From the [AR]vault: This story was originally published on June 8, 2015.
The Tupelov Tu-154 is a classic airliner that many AvGeeks admire, but unfortunately it will no longer be able to fly with-in continental Europe. I was lucky enough to snag a seat on the last flight, a Tu-154M on Belavia to Minsk (MSQ).
You see, many in Europe were getting upset with the rare Soloviev D-30 engine gracing their passenger airports. The noise and the environmental impact did not make many friends. It is too bad, because it’s not like the 737-800 is replacing the Tu-154M on a one-to-one basis with every airline operating them at a speed comparable to that of light anyway. Why even bother other than to make a point?
My friend, who happens to divide his time between Paris and Minsk, runs an aviation enthusiast tour company and asked if I wanted to join a group to give the Tu-154 a send-off from Europe. I packed my things and ended up in Geneva (GVA) on May 29th, 2015.
After a reasonable sleep in an airport hotel, I made my way back to Geneva airport to check-in for my Tu-154M flight. You can always tell when it’s a flight almost entirely filled with AvGeeks, because the majority of the passengers were either already in line or arriving at the airport. In fact, so great was the demand for early check in that the two agents seemed to have resigned themselves to operating prior to their assigned hours. It also helped that the tour group commander was standing adjacent to them and radiating an aura of motivation.
After check-in, it was time to find a way to get a decent photo of the aircraft landing. No luck. There used to be a great observation deck in Geneva, but it was turned into an upscale champagne bar. We asked if that champagne lounge was still open. Nope. We looked for a window of any decent stature and clarity, to no avail. The lovely T-tail streaked past our window. Disheartened, we made our way through customs to utter bedlam. You see, when you do not charter a plane entirely for yourself, other enthusiasts less enthused by the idea of spending a lovely weekend in Minsk were also able to book seats.
It seemed as if almost every AvGeek in western Europe, especially Switzerland, had descended on the gate. Worse, it was a bus gate – so there would be no time to get an unobstructed cabin shot if I had fought my way to the front of the boarding line. Squished into the last bus, as if some kind of sardine, we made our way to the hardstand, to a chorus of ramp staff taking pictures of the aircraft with any camera they could find. It is always nice to feel like a rockstar, even if there are a hundred other people on the bus.
Upon arrival, more chaos — everyone wanted to get on the plane, but everyone also wanted to spend an eternity attempting to photograph it. When the first person spotted in Belavia garb made his way around to the passenger-facing side of the aircraft, he was mobbed with fans. At first, I think the bewildered flight engineer had no idea as to why everyone wanted his photograph, but by the end, he was thrilled. As he should be; the Belavia uniform is very stylish.
After what felt like a battle to even get to the staircase, I made my way up. If only to take my traditional boarding shot.
Two friendly cabin attendants were posed for photographs. It was impossible to capture their extreme bemusement.
Once on board, it was clear the level of absolute perversion that was going on to some of the visitors who had made their own way onto the plane. Not sure how clearly you can see in the photo, but one man had not only a head-mounted GoPro, but also a chest-mounted camera. I love the Tu-154 – we know this. I am an authority on the aircraft, but even I would never watch a shaky headcam video I took. I would wear it if I wanted to look extremely hardcore, but damn son — spend the money on model Tu-154s; you can look at those and smile.
I made my way to my seat, 13F, to discover that the outer and middle seats were already occupied by a camera person and a reporter from the Belorussian network STV. One of them looked a bit like a gangster; the other looked like a more attractive version of “Snow White” from the Russian film Ninth Company. I’ll let you figure out which was which. The answer will not surprise you.
Anyway, after speaking with my seatmate for a bit, I learned that the flight from Minsk to Geneva was her first time on an airplane. She was, at best, whelmed by the experience – but could understand why people would love it.
I was on another Tu-154, which is quite exciting, but I was distracted by the lovely Marina seated next to me. Yes, I am married – but that doesn’t mean I’m dead.
Once the excitement wore off – holy cow… these seats are cramped!
Look, the Tu-154 can be an extremely-high-capacity aircraft. I get it. I also was not paying for comfort. If anything, I was paying for discomfort. Seat pitch had to be 27″ at best! Perfect in its own obscene way.
