A workmanlike treatise on “the little Tupe”
Komissarov, Dmitriy, Tupolev Tu-134: The USSR's Short-Range Jetliner, Aerofax Series, Paperback, 176 pages, ISBN 978-1857801590/8, Midland Counties Publishing (Ian Allan Ltd), 2004
In April 1967, the KGB resident in Sofia, Bulgaria, sent an alarming despatch. The group of “free marketeers” who had been allowed to form Teksim, a trading company with an airline subsidiary (Bulair), had brough a brand-new Caravelle to Vrajdebna Airport and were about to buy it amid a blaze of publicity at the prestige Balkan hotel that very evening. The consternation that must have attended the despatch in Moscow can be surmised from the fact that a furious Soviet general landed in Sofia not four hours later. He demanded an immediate audience with Bulgaria’s leaders. As a result, the Teksim/Bulair party “failed to show up” at the Balkan hotel and, after a press photo opportunity, the Caravelle departed for Libya (which was to become its permanent home) early the next morning.
The outcome? Bulgaria was given a conditional promise by the Soviets: don’t buy Western airliners; instead, we shall let you have first try of our equivalents. The Caravelle’s Soviet equivalent was the Tu-134, whose first three exported examples duly arrived at Vrajdebna in late August 1968. By that time, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia had put paid to any “free marketeering,” the Teksim management was being publicly pilloried for grand corruption on its way to jail, and orthodoxy was reinstilled for another decade or more.
The reason I relate all this is that it is the very stuff of aviation history. For too long, “aviation history” has meant nothing more than tedious lineups of spotters’ movement records, constructor’s numbers and manufacturers’ self-laudatory press releases. Attempts to peer behind the scenes and to explain why things are as they are instead of being otherwise remain alien to aviation historians, and the sad reflection must be that they, or their readership, are dullards who can barely discern history from statistics.
Though the above events are missing from Komissarov’s book, it is one of the better examples of aviation history. To an extent, the author was helped by being Russian, which afforded him easier access to documents and personal reminiscences. To another extent, he was helped by the relative lowering of secrecy barriers after glasnost and the collapse of the USSR. Whatever Komissarov’s privileges, his book is valuable and entertaining.
Komissarov begins with a comprehensive review of the Tu-134’s emergence and leisurely development up to service entry in late 1967. Due attention is paid to the part which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev played in the type’s conception (the Tu-134 has been called Khrushchev’s Aeroplane).
Komissarov then provides a full rundown of developments and versions: both those which reached hardware stage and the many which fell by the wayside. An in-service history follows, with a complete list of airframes and operators up to the time of closing for press. There is a lavishly illustrated full technical description and several pages of general arrangement drawings of all versions. (Caveat: the drawings are intended as illustrations rather than for modelling; they are imprecise for the latter purpose.) A special section treats, at some length, all accidents and major incidents in which the Tu-134 was involved.
The book is illustrated with hundreds of colour and monochrome photographs. Many dozens of technical drawings and photo facsimiles of Tupolev OKB presentations of various features provide hitherto unseen detail.
My only criticisms concern the rather unwise departure from the accepted Russian-to-Latin transliteration system. This may appear pedantic, but linguistics is a science and those who ignore its prescriptions risk falling on their face as their readers bend double laughing. A less discernible failing of the book is its patchiness. In treating the Tu-134 as comprehensively as he does, Komissarov has failed to give all aspects uniform depth. This may be due to simple lack of information, or, more likely, to a failure of self-editorship.
On the topic of editorship, Ian Allan’s deserve a severe rap across the knuckles. This company has given us many valuable volumes, yet sadly most of them are sloppily edited (if at all!). Komissarov clearly has an excellent command of English, yet his writing is unmistakably non-native. It (and we as readers!) would have benefited from the customary editorial intervention which Ian Allan’s have yet again failed to provide. This betrays a cavalier disregard of readers and paying customers who appear to be regarded as “dullards of little discernment” who will buy anything, however “par-boiled.”
In conclusion, and if you ignore my rather arcane gripes, the book is well worth buying if you want to get under the skin of the dashing and purposeful “little Tupe” and experience the realities of an era now rapidly receding into the past.