China's air transport market underwent the beginning of a revolution during the 1980s and has been perpetually growing ever since so that within the next decade it will easily be the biggest in the world. The 1984 decision to split the administrative and airline operations sections of the CAAC would signal the beginning of the formation of a range of new airlines, both made from the old parts of the CAAC regional bureaus, joint ventures and provincial government enterprises.
This new diversification and expansion required aircraft since at the beginning of the 1980s the CAAC fleet was small and obsolete. The short haul fleet was still made up primarily of ancient Ilyushin IL-14s and slightly newer Antonov 24s and 26s whilst the medium haul fleet was formed of Trident 2s and Ilyushin IL-18s. For longer flights there were 5 Ilyushin IL-62s and 10 Boeing 707-320s.
The 1980s saw the acquisition of an impressive variety of new aircraft types with seemingly little thought to standardisation. Almost every major new type of available Western aircraft was acquired - from DHC-6 Twin Otters and Shorts 360s to Boeing 767s and Airbus A310s. In the medium haul space new McDonnell Douglas MD-82s and Boeing 757-200s were arriving, however amongst all these shiny new aircraft there were also brand new Tupolev TU-154Ms.
The Tupolev TU-154M was a much improved version of the earlier TU-154 series having far more fuel efficient Soloviev D-30KU-154 turbofan engines along with a raft of aerodynamic improvements. Even so compared to a 757 or MD-82 it was even during the 1980s effectively obsolete. Nonetheless the TU-154 had one major advantage over Western types - it was dirt cheap! Plus it no doubt was a useful way to balance trade between the Soviet Union and China.
China United Airlines
The People's Liberation Army Air Force could probably be forgiven for not taking into account passenger comfort as a priority although in 1984 it was authorised to operate Government and Military passenger flights from the Beijing Nanyuan airbase. This division of the PLAAF would become known as China United Airlines and would be the first in China to receive TU-154s. They acquired four new build aircraft from June 1985 registered as B-4001-4.
The second of the aircraft, B-4002, was reregistered as B-4138, by 1992 and no doubt fitted out with a more luxurious onboard fit. She became the government's first 'Air Force One' style VIP aircraft. China United itself would gradually open up to more regular passenger operations and the rest of the TU-154s would be used in this role.
Initially the TU-154s seem to have worn a CAAC style livery but in later years they'd acquired the new China United scheme. A trio of almost new ex-CSA frames would be added in 1992 and to assist in the full replacement of its remaining Tridents CUA would be the last operator in China to acquire new TU-154s getting at least 7 more between 1990 and 1994. Two ex-CAAC frames would also be added in 1996 (see the next part of this series).
Several of the TU-154s have since been converted for electronic intelligence work with substantial fairings added under the belly. This apparently houses a ground-mapping synthetic aperture radar. They are known as TU-154MDs. Their current status I'm uncertain about but the fleet appeared in good condition well into the late 2000s and aircraft like B-2015 were still in service in 2014. I think at least a few are still in service.
China United was far from the only operator of the TU-154 in Russia and in fact the majority of early acquisitions went to the civilian CAAC. In prt 2 we'll look at the career of these aircraft.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: