When The Soviets Had A Monopoly On Speed And Comfort…

The passenger jet era started in 1952, when the British De Havilland Comet took to the skies. It flew twice the speed of piston aircraft, there was less vibration and noise, and it could soar over storms other aircraft had to fly through. Traveling by jet immediately became a sign of status, and American aircraft companies that had no jets ready for sale watched as business went to Britain. The rush stopped two years later when Comets started crashing due to a design flaw, one for which the manufacturer had no quick fix, and the aircraft were pulled out of service. Passengers were used to the speed and comfort of jet travel, but though Boeing and Douglas Aircraft were trying to rush one into production, neither company would have models available for four years. It was only two years before an unexpected competitor arrived on the scene, as seen in this picture:

Photo courtesy of Aeroflot archives

Photo courtesy of Aeroflot archives

When the first Tupolev 104 landed in London in 1956, Western experts were shocked not only by the fact that the Soviets could build such a sophisticated aircraft, but by the standard of decor and service aboard. The cabin was lavishly decorated with high quality materials – where American designers would have used aluminum for wall trim, the Soviets used polished brass and mahogany. The picture above is of service in first class, but the tourist class cabin was almost as luxurious. You can see the Tiffany-style lamps with leaded glass panes at every table – it was almost as if the designers were showing off the lifting power of their engines by being so careless about weight. As you can also see, the service used gold-trimmed china, different glasses for wines and vodka, a la carte service at a time when other carriers were transitioning to pre-made frozen meals. There was apparently even one configuration of the TU-104 that allowed passengers to phone from their seats to the galley to request meals. The galley that those meals came from was probably primitive compared to American aircraft, but that was a problem for the stewardesses, not the passengers.

Eager for a propaganda victory at a time when only they had TU-104s, the state airline Aeroflot unleashed a barrage of advertising about the speed and comfort of their aircraft.DutchTU104

That appears to be a pineapple in the foreground of this Dutch advertisement, a sight that would have Russians salivating; fresh tropical fruit was a very rare luxury in the Soviet days.

The TU-104’s era of dominance was brief – in 1958 Boeing released the 707, followed quickly by Douglas’s DC-8. Both were faster, quieter, and carried more passengers, and they quickly dominated the passenger aircraft market. Tupolev continued developing jet aircraft and had some success with later models, but never turned out another aircraft that offered such lavish surroundings.