums in Belarus, Czech Republic, Hungary, Iran, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.
Unfortunately, it seems for the present that a good deal of English language information to be found online about the Tu-154 is conflicting, biased or focused on accidents that involved the type. Hopefully, that will change one day.
In the meantime, these articles will give you a couple of first hand insights into what it’s like to fly on the Tu-154 as a passenger:
This article was published in conjunction with the delivery of the very last Tu-154, in 2013, and gives a short historical overview of the aircraft: