The USSR's medium range jet airliner

The Soviet Union entered the jet age during the Cold War era at the same time the Western world entered the jet age with the Boeing 707 in the United States, the De Havilland Comet in Great Britain and the Caravelle in France. The Soviet Union unveiled its first jet airliner, the Tupolev 104, in 1956 and entered service with Russia's flag carrier Aeroflot. Afterwards, the design bureau Tupolev introduced in the 1960's the TU-134, a narrowbody twinjet equivalent to the Douglas DC-9 or Caravelle, made for short haul flights within the Soviet Union.
It was in the late 1960's that Aeroflot asked the Tupolev company to design a new jetliner capable of carrying more passengers over longer distance routes and also capable of short field performances. Aeroflot needed the new airplane to replace the Ilyushin 18, a four-engine propeller aircraft equivalent to the Lockheed Electra, and the short range TU-134. The new aircraft was then called the Tupolev TU-154.

The TU-154 is the Russian equivalent of the US built Boeing 727 and British built Hawker Siddely Trident. It is designed with three tail mounted engines like its two competitors in the Western world, a triple slotted flap system like the Boeing 727 has and a six-wheel landing gear leg to improve the aircraft short field take off and landing performances. These features enable a greater lift performance and greater braking capability respectively, also a greater number of wheels on each landing gear leg reduces the weight applied on each wheel. This is why the TU-154's wing is designed with a large cone on its trailing edge, its purpose is to house each main landing gear.
The TU-154 first flew in 1968 and entered service with Aeroflot in the early 1970's, the first destination outside the USSR Aeroflot flew the TU-154 was Prague. The TU-154 was sold in large number to Aeroflot, then the largest airline in the world, and it was also bought by other carriers from communist countries. Other TU-154 early operators were Malev of Hungary, CSA of Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia during the communist time before it separated in Czech Republic and Slovakia in the 1990's), LOT of Poland and Tarom of Romania. I believe that the only non communist airlines that ever operated the TU-154 were Egypt Air and Syrian Air.
An improved version of the aircraft, the TU-154M, came out in the 1980's and also entered service with Aeroflot. The 154M had a heavier gross weight, could fly farther than its predecessor models, and was equipped with uprated Soloviev power plant. The production of the TU-154/154M ended in 2006, with about 1000 units of all variants built. In 2007, Aeroflot still had about 20 TU-154M's in its fleet. Tupolev made a TU-204 which resembled the Boeing 757 but the 204 wasn't very successful.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's, also the end of communism, the former TU-154 operators mentioned above began to phase in Western built aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus, and Aeroflot was no longer the largest airline that it used to be. Many former Soviet territories that became independent after the falling of the communist regime each had their own flag carrier, for example Belavia of Belarus, Uzbekistan Airways and Air Ukraine. Those independent airlines continued to operate the TU-154 aircraft although they would also eventually phase in Western built types. Other airlines of former Soviet territory, such as Air Baltic of Latvia and Estonian Air also phased in the Boeing 737.

Unfortunately, quite a few TU-154's were lost in major accidents. The most memorable disaster is the collision with a DHL Boeing 757 over Switzerland in 2002, the 154 involved in this disaster was carrying mostly youngsters to some holiday destination in Spain. However the aircraft has improved its safety record in the last few years and the major Russian flag carrier Aeroflot gives a better impression to the public, both in safety and in flight service, of what it used to give during the communist regime years.

Today (early 2010's), many Russian airlines that were founded after the break up of the USSR still fly the Tupolev TU-154M on domestic routes within Russia and also on routes to leisure destinations in Russia and neighbor countries. Those Russian airlines founded after the collapse include Pulkovo, Kras Air, Siberia Airlines, Ural Airlines,...just to name a few of them. Moscow based Aeroflot retired its last Tupolev aircraft, the TU-154, in 2010 and replaced the type with western built Airbus A320 equipment but the smaller carriers I mention above will continue to fly them as charters for years to come.
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