The Tupolev Tu-104 was an impressive achievement that made the West stand up and take notice of Soviet engineering capability, even if it wasn't quite the dream jet the Soviets made it out to be. Indeed, the type was a serious challenge and that is perhaps partly why outside of the Soviet Union it served only with the reliable CSA, although one aircraft did half-sneak into Alitalia colours briefly too!
The Tupolev Tu-104 was the first reliable jet airliner in service in the world and probably doesn't get enough credit for that. Whilst obviously built to the usual Soviet pattern, producing a rugged airliner with some 'interesting' handling characteristics and a rather dubious safety record, the type saw long service in both Russia and Czechoslovakia.
CSA, the Czechoslovak national airline, was founded as far back as October 1923 and with this seniority it was seemingly the most trusted of the Warsaw Pact airlines outside the Soviet Union. This meant that it tended to get new equipment sooner than Interflug, LOT, Malev etc and in the case of early jet operators it was the only operator outside the Soviet Union of Russia's new medium-range turbojet - the Tu-104, NATO code name 'Camel'.
The Tu-104 shocked Western analysts when it was unveiled and quickly became commonplace in the Aeroflot fleet from mid-May 1956, however the type was far from trouble-free and so it is unsurprising that the Soviet's would only trust CSA with the machine outside of Russia.
The following quote taken from Tu-104 Wikipedia page sums up the Tu-104's failings well:
"The Tu-104 was unreliable, heavy, very unstable with poor control response, with an inclination to Dutch roll. Poor design aerodynamics of the wings resulted in a propensity to stall with little or no warning and a dangerous tendency to pitch up violently before stalling and entering an irrecoverable dive. Due to the fear of inadvertent stalls, aircrew would fly approaches above the recommended approach speed, landing at 270–300 km/h (170–190 mph), nearly 50 km/h (31 mph) faster. At least two accidents were attributed to the pitch-up phenomenon, prompting changes to the design of the aircraft and operating procedures, but the problem remained."
Nonetheless, none of this should undermine what was a great technological and publicity success for the Soviets and the Camel served well despite a rather high loss rate.
On November 2, 1957 CSA took delivery of its first Tu-104A delivered in an single class 75 seat 'tourist' layout. The aircraft was registered OK-LDA and unsurprisingly named 'Praha' after the capital city. The first revenue service was between Prague and Moscow on December 9th.
Three further units were added new - two in December 3 1957 and one on January 7, 1960. All were delivered in a blue version of the CSA scheme with the characteristic trim at the nose the Czechs called a fousy (meaning moustache). A further pair of used ex-Aeroflot Tu-104s were delivered on March 12, 1962 and February 25, 1963 and these came in the newer red scheme with a larger moustache.
Half of the CSA Camel fleet was lost in service although none of the losses seem to have been directly due to the aircraft. OK-LDB had survived an emergency landing on May 16, 1958, when both engines flamed out in heavy turbulence, but was written off on March 16, 1963 at Bombay, when a refueling hose was left unattended and a fuel spill caused a fire that gutted the aircraft.
OK-NDD was lost on June 1, 1970 landing in fog at Tripoli when it crashed on approach. Lastly OK-MDE was written off on August 29, 1973 when it skidded off the runway at Nicosia, Cyprus after an emergency landing due to an engine failure.
The loss of OK-MDE predated the retirement of the type from CSA service by less than a year as all were retired in 1974. The first aircraft, OK-LDA, was preserved at the Military History Museum at Prague. The other two both became restaurants, but not before OK-NDF had a very interesting side job.
This involved the aircraft being used in a 1975 Soviet-Czech comedy film called "Solo for elephant and orchestra". The film sounds bizarre but for reasons that aren't entirely clear an Alitalia aircraft was needed and the cost of renting a real Alitalia DC-8 was too expensive. The solution was to use the Tu-104 that had been retired on April 25, 1974.
The entire story of this episode can be read at the following Italian website (you need to use Google translate):
The end result was that the entire port side of the aircraft was repainted into Alitalia's classic livery but with additional titles towards the rear as that was the part of the aircraft that would be seen when the actors disembarked. The aircraft even gained the registration of an Alitalia DC-8-62, I-DIWN, and DC-8 titles.
The story goes that Alitalia was non too pleased by this turn of events and in the end the aircraft appears in the film for only a few seconds. Whether this was due to Alitalia is unknown. The film actually did get a release in the West named as "Adventure at the Moscow Circus". It was no classic by anyone's estimation!
Following this fame OK-NDF returned to CSA colours and was sold to a person who turned it into a restaurant in Olomouc, now in the Czech Republic. It changed hands following the collapse of Communism and was known as Bar Letka TU 104 as late as July 2012 when it was sold once again.
This time the aircraft got the respect it deserved and it is now on display at the Air Park Zruč u Plzně where it can still be visited - see here for photos and details.
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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: