I decided to write this after reading a thread about Aeroflot retiring it’s TU-154 fleet, and reading comments from some posters wanting to fly on one before it’s gone.
I apologize for the lack of pictures, this happened in 1988 when the digital camera and internet really didn't exist yet.
As always, please feel free to comment.
July 1988 B-2608 TU-154M CA 2324 Guangzhou-Xian
This was supposed to be the moment I had been waiting for, the chance to fly on the Russian equivalent of the 727. I would finally have a chance few Americans got, the chance to compare the 727 with her steroidal Russian cousin, the TU-154. There was no comparison. Comparing the 727 with her clean, fast looks, fast ride and comfortable, climate controlled interior with passenger air vents, to a TU-154 is a bit like comparing A-Rod to a high school baseball player, the two aren’t even in the same league. They both do the same job, but one just does it with so much more ease, grace and comfort that comparing them really isn’t even fair.
Still, for a young, American college student, even being able to take a ride on the TU-154 was pretty much a once in a lifetime experience. It was an experience I had waited six hours for on a warm day in southern china, when the heat and humidity caused sweat to flow like domperignon in first class and tempers were flaring like fireworks.
Having checked out of our accommodations, the dormitory at South China Normal College (or something like that) in the early morning, we drove to Guangzhou airport and while our group of 30 Americans waited, our interpreter went to the ticket counter and checked us in, only to return with bad news, our nine a.m. flight to Xian was delayed until three. Luckily, we were able to get day rooms in a local hotel and so we bussed off to the hotel and spent the next 6 hours waiting and amusing ourselves. I think I spent most of the time reading Helter Skelter, a book that really scared the hell out of me the first time I read it. When I wasn’t doing that, or just laying on the bed watching what passes as tv in China, I got involved in playing charades, that was fun, and a first for me. Every hour or so someone would go to the lobby and check the status of the flight, as there was a notice posted in the lobby, with updates.
Finally returning to the airport at around one we got checked in, got our boarding passes, and avoided the massive lines at security because some of the young, omni present Chinese military conscripts providing security found one of the girls in the group cute, and so allowed us in without having to wait in line. The Guangzhou airport back then was by no means international, it was served by one terminal, with the airplanes parked on the tarmac and the passengers delivered to those airplanes by bus. In front of us, with their tails facing us, were a long line of western built aircraft, 737s and 757s. You don’t realize how large a 757 is until you’re looking at one from ground level. Those 757s gleamed in their white and blue CAAC colors. It seemed all the other flights were going as scheduled, ours wasn’t.
At the far end of the line, away from the other airplanes I saw a single TU-154. the Chinese were nice enough to stamp the aircraft number on the boarding pass, as well as putting it on the FIDS monitors, so I wondered if that one sitting all by itself was ours? The 757s carried 2800 registrations and the 737s carried 2500 numbers, and I think the 707s and 747s carried 2400 numbers so maybe that forlorn looking TU-154 was ours, could it be? Logic would dictate yes, but logic then and now was a foreign concept to me and the plane was parked too far away to see the registration. I’d just have to wait and see, and hope we weren’t told the flight was delayed again.
Eventually, boarding commenced with everyone getting on a standup bus and we trundled away from the terminal heading down behind the line of 737s and 757s before pulling up to the side of B-2608, our TU-154M. The first thing I noticed as we climbed the stairs to the number two boarding door as we were seated towards the back, was a seeming lack of exit slides. The usual bulges that betrayed their location was missing and the doors sat flush against the side of the airplane. Now I was a little nervous. I had never before flown on a plane with no safety equipment, other than maybe the 30 plus year old Convair 580s that took me back and forth to College.
The seats were a pastel color, sort of a peach color I seem to recall. I slid into my window seat and looked out upon the sinister looking wing that seemed to twist disjointedly at odd angles with the bright red wingtip fully visible.
Observation number two, it was absolutely sweltering on this airplane. In the short amount of time we sat on the tarmac we became drenched in sweat, using anything we could to cool ourselves off. The love affair with the sinister Russian giant was beginning to wear off. The load seemed light and some of us joked that the reason the plane was delayed was to allow CAAC more time to sell tickets. The seats were rather flimsy and had this odd capability of being able to be folded forward to face the opposite direction.
I believe there was some kind of APU running as I could hear an electomechanical hum, but with a DC-10 esque system that did not permit individual passenger air vents, we continued to swelter in the midday heat, using tourist fans and even promotional brochures, the safety card, oh, yeah, what safety card? There wasn’t one, to cool ourselves off. We used anything we could get our hands on, and it didn’t really work. The wings and engines are so close together you could look back and see the intake for the engine. Need I say we were behind the wing? Behind us was a door, that for a purpose other than being an emergency exit, was unserviceable, there is no way any service truck could navigate between the wing and engine to get to that door. If there were announcements, I don’t remember them, they would have all been in Chinese anyway, there was no exception made for any English speaking passengers.
Observation number three, the engines. Now, supposedly, the Solovievs that the 154M come with are quieter than the Kuznetzovs powering the 154A, B and B2. I cannot imagine anything louder than those engines. When those engines started any possibility of civilized conversation was dead, you had to shout to make yourself heard. To describe the loudness, imagine maybe a DC-9-30, or maybe an unhushkitted 1969 727 and magnify that level of engine noise by two or three and you have an idea of how loud those Solovievs were. Of course, it didn’t help that we were sitting at the very back.
