Close your eyes and imagine the biggest passenger aircraft you can. Airbus A380, right? Now triple its size, add Aeroflot livery, and there you have it: Tupolev Tu-404, a stupendously large Russian project from the early 90s. Let’s take a closer look.

A lot can be said about the gargantuan airliner designs of late 80s and early 90s. They were based on the then-current trend of the growing hub-and-spoke model. The thinking was - there will be a lot of small airports and airliners ferrying people to large super-airports, connected amongst themselves by jumbo jets. You cannot increase the amount of planes taking off from a hub at the same time, so, in order to grow the flow of passengers, you have to increase the capacity of aircraft. 

On the one hand, this thinking paved a way for a previous generation of wide-body jets, such as Boeing 777 and Airbus A340, and subsequently B787 Dreamliners and A350s, that themselves started to tear apart the hub-and-spoke model. 

On the other hand, a school of thought emerged, which hailed the design and construction of new large double-decker airplanes of the future. As we know too well, those went nowhere and the only child of this idea – the glorious A380 – is on its last legs. Many others, though, remain in the blueprints and shiny models, presented at air shows, marvelled at, and then forgotten.

Economics, Tu-404 and its family

Although the majority of Tupolev’s civil aircraft were offshoots of military ones – Tu-114, Tu-124, as well as Tu-104 and its modifications being developed from various strategic bombers – an intention to compete on Western markets brought a need to design airliners from ground-up. This way, Tu-154, a semi-successful competitor to Boeing 727, appeared. By the early 80s, it already needed a replacement, which led to the development of Tu-204 – the first and the only specimen of the last generation of Soviet airliners.

One of engineers working on Tu-204 was Yuri Vasilyevich Vorobyev, whose previous work included modernisation of Tu-22M Backfire supersonic bomber. His finishing touches on the new airliner coincided with the end of Perestroika and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the old system crumbled and government-controlled design bureaus started to be reorganized into private companies. 

By 1991 – the last days of the USSR – Vorobyev was the deputy head of Tupolev’s department of civil aviation, and thus was befallen with the task of continuing modernisation of the country's airplane fleet in the circumstances of complete economic turmoil. Having almost no means to do that but still seeking to keep the bureau's position as a major aircraft manufacturer, the engineer turned his head towards the western trends.

Previously, Soviet long-haul airliners were exclusively built by Ilyushin: Il-62, Il-86 and the new Il-96 were supposed to compete with Boeing 747. But those were four-engined monstrosities of the bygone times and in the west the shining Boeing 777 has just started attracting orders. As an answer to that, Tu-304 entered the design phase: twin-engined wide-body airliner with an oval cross section, a new plane for Russia’s new era. 

But the westerners were not content with massive twinjets, they were planning their A380s, Boeing NLAs and Lockheed Martin VLSTs. Connections between hubs had to grow thicker and the circumference of fuselages had to reflect that. So was born the Tu-404, the largest sibling of the “-04” family, whose eventual fate foreshadowed the meaning of the now-infamous error code.