The One Time Soviets Almost Beat The West: The Tupolev Tu-104 Story

Okay, to clarify - we’re talking about commercial aviation here. I know the Soviets were the first to put a person in outer space, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves too much. The Tupolev Tu-104 was a commercial passenger jet that was powered by two Mikulin AM-3 turbojet engines. As it was introduced into Aeroflot’s fleet, the west was shocked that the Soviets built a very capable jet engine, after the Brits burned their fingers with the de Havilland Comet 4. This aircraft was a monumental stepping stone for the Soviet aviation, especially commercially. Tu-104 proved to the Soviets and the other side of the iron curtain, that the east can build commercial jets. But was that really the case?

Before we get into the nitty and gritty of the Tupolev Tu-104, there is a lot of context to go through. For the simple reason to understand why was the 104 so important to the Soviets. And it was very important, not even politically, but economically as well.

Why Jets, Not Propellers?

To sum up quickly why jet engines were looked at extensively at the time was that piston-powered propeller engines were coming to their final limits. As aerodynamics, avionics and electronic systems were moving forward, aircraft engines were starting to bang their heads on walls. To add more power, engineers designed more complex engines with a lot of extra superchargers and cylinders. Because of this reason, the engine maintenance costs shot up. More fuel was consumed, yet little benefit was added.

And piston engines were not the most comfortable to fly in. The massive vibration coupled with a lot of engine noise did not provide with the most comforting ride. Considering that aircraft tickets at the time were only available only to the richest people in the world, an alternative was needed. Badly.

The Beginnings Of The Jet Engine

In 1928, an RAF cadet Frank Whittle started working on a turbojet engine. January 16th, 1930 was the day that Frank Whittle submitted his first patent, which was granted to him in 1932. And while initial progress was promising, the British government was not very keen on the idea, thus the development slowed down.

Hans von Ohain was more fortunate than Frank. He developed a concept and presented it to Ernest Heinkel. Heinkel at the time was one of the biggest aviation businessmen in the world, so securing his interest was crucial. Fortunately, Heinkel was impressed. Heinkel set up Ohain and his machinist Max Hahn in the Hirth engine company to further improve their concept. This whole ordeal concluded in 1939 when their developed engine flew on the He 178 airframe. As nobody in the German command was impressed, nothing came out of it.

1944 rolled around and the world was surrounded by destruction and sorrow, the first jet engines were officially used on a larger scale. The first usage was military, as the Germans introduced the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter. 3 months later, the Brits responded with the Gloster Meteor carrying the same jet engines designed by Frank Whittle. Although both of these fighters saw limited action in the war and as it ended, the seed was planted. Jet powered aircraft made significant steps into airports and airfields around the world.

But Jet engines had a very negative outlook on them – they consumed a lot of fuel, did not provide a lot of power and were very unreliable. Or at least too unreliable for civil aviation. Somebody had to take a risk and invest a lot of money into developing the jet engine so that it would become commercially viable. As a matter of fact, someone did.