Tupolev Tu-104—The First Soviet Jetliner

The Tupolev Tu-104 twin turbojet airliner entered service with Aeroflot in September 1956. With the British de Havilland Comet grounded during the investigation of crashes and redesign to correct the metal fatigue failures that caused them, it was the only jet powered civil transport in service at the time and remained so until 1958.

The design was based upon the Tupolev TU-16 (“Badger”) bomber, and used its engines, wings, and tail with little modification, replacing the fuselage with a wider pressurised cabin accommodating 50 passengers.

In 1957, a Tu-104 made the first transatlantic flight by a passenger jetliner, flying from Moscow to New York with numerous stops en route.

Due to its bomber heritage, the Tu-104 was considered difficult to fly, with heavy control forces, vulnerability to Dutch roll, nasty stall characteristics, and inadequate brakes, which required use of a drag parachute for landing at many airports. Over its operational life, a total of 16 of the 96 Tu-104s in airline service were lost in accidents. The last Tu-104 was retired in 1981.


Two additional thoughts.
It was a cool looking aircraft . However, with those engines snuggled up against the fuselage , it would be a howling loud ride.


The wings are interesting and unusual. Most aircraft have positive wing dihedral (the wings angle up from the fuselage). This design feature makes for more stability in roll around the long axis of the aircraft, which is desirable in non-aerobatic and non-fighter aircraft. The Tu-104 has not only swept wings - making it less stable at low speeds - but negative dihedral (or anhedral)’ seen from the front, the wings angle downward, the tips are nearer the ground than the wing roots. Several other design features (beyond my understanding - like wing thickness/ taper, chord, symmetry or not between top to bottom surfaces and more factors, like added devices including slats, flaps, spoilers) make the wing what it is. I’m not surprised just based on sweep and anhedral that the plane was difficult and accident-prone.


It is easy to forget how much experimentation went into the design & construction of airplanes. Just look at England’s failed Comet, which basically killed their commercial aircraft industry. There is a price to be paid at the bleeding edge of technology!

US commercial aviation benefitted immensely from the various manufacturers earlier work on military aircraft – unsuccessful as well as successful. A lot of lessons are best learned through doing.

It is interesting that commercial aircraft manufacturing has essentially evolved to only two conceptual designs – two engines under the wings or two engines on a high tail. It does not matter if the plane is made in the US, France, Brazil, Canada, Russia, China – it tends to look rather similar. It took the lessons from a significant number of crashes and dead bodies by many manufacturers to reach today’s standards. The implications for space travel are obvious.