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Inside story of the TU-154
Author: Peter Skipp
Submitted by: skippiebg   Date: 01-26-2005
Comments: (4)  

The inimitable Tupe: life and times of the Tu-154

by Peter Skipp

In 1972, Britain's BOAC was running a tv commercial which boasted that the airline's passengers "arrived not knowing they had flown." At the same time, over in the USSR, an airliner was entering service whose passengers definitely knew they had flown. You can find plenty of data on this type in numerous written sources and on the Web. Here, Peter Skipp tells its inside story, with an emphasis on modelling it.

Flying the Tu-154 was an alternative airline experience par exellence. The type's power-to-weight ratio enabled it to deliver the sort of push in the back which no other jet on this side of the passenger/military divide could deliver. Given its head, it could climb at an astonishing rate, reaching its 39,000 or 40,000ft cruise level in a shade over ten minutes. It could then cruise serenely at M0.88, while gently Dutch rolling and occasionally maneuvering like a fighter with up to 35 degrees of bank. And once at its destination, it could descend equally rapidly within a quarter of an hour. Its crowning trick was the greasiest landing available on any airliner, ever.
I use the past tense, for ever since the start of Soviet (and now Russian) economic woes 20 years ago, the Tupe has been hobbled. Its prohibitive 4.5 tonne per hour fuel consumption had to be reigned in, and its crews were instructed in techniques that ensured passengers left it (you guessed!) not knowing that they had flown. Only the smooth landings remain as before, being entirely in keeping with the new philosophy.
Yet, even hobbled, "the Tupe" still has bags of majestic style, and noble muscular looks. Frankly, the much-loved 727 feels like a Fiat Seicento by comparison with the Tupe's Ferrari.

Muscular: the Tupe is happiest operating in the challenging environments for which it was designed. Here, a Russian-registered example climbs away from an Alpine airport Edwin Olinowetz


The Tu-154 (one should properly say either "Tu-154" or "Tupolev 154", and never commit the tautology of "Tupolev Tu-154") was a product of the highly specific Soviet system of aircraft design, development, and production.
Design bureaux like those we call "Antonov," "Ilyushin," or "Tupolev" were not in fact owned by Messrs Antonov, Ilyushin, or Tupolev. They were part of the Ministry of the Aviation Industry ("Minaviaprom" or MAP) and their proper names were abbreviations like "OKB-156" (in the case of Tupolev); the surnames merely informally recognised their founders.
These bureaux were much smaller than Western equivalents. For one thing, they did not conduct any fundamental research or configuration studies. That was the job of a body known as TsAGI. The bureaux took ready-made solutions and tailored them to specific products commissioned from them. For another thing, they did not have any views on what the market may or may not have wanted like a Douglas, a Boeing, or an Aerospatiale would have. There was simply no market in the Soviet system, and consumers ? from Aeroflot to ordinary citizens ? took what the state saw fit to offer them.
The bureaux did not own the factories which built their designs. They were property of another MAP department, and one factory could build the designs of more than one bureau. Neither did the bureaux sell their creations. Within the USSR, change of title did not entail a sale: on leaving the factory, an aeroplane would simply be registered to Aeroflot with no financial complications whatever. For export, Soviet aircraft were offered as a range by a MAP division called V/O Avia?ksport. The bureaux did not service their aeroplanes, either. That was the job of another MAP branch that "owned" the various repair facilities.
In short, the Soviet aircraft design bureaux acted not like a Douglas, a Boeing, or an Airbus, but like naval architects that happened to design aeroplanes instead of ships.
Had the bureaux had proper "ownership" of their designs, the world airliner scene may just have looked different from the oligopoly we have today. The designs themselves were often potentially competitive. And "the Tupe" was one of the better of them.
The idea of the Soviet trijet was initially floated by the Soviet government in the early 1960s as a replacement for the jet Tu-104 and the turboprop Il-18 and An-10.

Pioneer: for two years in the late 1950s, the Tu-104 was the world's only operational jet transport. It was a handful to control, and its pilots justified their place of fame next to Soviet Cosmonauts of the period. via Corbis

Docile and economical: the Il-18 was the mainstream Soviet airliner of the 1960s. Prestige demanded its replacement with a jet type Author's archive

Whale-like: the shape of the An-10 is said to have made it the most economical Soviet transport of the 1960s. It was grounded after a crash in 1972, but Antonov sources claim this was unwarranted and blame dirty tricks by Ilyushin. Dmitry Avdeev

The government invited bureaux submissions for a 150-seat medium range jet able to use existing airfields and service facilities. It had to be a trijet due to safety concerns which were shared worldwide at the time, and had to use unmade strips due to purely Soviet military fetishes.
Antonov and Yakovlev did not submit preliminary designs. Ilyushin came up with the Il-72: a rational-looking, scaled-down, tri-engined Il-62. Tupolev came up with the Tu-154. It was slightly larger and faster than the Il-72. More importantly, it had more advanced systems. Instead of Ilyushin's manual controls and simple autopilot, it offered triplex fully hydraulic controls, a triplicated automatic flight control system, triple slotted flaps and slats. Tupolev won the day.

Family: the Ilyushin 72 would have had a shortened Il-62 body allied to an Il-62 wing and three NK-8 engines like those of the Il-62 (and the Tu-154) in the tail Nick Bajcar

The hand-made prototype Tu-154 was rolled out of Tupolev's central-Moscow factory in mid-1968 and was then disassembled and taken by road to an airfield in the Moscow suburb of Zhukovskiy. It first flew from there in early October 1968. Testing and development flying took place at Zhukovskiy. Trial services began in 1971 (mail and light freight only), and passenger service started in early 1972.
Over three years from first flight to full service entry is a very long time for an airliner. It is all the longer bearing in mind that up to ten pre-production aircraft were involved in the development programme. The reason for the delay was again in the Soviet development system.
After WWII, the USA developed a system under which aircraft were certificated by a body called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to criteria and standards called Federal Aviation Requirements (FARs). By the late 50s, Britain had developed a similar system (CAA, CARs), and the then-Common Market was moving towards what is today the JAA and JARs.
The USSR had no aviation criteria other than commonsense ones derived by trial and error, or ones read-across from general mechanical engineering standards. Its airliners were not certificated as such, being simply approved by test pilots acting as state inspectors. By the 1960s, however, the lack of a coherent set of criteria was being addressed, and "Soviet FARs" called NLGGSs (from "Norms for the Air-Worthiness of Civilian Aeroplanes") were drafted. The Tu-154 was the first Soviet aircraft to be developed to these NLGGSs, and this delayed progress considerably.
A related reason for the delay was the lack of Tupolev "ownership" over the Tu-154. Tupolev had done their bit by designing it and first-flying the Tupe, and had passed it over to the state for further progress. At the time, the bureau was very busy with its Tu-144 supersonic transport, and moreover its venerable founder and leader Andrei Tupolev was approaching the end of his days.

Development and service

Right from the start, the Tu-154 appeared a winner. The hydraulic controls and the ABSU-154 automatic control system with its moving-map display, its comfortable six-abreast cabin, and superb performance aided by complex wing high-lift devices promised much.
However, it soon became clear that the wing had been underdesigned, and would need to be replaced with a sturdier structure. One reason for this was that the wing was made of a relatively new alloy with less-well known properties. Another was that the wing was designed to be very flexible to offer a smooth ride in turbulence. The wing's weakness is interesting, for it gives the lie to the oft-repeated and self-perpetuating claim that Soviet airliners were somehow stronger than Western types.

Weakness: though bestowing a comfortable ride, the very flexible wing was the bane of early Tu-154s. After fatigue specimen testing, the SibNIA institute at Novosibirsk announced that the wings of 120 aircraft already built had to be replaced. This much later B-2 aeroplane (note the short ailerons; the 2 degree downtrim of the inboard flaps is hidden behind the main landing gear housing) was not retrofitted, being built after the stronger wing became factory standard. Author's archive

In fact, the Tu-154 was certificated for an airframe life of between 20,000 and 35,000 hours: a quarter to a half of the lives of its Western contemporaries. This in turn does the type (and other USSR types) an injustice, and repays explanation. The precise amount of licensed airframe life allocated to each example as it left the factory depended on a system of quality assessment and assurance not unlike today's ISO 9000 series of international standards. This system reflected Soviet design conservatism, and in Western hands would arguably given the type a much greater initial hourage.
The 20,000 to 35,000 initial hours generally led to what in the West would be known as a "D-Check" (a KVR or "Capital Refurbishment Repairs" in Soviet parlance). In other words, a Tu-154 could easily exceed its allotted life, provided it received a proper stripdown and "relife" at a MAP repair factory. Indeed, many examples have flown for well over 80,000 hours prior to withdrawal; ultimately, this is in line with Western experience.
Initial exports took place in June 1972, to Balkan Airlines. The Bulgarians needed a medium range jet for their expanding tourist industry. They had already wet-leased a used Lebanese Convair 990s and had looked to buy other Western bargains such as Caravelles on run-out offers. The Soviets had to safeguard their monopoly of the Bulgarian market and let the airline have three early Tu-154s from the Aeroflot allocation.

Launch customer: Bulgaria's Balkan was lead export customer for the Tupolev 154. The airline went on to operate 22 Tu-154s. GAAEC

Other orders received in the same period were from Hungarian airline MAL?V and from Egypt's Masr Liltayran (EgyptAir). The first Hungarian Tupes arrived in early 1973, with the Egyptians delaying delivery until after the Yom Kippur War had ended in late 1973.

Glossy: other early Tu-154 users included the Hungarian and Egyptian flag carriers. The gloss soon wore off Masr Liltrayran's Tupes, as the airline lost an example in crew training and laid the rest up for repatriation.
Air Nikon Collection and Ray Pettitt

Other loyal Soviet customers, however, remained on the sidelines. Balkan and MAL?V were experiencing enormous problems getting the type to adhere to their busy schedules. These problems mainly concerned spares supply. The Soviet and East European five-year-plan system required that spares be ordered up to ten years in advance. New Tu-154s were delivered with spares packs, but lack of operational experience often meant that their contents did not match actual needs. This meant long downtime and desperate negotiations for special allocations of spares.
Moreover, soon after taking delivery of its three Tu-154s, Masr Liltayran lost one with all crew in a training accident. The airline then very publicly cancelled its order and returned the remaining two to the USSR (they were immediately sold to capacity-strapped Balkan). The crash revealed another Soviet weakness. While magnificent hardware could be produced, software and specifically simulator development lagged behind. No Tu-154 flight simulators were available, and the dangerous activity of flight crew training had to take place in risky real-life conditions.
The USSR had traditionally regarded India as a major export customer for its aircraft, and in 1974 the Tu-154 was duly demonstrated to Indian domestic carrier Indian Airlines. This exposed another major Soviet failing: fuel profligacy. When Khrushchev had given the go-ahead on Aeroflot jet reequipment in the 1950s, he had famously said "We've got plenty of oil," signalling that fuel economy was to be low on the list of Soviet airliner design priorities. In the post-Yom Kippur War, with OPEC quadrupling oil prices, this became a major failing. Indian Airlines sources were quoted as saying that the Tupolev's fuel consumption was "quite fantastically high."

Prague jinx: the Czech city "played host" to a fatal Aeroflot Tu-154 approach accident in 1973 and this non-fatal MAL?V approach accident later in the decade. Both were redolent of mid-1960s Boeing 727 accidents caused by throttle response lag and insufficient elevator authority. Zoltan Varga

Though the Tu-154 later went on to become a reasonably safe airliner by world standards, the earliest machines suffered from poor controllability on the approach. This was entirely in line with early US experience of the Boeing 727, many of which crashed on approach due to insufficient elevator authority and engine demand lag. The problem was cured by rerigging elevator gearing to provide greater deflection with high-lift devices deployed.
A further blow to the Tu-154 programme came with an announcement by the Novosibirsk Aviation Research Institute that early production wings were apt to fail earlier than estimated. This necessitated the urgent exchange of no fewer than 120 sets of Tu-154 wings in an emergency programme which started in 1975, and which did not help sales publicity.
The Tupe did go on to become a Soviet success story, but only after it had been developed to B standard in the late 1970s. Even then, it did not sweep all before it in the Soviet sphere of influence. Romania's Tarom and Cuba's Cubana bought Tu-154Bs in 1977, as did North Korea's secretive Chosonminhang.

Be successful: the developed B version of the Tu-154 broadened the circle of export customers for the type. Even North Korea's Chosonminhang (Air Koryo) bought several examples.
Andy Martin, Don Boyd, Wojciech Dudzinski

Single examples of the type were also wet-leased to the South Yemeni airline Alyemda, to Mongolia's MIAT, and to Guyana Airways. However, the prestige East German, Polish, and Czechoslovak airlines remained unconvinced of the type's virtues.
Despite the Tu-154's market woes, passengers liked the type immensely. It was a world removed from the noise and vibration of the Il-18s and An-10s it replaced, and its troublesome flexible wing genuinely made flights smoother, whatever turbulence the Gods may throw at the Tupe. Landings, which tend to scare more nervous flyers, were a piece de resistance. The twin three-axle bogeys were mounted on a struts with especially long travel. On landing, they smoothed out even the roughest of touchdowns. A less welcome side effect of the landing gear geometry was that wheelbase differed with loading. This led to a number of nose gear breakages when well-intentioned airport workers chocked up both the nose wheels, and the main ones. In addition, the Tupe was unable to use airport jetways: its empty/full door sill height differed by some 60cm/2ft at the front, and up to 18in/45cm amidships; airport operators baulked at having to keep adjusting jetway platform height!
In 1982, Tu-154 production (in the city of Kuybyshev, today's Samara) halted to make way for Tu-142 anti-submarine "Bears." It restarted in late 1984, and after a late-80s boom continued at a low rate until 1999. Altogether, some 930 aircraft were made, of which some 150 were exported. New customers for the Tu-154M, the sole production version after the 1984 programme resumption, included Syria's Assouriya, Poland's Lot, Czechoslovakia's CSA, and China's Zhongguo Minhang (CAAC) which was rapidly realigning as the set of individual airlines we know today. A curious order for two came from Afghanistan's Bakhtar Afghan. This landlocked country was at the time overran by Soviet forces, and was subject to a Western, Pakistani, and Iranian blockade which put spares for its DC-10s and 727-200s beyond reach. The Tu-154M alleviated its problems.

Sanctions buster: as the blockade against Soviet-controlled Afghanistan took hold, Bakhtar, the country's second and mostly domestic airline, bought two Tu-154Ms. In time, they were transferred topremier airline Ariana .
Peter Heeneman

Bargain: low prices in a world where American and European products cost megabucks won the M version of the Tupolev 154 some success Andy Martin,, Author's archive

Final orders came from Interflug (in fact, in 1989 the East German carrier merely allowed its colours and name to be used by the East German government for two VIP machines, and from VIA.

VIP carrier: this Tu-154M was delivered under an Interflug guise to the East German government, becoming 11+01 after unification in 1990. Its sister ship 11+02 was fated to perish in a tragic midair collision with a Starlifter off the coast of Namibia in 1997. Konstantin von Wedelstaedt

VIA was a Bulgarian airline formed in mid-1990 specifically to take over an unwanted Balkan batch of five Tu-154Ms. It went on to become one of Bulgaria's better inclusive tour airlines.

Run-out offer: VIA's five Tupes were the last of the type sold to an export customer. They were originally ordered by Balkan for delivery starting from August 1990, but the state airline had decided to cancel its order.
Stefan Gruenig

All subsequent new Tu-154 operators were either airlines formed on the basis of former Aeroflot directorates, or lessees.
Despite its chequered history, the Tu-154 was the USSR's foremost airliner, and remains the most popular and populous Russian and ex-Soviet airliner to this day.

Which type is this Tupe?

Here follows a list of incremental physical changes to the Tu-154 throughout its life. They do not tally with designation changes, except as regards the M version covered further below:

Prototype: the first Tu-154 in flight: the full-span ailerons are visible, as is (just) the thin tailplane/fin bullet.
Author's archive

  • extend the APU tailpipe aft on a/c after c/n 026 (line numbers tally with Aeroflot designations: thus line number 039 is SSSR-85039);
  • cut back aileron span and extend outboard spoiler span on a/c after l/n 026 (after the first three Balkan deliveries);
  • replace the thin tailplane/fin bullet fairing on a/c after l/n circa 50 with a fat fairing positioned a little higher on the fin leading edge (MALEV deliveries begin here);
  • make front overwing emergency exits identical in size with rear overwing emergency exits after circa l/n 60;
  • introduce emergency exit doors in aftmost portion of cabin after circa l/n 100;
  • retrospectively replace wing torsion box and rerig inboard flap rearmost segment to 2 degrees downtrim on a/c up to l/n 125 (Cubana, TAROM, Chosonminhang deliveries begin here);
  • retrospectively introduce large ('six-window') freight door in the forward port fuselage. This involved a designation change to Tu-154S (only a handful of machines were converted in the mid-80s; these are by now withdrawn from use);
    The Tu-154M (l/n 707 and subsequent: the 607th airframe built and onwards) had a whole raft of very major visual changes. Initially, the subtype had been intended to use the designation Tu-164. It was indeed an entirely different and more pleasant machine to fly from a pilot's viewpoint.

Major departure: the Tu-154M was a much changed Tupe in terms of aerodynamics, with engine thrust lines moved up and a host of other changes.

Here are the M version's visual markers:

  • introduce inboard wing l/e//fuselage fairing extensions (greater wing area);
  • introduce new elevators with greater chord (8cm greater a/c length and greater tailplane area);
  • reposition APU about 1m/3ft forward and exhaust it via a louvre on the starboard side of the tailcone, just beneath the fin base;
  • lengthen flap track fairings marginally;
  • raise No1 and No3 engines' mountings and thrust lines and introduce much larger new nacelles with completely different barn door reversers;
  • scale No2 engine intake approx 10 per cent up from previous a/c;
  • delete 'pen-nib' No2 engine exhaust and replace with cylindrical exhaust.
  • Retrospective modifications to B and M versions continued into the late 80s and early 90s:
  • remove Doppler radar below and aft of weather radar dome and fair over Doppler radar compartment (this was an early-90s retrospective modification after civilian GPS came on the market and was approved by Tupolev);

Odd rods: two Soviet-era items were removed from Tu-154s in the 1990s: the "Odd-rods" IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) aerials visible just below the windscreen, and the DISS Doppler radar aerial visible on the aeroplane's chin just beneath the radome.
Anton Dovbush

  • remove Odd Rods IFF aerials (where fitted: most non-WarPac-nation sovereign aircraft were not so fitted and some WarPac ones were not) after the voluntary dissolution of the Warsaw Pact Organisation in 1991 (deliveries of new-build a/c to emergent ex-USSR airlines begin here);
  • add an external pipe running along the starboard fin of M models base to the vicinity of the APU.
    Now here is a list of designation changes which I repeat were mostly not linked with changes in appearance:
  • a/c made between 1972 and 1974 had no suffix: they are simply known as Tu-154. All survivors were retrospectively modified to A, and/or B, and/or B-1, and/or B-2, and/or S standard while retaining their original exterior features;
  • a/c made between 1974 and 1975 and fitted with more powerful engines were designated Tu-154A; all survivors were later modified to B, B-1, B-2 and/or S standard, retaining original exteriors;
  • a/c made between 1975 and 1976 were designated Tu-154B; some (but not all) survivors were modified to B-1, B-2 or S standard;
  • a/c made between 1977 and 1982 were designated Tu-154B-1 or Tu-154B-2. The B-1 was preferred for Aeroflot domestic operations and had a standard 158 seat interior with optional increases to 169. The B-2 was generally the export and international route version and could seat 180 in a 'commuter bus' layout. B-1s could be modified to B-2s and vice versa.
  • a/c made between 1985 and 1999 were designated Tu-154M and could seat up to 179.

What's in a name? Not a lot, judging by the Tu-154's various designations. Apart from the M version, the non-suffix, A, B, B-1, and B-2 versions could not be set apart from one another by physical difference alone. The S was a B, B-1, or B-2 with a large portside freight door.
Author's archive

Modelling the Tupe

Finally, let me list the plastic model kits of this magic aeroplane.
The first of these was the VEB Plastikart representation of a non-suffix Tu-154 of the earliest examples in Interflug (fictitious) or Aeroflot colours. In 1/100 scale, and the mid-1970s kit is not too bad for an Eastern Bloc product: about the standard of most 1960s Airfix and Revell efforts. Shape errors make the proud Tupe look rather limp and are rather hard to put right. Surface detail (finely raised) is fussy and largely fictitious. Fit is reasonable, and assembly is fun.

Spot the mismatch: Armenian Airlines never operated the earliest Tupe that the Plasticart kit represents, but the colour is fetching. Smaller brother Tu-134 (right) had two of everything of which the Tu-154 had three (engines, main gear bogey axles, and seats per block), but its technology was "stone age" by comparison with the Tu-154.
Author's collection

Limp: the Plastikart Tupe lacks the noble pedigree energy of the real aeroplane, but is pleasant enough. The distinctive fighter-style pen-nib exhaust of the centre engine is missing, along with the APU exhaust above it , and the outboard NK-8s' thrust reverser grilles. This example wears Aeroflot's initial Tu-154 colour scheme. This jolly scheme (before the sombre 1975 one-size-fits-all-tramline paint) is correct for the earliest Tu-154 that the kit represents, but wing and tailplane tips should be in dayglo orange.
Author's collection

In the mid-1990s, Welsh Models released a vacformed and resin 1/144 Tu-154B-2, followed by a Tu-154M. A variety of colour schemes is available. Sadly, these Tupes are not among this excellent kit maker's best efforts, leaving a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy.
A victim of post-Soviet depression, the ANTK A. N. Tupolev company (successor to OKB-156) was reduced to making a 1/200th scale Tu-154B instead of lifesize machines. The late-1990s kit is a slim shade better than the standard set by Heller with its Cadet model kits, but significantly worse than the high standard set by Hasegawa with their 1/200 airliners. Its worst failing is the lack of landing gear. This renders it rather unattractive to most serious modellers: scratchbuilding a landing gear with 18 wheels can be a chore!
Russian kit manufacturer OKB-144 makes a 1/144 Tu-154B kit in Aeroflot markings. This is a limited-run injection kit with lots of good, and a few bad, points. Its shape errors are correctable, and build is pleasurable.

Pick of the crop: the OKB-144 representation is the best 1/144 scale kit of the Tu-154 available today. The limited-run injection-moulded kit also has photoetched and white metal parts.
Author's archive

Avis rara: this Ukrainian-made Tu-154 kit in 1/72 scale appears reasonably well designed but is very hard to find. This example serves as a travel agent's decoration: note the tv swivel mount!
Author's archive

The Tupe is fast disappearing from the world's air routes. If you have the chance to fly one, grab it! At the very least, you will be able to enrich your personal logbook with a graceful reminder of a golden age long gone.

Museum piece: seize a flight on a Tupe before all examples of this wonderful aeroplane end up in museums, like the one here.
Aleksandr Chizh

by Peter Skipp

Member Comments :

 comment by: Ted Johnston posted on 01-28-2005, comment #247

Excellent article! Thanks!

 comment by: Jennings posted on 04-29-2006, comment #1994

The Tupe has become my favorite Soviet-era airliner. Thanks for an informative article. I can't wait for Dmitry Komissarov's book to come out this summer!


 comment by: flapsup posted on 07-13-2006, comment #2303

Great article. Rarely do you read any good words on Soviet airliners.

 comment by: Aleksandar posted on 03-29-2007, comment #3401

Really interesting article. Just as I thought I know enough, Peter proved me wrong.