A Brief History
On February 7, 1981, a Soviet airliner carrying 6 crewmen and 44 passengers crashed immediately after takeoff from Pushkin Airport near Leningrad, killing all 50 people aboard the jetliner. Among the passengers killed, were 16 senior Soviet officers, Admirals and Generals of the Soviet Pacific Fleet, effectively decapitating one of the most powerful military units in the world. As we have repeatedly in the past, we take another look at what we call a “Naval Oops Moment.”
Unlike other naval disasters we have reported on, this incident did not entail ships or even the ocean, but instead a Tupolev Tu-104, a twin-jet airliner that had been the second jet airliner in the world to enter service in 1956 (after the De Havilland Comet). Small and not much passenger carrying capacity by today’s standards, the Tu-104 only carried 50 to 115 passengers depending on model and configuration. Developed from the Tu-16 Badger Soviet bomber, the Tu-104 was produced between 1956 and 1960, with 201 examples built. In fact, the Tu-104 was the only jet airliner flying in the world from 1956 until 1958 because the Comets had been grounded due to structural failures. (The Boeing 707 entered service in October of 1958. The 707 was substantially more successful than either the Comet or the Tu-104, with 865 of the 4 engine jetliners being built.)
The tragedy at Pushkin Airport led to the retirement of the Tu-104 from all service, although the cause of the crash was ruled to have been “improper loading.” Not only were 16 flag rank officers killed in the crash (“flag rank” meaning Admirals and Generals), but another dozen Soviet military officers of the Colonel/Captain Army/Navy equivalent rank were also killed.
While other Naval Oops Moments have killed more people and destroyed more military hardware, no other incident resulted in the incredible loss of so many senior officers in a single incident. Investigators believed some of those senior officers may have contributed to the disaster by refusing to sit in their assigned seats, thus causing the jetliner to become imbalanced. Another theory as to the cause of the crash was huge rolls of paper that were loaded as cargo were not properly lashed down, and when the plane took off, those rolls rolled to the back of the airplane throwing the jet out of balance. Among those killed were the commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Emil Spiridonov, and his wife.
Travel by airliner is alleged to be incredibly safe, but apparently not safe enough to prevent a truly tragic and spectacular Naval Oops Moment!
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For more information, please see…
Oberg, James. Uncovering Soviet Disasters: Exploring the Limits of Glasnost. Random House, 1988.
Yefim, Gordon. Tupolev Tu-104: Aeroflot’s First Jetliner. Midland Publishing, 2010.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Александров of a memorial in the Serafimovskoe Cemetery, St Petersburg to those who died in the 1981 crash, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.