Aeroflot, the largest Russian national carrier has announced the retirement of the last Tupolev TU-154 from its fleet. The aircraft type has been in operation for almost 40 years, since 1972. The final Aeroflot flight with the type took place on December 31, 2009, from Yekaterinburg to Moscow Sheremetyevo airport, two years after the last Aeroflot flight of the smaller TU-134. Aeroflot is replacing this aircraft with an Airbus A320.
The Tupolev- TU-154 (NATO codename Careless), a trijet airliner developed in the mid 1960’s for medium-range passenger flights. The original requirements came from Aeroflot, which back then was the only Soviet airline. Aeroflot requested a new, jet engine airliner to replace its aging TU-104 as well as other Soviet built, medium-range turboprop fleet with a modern, fast jetliner. Similar to many Russian (or actually Soviet) built industrial products of that age, the TU-154 also has conceptual counterparts in the Western-world (the British Hawker Siddeley Trident) as well as in America (the Boeing 727). It uses the three engine lineup, where all three engines are attached to the aft part of the plane, with two on the side and one in the middle, just above the main cabin. Even though the TU-154 has a more powerful engine than the 727, it also consumes considerably more fuel, and is much louder.
It has been the work-horse of the Russian (earlier Soviet) air transportation, as more than a 1000 has been built in several variations. The plane has a cruising speed of 975km/h, which makes it one of the fastest civilian aircraft in operation. The average flight range is about 5280 kms – ideal for medium-haul routes. As a big plus, the TU-154 is capable of departing and arriving on unpaved and gravel airfields, which makes it ideal for operations in the extreme Arctic conditions of Russia’s northern territories or around ex-Soviet states, where airports can be very basic. This also means that it has way oversized landing gear equipment with large, low-pressure tires.
Inside the cabin, it seats 3+3 aside, with lower cabin top and less overhead luggage storage capacity. Most commonly the plane seated 124 passengers in two classes, or 168 in a one cabin layout. Some airlines used the high-density version that could seat up to 180 passengers.
Aeroflot once operated 23 TU-154s and the plane was in use by several airlines in the European part of the Warsaw Pact, such as LOT Polish Airlines, CSA Czech Airlines and Malev Hungarian Airlines just to name a few. Actually out of the 36 fatal accidents with the type, the first and most interesting TU-154 accident happened with a Malev plane, as it was approaching Beirut Airport on September 30, in 1975.
Allegedly Malev Flight 240 was to carry a group of Palestine leaders back from Budapest from a conference, but these leaders never boarded the plane. Being delayed several times before taking off, it mysteriously crashed in the Mediterranean sea near the Lebanese coast at dawn on final approach – without any report of a technical malfunction or any mayday calls from the cockpit. 50 passengers and 10 crew members were killed in the accident – and most of them have still not been brought to shore – even the aircraft fuselage lays at the bottom of the sea. The most commonly accepted theory is that Israeli forces may have shut down the plane – due to the information about the above mentioned political group onboard. The incident was classified as an accident and Malev received its insurance money but the investigation has never been closed.
The last major accident by the Tupolev TU-154 happened just last year in July, 2009 in Iran, killing all 168 onboard.
At the end of 2009 still 214 of the type were in operation with 24 airlines, mostly from the ex-Soviet Union as well as Iran. This has now been reduced to only 23 as Aeroflot is no longer operating it. According to plans, the type is expected to continue in operation until 2016, although it is expected that the number in operation will fall year over year.