The 1960s were an exciting time for the world of commercial aviation, with newly developed jet engine technology allowing more people to travel further and faster than ever before. When it came to the Soviet Union, the first airliner from the country to be powered by turbofans was the Tupolev Tu-124, of which more than 160 examples were produced in a relatively short five-year cycle. This is its story.
63 years since the first flight
For many airlines, the jet age was all about opening up longer routes to places that would previously have required routings with one or more stopovers. Such planes also lowered per-seat costs by offering greater capacity. However, the Tupolev Tu-124 didn’t quite fall under this remit. Instead, it was built to meet specifications set out by Aeroflot, with the carrier wanting to use it domestically.
While the Tu-124 was the Soviet Union’s first turbofan-powered airliner, Tupolev had already produced its first turbojet-powered airliner at this stage. Known as the Tu-104, this twinjet entered service in 1956, and was briefly the world’s only operational jetliner during the De Havilland Comet’s grounding. The Tu-104 had medium-range capabilities, hence Tupolev was able to try something different with the Tu-124.
Aeroflot wanted the Tu-124 to replace the Ilyushin Il-14 turboprop on its domestic routes. To account for the lower capacity of regional aircraft, Tupolev scaled down the Tu-104 to create the new design, measuring 30.58 meters long compared to the original 40.06 meters. However, the aircraft, which first flew on March 29th, 1960, also had several other differences compared to its predecessor.
How did the Tu-124 differ from the Tu-104?
On a superficial level, a key distinction between the Tu-124 and the Tu-104 was the fact that the former was almost 10 meters shorter than the latter. This limited its capacity to around 44-56 passengers, whereas the Tu-104 could hold 50-115, depending on the specific variants. The Tu-124’s wingspan was also nine meters narrower, clocking in at 25.55 meters compared to 34.54 meters.
Of course, with the Tu-124 hitting the skies later than the Tu-104, it also benefited from developments in the field of engine technology. This meant that Tupolev was able to fit it with Soloviev D-20 turbofans, which were quieter than the Tu-104’s Mikulin AM-3 turbojets. As a result, the turbofan-powered Tupolev Tu-124 was quieter and more efficient than the turbojet-powered Tu-104 that preceded it.
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Tupolev also made several smaller-scale refinements to the Tu-124 that caused it to differ from its larger predecessor. Among these changes was the use of double-slotted flaps. Additionally, it featured automatic spoilers, as well as a center-section airbrake. While the Tu-104’s wings were fully swept on the trailing edge, this was only the case for the Tu-124 for sections outboard of the landing gear.
Three decades of service
More than two years passed between the Tu-124’s first flight and its entry into commercial service. This eventually took place in October 1962, after deliveries began in August of that year. The first route served by the type was Aeroflot’s corridor between Moscow and Tallinn, and the airline flew the type for 18 years, until 1980. Meanwhile, the Tu-124 had a longer service life at other carriers.
Indeed, the type even flew outside the Soviet Union for operators including the likes of Czech Airlines, Interflug (East Germany), and Iraqi Airways. The latter of these, along with the Soviet and Iraqi air forces, continued to operate it into the early 1990s, eventually bringing to an end a service life that lasted nearly 30 years. ATDB.aero shows that 164 production Tu-124s were built between 1960 and 1965.
Not the best safety record
Unfortunately, one of the Tupolev Tu-124’s less pleasant legacies is that of its rather poor safety record. Data from the Aviation Safety Network shows that the type was involved in 23 fatal accidents, of which two saw over 100 fatalities.
The website lists a total of 37 hull loss occurrences, with this figure representing some 22.56% of the production Tu-124 aircraft that Tupolev built. In better news, data from ATDB.aero shows that 14 Tu-124s are preserved at museums.
What do you make of the Tupolev Tu-124? Did you ever fly on one back in the day? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!
Sources: ATDB.aero, Aviation Safety Network