‘Winston Churchill described Soviet Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” – the same could be said of Aeroflot, the Soviet Union’s only airline, which to some degree served as a microcosm of the country itself.’
Bruno Vandermueren, in his introduction to Aeroflot: Fly Soviet (Published by Fuel), which unwraps the mystery surrounding Aeroflot by presenting a stunning ‘visual history’ of it.
There’s a lot of material to work with. Vandermueren explains that Aeroflot’s fleet had grown to be the biggest in the entire world by the 1930s. Most of these were small Polikarpov biplanes. Although the growth was slowed by World War II, the size of the carrier began to increase again from the mid-1950s.
Vandermueren reveals that in 1958 the number of passengers Aeroflot carried was greater than American Airlines. Aeroflot had over 7,000 helicopters and aircraft in its fleet by 1960, when one-fifth of all air passengers was flying on Aeroflot flights. It became the first airline that carried more than 100 million passengers per year in 1976.
Vandermueren writes: ‘In 1990, the last complete year before the dissolution of the USSR, Aeroflot carried 137,198,200 passengers, about an eighth of the world’s total, though because of restrictions on freedom of movement 96.77 per cent of these flew on domestic flights.’ Aeroflot was, as the publisher says, ‘a parallel aviation universe, one that existed for 70 years, from the very beginning of the USSR through to its demise in 1991′. It was a carrier that was the sole operator of some aircraft types and what the world saw of Aeroflot outside the Soviet Union, Vandermueren says, ‘was just the tip of the iceberg’.
In his book Vandermueren takes readers into the parallel universe, examining ‘Concordski’, the USSR’s (faster) version of Concorde; the jetliner that touched down at Heathrow in 1956, causing as much stir ‘as if a UFO had landed’, and beautiful graphic ephemera, including vintage Aeroflot adverts and magazine covers. Continue reading to discover the mystery behind aviation’s riddle.
Vandermueren says that in the late 1930s most Aeroflot aircraft consisted of small biplanes. He wrote, “The route to Stalinabad (now Dushanbe), capital of the Tajik SSR.” [Soviet Socialist Republic], over the Pamir mountains to Khorog (pictured here in 1937) is still considered one of the world’s most dangerous air routes’
The 1950 brochure promotes air travel and urges people to save time. It took 36 hours for passengers to travel the 820km (510 miles) between Riga and Moscow by train. However, it takes just three and a quarter hours to fly.
LEFT: This image appeared in Soviet Union Illustrated Monthly in December 1956. It was captioned: “High above Pamirs, at an elevation of 16.500 feet. Passengers have oxygen available to them. Davlyat Khudododoyeva is seen here, a member of the Khorog Dance Ensemble. She’s on her journey to Stalinabad for a concert. Right: Aeroflot’s weekly magazine Ogonek features an advertisement for Aeroflot, which depicts an Ilyushin 12, a Soviet aircraft that was built after World War II. This advertisement tells the reader: “Save time!” Use air transport’
The cabin of the Tupolev Tu-104 is occupied by passengers. It was a 50-seater, turbojet-powered aircraft that made its first flight in June 1955. The airliner then began to fly the route between Moscow and Omsk, three times per week, the picture being taken. The aircraft landed in Britain. Vandermueren writes that the Soviets stunned the aviation community when the first passenger jetliner of their kind landed in London Heathrow, on March 22, 1956. The Soviet diplomats, along with the KGB head, were on board. They arrived in London to get ready for the state visit by Nikita Khrushchev (Premier of Soviet Union under Khrushchev). As if an alien spacecraft had just landed on British soil, the arrival of Tu-104 caused a stir. British pilots and general public were very enthusiastic about the Tu-104’s arrival. Experts also expressed their amazement at the enormous leap that Soviet civil aviation made.
Serving hatch for the Tu-104 Kitchen. Vandermueren wrote: “With the introduction the Tu-104 the Soviets went almost instantly from a fleet small piston-driven aircraft to jet-powered airliners capable of cutting travel times by at most 50%. Although the Tu-104 was easy to pilot, it could stall easily and was slow to land. The Tu-104 was the fastest plane. It will take you from your grave in two minutes. This rhyme is based on a song that was popularized by a funeral march. Accidents were common in all aircraft types at the time. The Tu-104 wasn’t an exception. Following a fatal accident in Moscow on March 17, 1979, the Soviet Ministry of Civil Aviation ordered the phasing out of the jet, and before the year’s end Aeroflot had retired its last Tu-104. It was the end of an era for the Soviet first jet airliner. After 23 years in service and carrying more than 100 million passengers, it had ended its heyday.
