Tupolev TU-154 (OM-BYO) in Slovakian Government livery. Article and Photo by Jason Rabinowitz.
Last week, a chapter of Soviet aviation has been closed forever. Over 40 years after its entry into service, the final Tupolev Tu-154 has been delivered to the Russian Defense Ministry, according to Russian news agency RIA Novosti. Although full production ceased back in 1997, the Tu-154 remained in limited production for quite some time, with a final total of over 1000 airframes produced. The first Tu-154 was delivered to Aeroflot on February 7, 1972.
The Tu-154 was the last of the commercial “tri-jets” in production, outlasting popular aircraft such as Lockheed L-1011 Tristar and Boeing 727 by several decades, both of which saw ther last deliveries in 1984.
Designed to be the workhorse of the Soviet aviation industry, flying into some of the harshest airfields in the world, the Tu-154 went places other jet powered aircraft of its size could not. With its oversized landing gear, the Tu-154 was even able to land on unpaved runways.
Contrary to popular belief, the Tu-154 was not an unsafe aircraft. According to the the Aviation Safety Network, the Soviet built aircraft has been involved in 110 serious incidents, 68 of which resulted in a hull loss, 30 of which saw no deaths. Several incidents were the direct result of terrorism or military action, poor weather and runway conditions, as well as pilot error and poor maintenance. Comparatively, the Boeing 737 has been involved in 159 hull-loss accidents, though over 7,000 737s have been produced.
A string of recent high profile accidents accelerated the withdrawal of the Tu-154 from passenger service. Most notably, on April 10, 2010, a Polish Air Force Tu-154 carrying many high level government officials, including the President of Poland, crashed near the city of Smolensk, Russia, killing all 96 on board. That accident was blamed not on the aircraft, but on pilot error. These accidents prompted the Russian Federal Bureau of Aviation in March 2011 to recommend the withdrawal remaining Tu-154s from passenger service.
As of early 2012, 104 Tu-154s remained in service with various airlines throughout the world, as well as several military operators. The Russian aerospace industry has yet to produce a strong competitor for Boeing and Airbus. The Sukhoi Superjet 100 is Russia’s latest attempt at competing, but only 223 have been ordered thus far, and competition from countries such as China and Japan is heating up.
The Tu-154 will forever has a place in aviation history as a tank of an aircraft. Going where other aircraft wouldn’t even dream, this Soviet designed aircraft stood the test of time, ending up a black eye or two along the way.
Jason Rabinowitz is a New York City native who has grown up in the shadow of JFK International Airport. A true “avgeek”, he enjoys plane spotting and photography, as well taking any opportunity he can get to fly on an aircraft. Find Jason on Twitter @AirlineFlyer and FaceBook