Ask the pilot

The destruction of two Russian jetliners is proof that bombs, not skyjackings, are the current terrorist threat to watch for. But just what is a Tupolev jet, anyway?

Published September 3, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

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, Sept. 11, 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.

As I have predicted a number of times, most recently during my month-long obsession with Annie Jacobsen and the finer points of air terror, bombings, not Sept. 11 sequels, are the likeliest terrorist threat to air travel today. Just this morning a story from Reuters, "Gap Seen in Airport Screening," discusses how hand baggage at U.S. airports is not being checked for explosives. Corkscrews yes; bombs no. But don't get me started, because the last thing I feel like doing right now is 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 have also 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 longest 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 -- OK, me too -- are prone to describe this or that Russian airplane as a copycat of a similar Western model. The IL-62, for one, with its foursome of aft-mounted power plants, 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. Then again, the 727 was itself styled on the De Havilland Trident. From the mid-1950s through about 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, aka "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 1,000 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 top -- 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 the 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 multitudinous 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, and 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, the past 15 years have seen 10 fatal events involving the Tu-154, last week's mishap included. 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, and neglects to take into account 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.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    The history of Russian aviation is a rich, exciting, arguably perilous one. And it's told mainly through the story of Aeroflot, the USSR's once gargantuan state carrier.

    By 1967, Aeroflot was the world's largest airline, amassing a fleet equal to that of the largest American carriers combined. Granted there was only one Soviet air company, in the planet's most expansive nation, and many of its operations stretched the definition of things "airline." Sharing the tarmacs with passenger liners were thousands of paramilitary transports, agricultural spraying craft, polar research planes and helicopters, all sporting the Aeroflot name.

    To give you an inkling of how vast the Aeroflot network became, the passenger-kilometer output (standard gauge of size: one passenger going one kilometer equals one passenger-kilometer) of the airline's Tu-154 fleet alone -- just a single type amid dozens -- matched or exceeded that of many large airlines in whole. In 1990 Aeroflot's passenger-mile totals approached 250 billion, slightly less than the aggregate of American, United and Delta.

    Then something strange happened. As the Soviet Union fell to pieces, so did Aeroflot, slowly parsed into, quite literally, hundreds of smaller airlines. Former directorates -- regional, semi-autonomous branches of mother Aeroflot -- became full-fledged airlines of brand-new countries -- places like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and the Ukraine. In Russia itself, after the breakup of still the world's most massive nation, Aeroflot further splintered into a legion of independents. If, last week, you were struck dumb by the unfamiliar names of Volga-Aviaexpress and Sibir Airlines, they're just two of a long (and often unpronounceable) list of ex-Aeroflot fragments.

    Aeroflot is still around, yes, flying on (with a garish new color scheme) as the more or less official flag carrier of Russia, employing a mixed fleet of Airbuses, Boeings and homemade holdovers. With 101 aircraft it's still the country's most important player, though a fraction of its former size. Aeroflot hopes to join the SkyTeam alliance, partnering with the likes of Delta and Air France, in 2005. Who, 20 years ago, would have imagined such a thing? (For further reading I recommend -- assuming you can find it -- "Aeroflot: An Airline and its Aircraft," from Paladwr Press. The book was compiled by R.E.G. Davies, curator of Air Transport at the Smithsonian, and exquisitely illustrated by artist Mike Machat.), by the way, shows us 24 fatal air carrier losses in the former Soviet states since 1990. Examining data for North America during that identical span, we can count about 18 -- the number varying with the standards for "crash" (employee killed by malfunctioning door; air taxi operations, etc.)

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Only once in my travels did I manage a ride on a Russian plane. It was 1986, just before Chernobyl, and I was going from Moscow to Leningrad, as it was still known, with my mother. Though I was safely home by the time of the Ukrainian meltdown, for years afterward I'd embellish things by stretching the dates of my vacation to include the accident, which made for exciting made-up stories at parties.

    It was snowing like crazy on the ramp at Sheremetyevo, and I'd been trying to guess which ship it would be. I'd crossed my fingers for an IL-62, though a Tupolev or a Yak would be fun. It ended up a Tu-154, its distinctive profile emerging from the snow as the workers marched us onto the apron. I could make out the Aeroflot livery, just as I'd seen it in those books in junior high, understated and vaguely military: the blue cheat line; the winged hammer and sickle; that iconic "CCCP" along the center nacelle. (Who can forget those letters from the sweatshirts of the old Olympic hockey teams, or from the ICBMs of the '60s and '70s -- the Cyrillic "SSSR.")

    Aeroflot was never known for its in-flight pampering, and the babushkas served us a cup of tasteless, urine-colored apple juice and what appeared to be a hamburger bun stuffed with newspaper.

    Next to me sat a Muscovite about my age -- a blond-haired kid with a jaw line like the villainous commie boxer from Rocky IV. This was 1986, remember, the arms race still raging (kind of), and my seatmate was aghast at the novelty of encountering an actual American. He'd never met one before, and was thrilled to shake my hand and try out his English. Like me he was on holiday, eager to take pictures of the frozen Neva and ice-covered Hermitage up in Leningrad (or drink himself silly on cheap champagne, like most of the tourists I encountered up there). He'd just gotten a new camera, and he took it from the overhead bin to show me proudly. At least I think it was a camera. Oversized and clunky, the device looked like a blender held sideways. He kept calling it "my apparatus."

    Our high-altitude détente continued all the way to Leningrad. "I can show you of America," said my friend, and with that he took out a piece of paper. Beaming, he proceeded to draw me a picture of the World Trade Center, accurately placing the north tower's huge rooftop antenna. Pointing to the buildings he said, "One hundred and ten stories!"

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  • By Patrick Smith

    Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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