The first Tu-104A arrived at Amsterdam by press photographers on July 7, 1958
In the 1970s Aeroflot’s ticket counter at 33 Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris. Vandermueren writes: ‘Outside the USSR, Soviet airliners were often regarded as unsafe and uneconomical – as inferior imitations of their Western counterparts. However, Soviets were able to develop many helicopters and airliners in compliance with strict regulations that met the requirements of Aeroflot. The aircraft were reliable, comparable to their West-based counterparts but with a different design approach. Since the mid-1950s, Soviet planes have had a safety record that was similar to the West’s. This contradicted a long-standing reputation for safety issues.
This 1986 picture shows an An-28 of Aeroflot’s Tajikistan Directorate. Vandermueren says that the aircraft was first put into service in 1984. It saw limited usage, Vandermueren states, “mainly in Siberia, and the high altitudes of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic.”
A Tu-154B-1 passenger board at Novosibirsk, 1983. Vandermueren wrote: “This Tu-154B-1, a 164-seat passenger jetliner, was the first that the Tupolev Bureau designed specifically for this purpose. It had no connection whatsoever to the design and construction of strategic military aircraft. It flew for the first time on October 3, 1968. In 1972, passenger operations were initiated. Vandermueren says that the aircraft became an important part of the fleet’s ‘workhorse’ and was eventually exported to twenty countries. It was however ‘also involved’ in the darkest days of Soviet aviation history. The author writes: ‘ On Wednesday July 10, 1985, flight SU7425, a Tu-154B-2 from the airline’s Uzbek Directorate, departed Karshi airport en route to Leningrad via Ufa. It was cruising at 38,000ft at too slow an airspeed when it stopped, became a flat spin and crashed into the Uzbek desert. Nine crew members were killed and 191 passengers were injured. The accident was caused by crew fatigue, according to investigators.
Moscow Sheremetyevo, 1969. Vandermueren explained that the Tu-144, which was slightly faster than the Mach 2.2 (mach 2.35) version of Concorde, was actually the Soviet Union’s answer. (The West accused the Soviets in stealing the technical data necessary to construct it). The Tu-144 flew its first flight on June 5, 1968. This was two months after Concorde’s maiden flight. It broke the sound barrier in 1969 and was the first commercial passenger aircraft to reach Mach 2.0 one year later. A heavily tweaked version began commercial operations on November 1, 1977, flying from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport and arriving in Alma-Ata two hours later. The journey today takes approximately four hours. Supersonic passenger travel was stopped in the Soviet Union in 1978 after the crash of a Tu-144 aircraft during a flight test. The Tu-144 had only been operating for seven months. Vandermueren says that the commercial demand for supersonic passenger travel had ended. He adds, “The Tu-144 aircraft assigned by Aeroflot only made 102 flights, of which 55 carried a total 3,284 passengers.” It was still used to transport urgent cargo and, in the 90s, Nasa utilized it as a research aircraft for the development of the next supersonic aircraft. Vandermueren explains that today, there are only seven Tu-144s. In the Technik Museum Sinsheim (Germany), one stands alongside an Air France Concorde.
LEFT: Aeroflot 82 Magazine covers the words “Welcome To The Soviet Union!” Picture of the Aeroflot Globe, which rotates above Kalinin Prospekt’s Arbat restaurant in Moscow. RIGHT: Flight attendant Tatyana Zinchenko on the cover of Aeroflot’s inflight magazine Soviet Airlines, No.3, 1977. The background features a narrow-bodied Ilyushin Il-62M aircraft in standard livery, introduced after 1973
Pictured in the early 1970s, is the flight deck of a Tu-134. On July 29, 1963, the prototype Tu-134 flew its first flight. Vandermueren states that 852 Tu-134s were manufactured at Kharkov’s factory 135 between 1966-84. According to Vandermueren, “Nicknamed Whistler because of the high-pitched sound it makes from its engine,” this plane was both reliable and popular. Accidents did occur, but it wasn’t always technical issues with the aircraft that were to blame’
Aeroflot – Fly Soviet by Bruno Vandermueren is out now (£24.95, Fuel)