The history of the Soviet aircraft industry: in the age of jets
The space race is often mentioned when it comes to Cold War competition. However, space was not the only aeronautical field in which the Soviet Union intended to advance. The nation was an influential player in the jet age that emerged in the 1950s.
Adapt to conditions
Previously, we covered what led to the formation of Aeroflot in the 1930s. Notably, while the Soviet Union was still very determined to increase the power of military aircraft, the priorities of this carrier were not necessarily concentrated on this department. Instead, the airline has sought to provide utilities ranging from firefighting to passenger transport.
Mail and freight made up a large percentage of Aeroflot’s operations during the 1930s. Notably, the operator overtook the United States in air freight by volume.
In terms of passengers, government and military officials made up the bulk of travelers. Civil aviation was more of a catalyst for developing and connecting remote regions than a tool for providing seamless travel services.
This factor was supported by the fact that although there were 150 airports, they were mostly base airfields with unpaved runways. In addition, despite Aeroflot’s work on general operations, it was still considered a reserve for the Air Force’s military transport aviation.
Nonetheless, the momentum that aircraft designers made during the 1920s and 1930s would prove to be vital in the next chapter. The onset of World War II shook the world, including the aviation industry. This aspect is something that would be recognized within the Soviet Union in the post-conflict climate.
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Try the challenge
Aeroflot was beginning to lose confidence in piston engine vehicles. So, he turned to Tupolev to once again offer one of his innovations to meet the changing demands of the times. The design office succeeded with the Tu-104. In fact, it beat Douglas and Boeing to produce only the second airliner to enter commercial service in the world.
Russia’s national carrier introduced the Tu-104 on September 15, 1956. The first scheduled operation was between Moscow and Irkutsk before international flights to Prague began. The aircraft replaced the Ilyushin Il-14 on this route, joining the de Havilland Comet as one of only two jets in the world to enter service.
A total of 201 Tu-104 were produced between 1956 and 1960. Test stands, cargo conversions, VIP units, and prototypes formed up to 20 variations of the jet.
“The design was based on the Tu-16 / Tu-88 bomber using the same Mikulin AM-3 jet engines with a new fuselage that can accommodate 50 to 70 passengers. A 100-passenger stretch-body model (Tu-104B) was later developed ”, Victoria Museums sharing on the Tu-104.
“A number were used by the military for the training of cosmonauts for the Soviet space program.”
Off the mark
The Tu-104 program helped give Tupolev the confidence to continue in this direction. For example, the Tu-124 made its first flight on March 29, 1960 and was introduced two years later on October 2, 1962. Aeroflot was a fan of the aircraft and used it on its domestic routes. 164 units of the type were built until 1965.
The Tu-134 was another notable Tupolev airliner to make its first flight in the early 1960s. However, the jet would not enter service until the following decade.
It wasn’t just Tupolev to join the jet race in the Soviet Union. Ilyushin designed the Il-62, which made its first flight on January 3, 1963. This aircraft was the largest airliner in the world at the time and was one of the four long-term pioneer productions, along with the Douglas DC-8, Vickers VC10, and Boeing 707. The aircraft entered service with Aeroflot in September 1967.
The last influential jet to be introduced in the 1960s was the Yakovlev Yak-40. The regional aircraft made its maiden flight on October 21, 1966, before entering service the following month. Aeroflot was once again the one who launched a new jet.
The trijet was the world’s first turbojet engine built for local carriers. Passengers would not have noticed any luggage section as all bags were delivered upon landing and stored in a special room.
A significant impact
The age of the jet has led to an increase in passenger activity. The plane previously cost as much as 350 rubles (at the 1930s rate) to go from Khabarovsk to Okha. However, just as jets introduced many new segments of travelers to the skies for the first time in the West, so they opened up air travel to the Soviet Union. It was now much more efficient to fly. For example, the flight time between Moscow and Nizhny has been cut by more than half.
The onset of the jet era sparked a boom for airports. In the early 1960s, Moscow had four hubs in the form of Domodedovo, Vnukovo, Bykovo and Sheremetyevo. They have worked to connect over 200 cities across the union.
It should be noted that the 1960s saw the start of another famous program – the Tupolev Tu-144. It was the world’s first supersonic commercial transport aircraft, which made its first flight on December 31, 1968. However, it would take another seven years for it to be introduced. Stay tuned as we’ll cover this jet in more depth in the next chapter of this series.
Overall, the post-war climate had a similar impact on aviation around the world. The United States, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union all understood that there were new needs to be met in the new era. World War II also inspired officials and designers to experiment with jets in the civilian field after being tested for military use. Overall, the Soviet Union has shown that it is eager to advance aircraft technology at the start of the Cold War.
What do you think of the start of the era of jets in the Soviet Union? What do you think of the first progress of this scene across the country? Let us know what you think about the history of the industry in the comments section.