With all three engines running, or humming in a sinister fashion, we taxied straight forward and turned onto the taxiway. We taxied very slowly to the runway, the engines idling loudly behind us. As we lumbered onto the runway, I got the sight of a lifetime, right behind us was a Trident! All I could think as I looked at it, sitting behind us, was it looked tiny, much smaller than the 154 we were on, smaller even than the 727. Our engines spooled up and we began our very long takeoff roll, see, the TU-154 is made of steel, not aluminum, resultantly it doesn’t have very good hot and high performance. At seemingly the very last minute we lumbered into the air heavily, slowly climbing. Our interpreter, Meng, had told us that the Russian plane was slow, she was not wrong. Behind me I could hear the sinister growl of the engines as we continued to climb heavily.
Once we reached our cruising altitude, the flight attendants, dressed in their pleasant pastel green uniforms came through with a meal service, it consisted of a box thrown in our laps. I can’t recall what was in that box, a sandwich of some sort maybe? Whatever it was, I didn’t eat it. The beverage service consisted of a box of leecheefruit juice again thrown in our laps. A light load gave us a bit of an opportunity to get up and move around the cabin.
Observation number four, the safety card was replaced by a placard near the emergency exit in Chinese, English and Russian instructing concisely how to open the exit. No life vests, no hint that our seats might float, no hint of a slide, as another member of the group joked morbidly, ‘we don’t need all that stuff, if this thing crashes we’ll all die anyway.”
After a moment to stand and stretch, we returned to our seats and buckled in again and we commenced our descent. If the takeoff was nerve wracking the landing was downright scary.
I don’t believe this plane had speed brakes, nor did it seem to have flaps, speed reduction I believe was done by simply throttling back the engines. We pretty much dropped like a brick. A flying brick. The engines were throttling back more, we continued to drop basically like a brick, for the first time in my life I was actually scared, not peeing my pants, running up and down the aisle terrified, but I was scared. I was gripping the armrest, hoping to god we made it onto the runway. I could see the ground getting closer, closer, closer, the gear came down with a clunk.
Now, I like to think I’m an afficionado of good landings, I’ve experienced every extreme from a greased landing so smooth on a Western 727 we didn’t even realize we were on the ground until the trust reversers came on, to a landing on a new United 767-200 that made me think that the 767 was a flying RV, with lots of rattling and clanking.
We hit the runway at Xian, another rural aerodrome, with a teeth rattling slam, this was followed almost immediately by braking so hard that we were straining against our seatbelts. With a very loud groan we careened to a halt halfway down the runway then turned right and pulled into a parking position along side another TU-154, B-2609, the doors came open and off we came, descending onto what seemed like a nice red brick plaza with a pleasant walkway that took us across a concrete tarmac area, some people were turning around and taking photos of the plane while the Chinese military conscripts looked the other way, parked at the end, or beginning, of a line of TU-154s.
Walking towards baggage claim, my heart still pounding from that gut wrenching, literally, landing. I told myself that I did not need to fly on this plane again, ever. Any sense of romance about experiencing Russian aviation was dead. Very, very, dead.
CA 2101 Xian-Beijing TU-154M B-2608
I’d like to say that experience number two flying on the TU-154 was better than experience number one, but in most ways, it was, if possible worse. The delay was longer, eight hours, and there was no local hotel we could go to in Xian to wait, we, and everyone else waiting for their flights had to wait in the terminal or outside. The waiting area in the terminal was rather small, so we waited outside, all day. I already knew, from my boarding pass, that we’d be on another TU-154, it was supposed to be B-2610, it turned out to be B-2608, again. It was a nice day, thankfully, we passed the time reading, talking, sitting in the grass and playing cards.
When flight time finally came were able to once again skip the long security lines and get into the holding area because the guards thought one of the girls in the group was cute. The waiting area at Xian was a bit bigger, with four doors leading out to the tarmac. Directly in front of us was a 737 going somewhere, boarding as close to direct from the terminal as was possible at this airport. the runway, directly parallel to us, was alive with TU-154s slamming to the ground and careening to a stop, that’s what happens when you fly a steel airplane with no flaps, you have to fly it straight onto the ground.
Once boarding was called we walked across a large concrete apron and down a nice red brick path with grass on one side and a line of sinister looking TU-154s on the other, up the stairs and onboard. Again, no reason was given for why our 9 a.m. flight was delayed to five. Once again, we took our seats. this time I was on the aisle. Once again, it was swelteringly, sweat inducingly hot inside the airplane as we waited interminably. Departure this time was signified by complete dead silence, leading me to think that maybe the APU and engines are separate systems, before engines could start the apu went off, leaving several seconds of unnerving silence as we pushed back and the engines powered up to their deafeningly loud levels again. Take off this time seemed to take forever before we finally struggled into the air so slugglishly it made even the A340 look like a fighter jet in comparison. Matter of factly, I was told by another member of the group that we used up virtually the entire runway, getting off the ground only about 50 feet from a line of trees at the end of the runway. A bit unnerving.
Since the flight was only an hour long, the inflight service consisted of juice boxes being thrown at us, and landing at Beijing again consisted of us slamming to the runway at 170 miles an hour, but since the runway was longer we didn’t endure the anti-gravitational braking that we had landing in Xian, we just rolled out and turned off. We arrived at the still under construction domestic terminal at Beijing where we parked at a gate then descended airstairs to the tarmac, walked inside and up a flight of stairs to the terminal.
It’s not often I swear I’ll never again fly on a certain kind of plane, but coming off this plane I was swearing I wouldn’t fly on it again willingly. But, for me, flying on the TU-154 was a twice in a lifetime experience.