Did I mention it was hot in the cabin? Probably over 100ºF, but we’d be taking off soon and the cabin would cool off, right? As it was, the APU was screaming, but seemingly in vain. It kept getting hotter and then I realized just how far past our departure time we were. My phone buzzed and it was Jacob, AirlineReporter’s European correspondent. He told me we were facing a 90-minute Coordinated Time of Take-off delay due to understaffing in Poland. Great… another hour boiling to death.
After sitting out the remainder of the 90 minute delay, one of my favorite parts happened; engine start up.
That start-up was a beautiful concert of the three Soloviev D-30s. I always think that they have a sort-of vacuum-cleaner-meets-rotary-phone-ringing-tone to them. There’s no other sound like it!!
Soon, we made our way to Geneva’s runway. But first, the fire service returned to give us a water cannon send-off.
The take off was spirited, despite the fact we rolled for roughly 50 seconds. I am sure there was some secret noise regulation that demanded we heavily derate.
We began our ascent to 37,000 feet and there was a slight bit of mechanical turbulence on ascent, but it was nigh impossible to really notice or care about. The Tu-154 was designed with passenger comfort in mind. Almost to its detriment, really.
The original Tu-154 and Tu-154A both suffered from the problem of having their wings being almost too flexible and the alloys of the time being totally unable to handle it. Why were the wings flexible? To give a smoother ride of course (Sound familiar? The 787 touts the same benefits).
Those blasted attractive and attentive cabin crew began to make their way through the cabin and roughly, a half-an-hour after rotation, lunch (which was almost painfully Belorussian) was served. It was chicken with Kasha, some cucumbers, and a giant Belorussian chocolate bar (I think the brand was Vutosha – it had a strange green creature on the package). It was all very good. Just quite a challenge to eat, given the limited seat pitch. I felt a bit like a Tyrannosaurus.
The rest of the flight was spent either being interviewed by Belorussian media, or staring out the window marveling on the fact that I was on a Tu-154M yet again! Man I love that plane. It’s just so fabulously loud, stable, and fast. Everyone needs to fly on one. Yes, this was the last flight with-in Europe, but do not fear, there are quite a few other opportunities out there.
Then we started to descend into misty Minsk. Landing is more akin to an Il-62 without the gear dropping at 20,000 feet. Having said that, the gear does extend at a much higher altitude than most other airliners.
When I asked one of the technical crew why, I finally had my answer. The landing gear creates drag and the extremely robust landing gear can also be extended at a much higher speed than its western counterparts. It’s all about creating drag in fun and new ways to slow the plane down for final approach and landing. It makes perfect sense, once you think about Soviet-era design philosophy.
Landing was poignant, but incredibly smooth — literally greasing it in. The poignancy was because it will now be another few months before I get on another Tupolev – that always makes me sad.
To cheer myself back up; after landing, I made my way to the flight deck.
It’s rare to see a Tu-154 with all the latest and greatest navigation equipment installed, but then one must remember that Belavia is IOSA compliant!
It was then time to make my way off the plane to take a look at the exterior of Mink’s unique architectural terminal. The Minsk National Airport was built by the Soviets in preparation for the 1980 Olympics and in many wonderful aspects — it shows. It was a nice welcome to the final Tu-154 flight from continental Europe.
I’ll miss the Tu-154 once it is gone. It is sad to see it go, but at least it will still be flying around other parts of the world for quite some time (and hopefully with me on it).
Even removing the fact that I was on a classic Russian bird, I have to say that Belavia is a bizarrely good airline. I have come to expect that many European airlines to be lacking in routes like these, but they really came through.
On to the next adventure!
Yep, that is one hot looking trijet, the rear undercarriage and the vertical stabiliser reminds me a lot of a VC-10, although (of course) that wasn’t a trijet, but was probably louder. The clean wings of a rear mounted engine plane always looks aesthetically pleasing, to me atleast.
To top it off the flightdeck in aqua, makes it a retro coloured masterpiece.
Thanks for the article.
Loved reading this. Bernie, your passion shines through when you discuss soviet metal. Shared a link via National Airline History Museum’s twitter and FB as well. What a great story.
JL | AirlineReporter
Maybe us avgeeks should crowd fund this aircraft keep it flying just for us geeks. End of a era I feel I remeber watching these aircraft fly into Heathrow as a teenager very cool
Silly. Hilariously great fun, a bit dumb at time and still… great fun. Thanks, Bernie. -C.
This is reminiscent of my one-and-only flight on a Tu-154 “wanna-be-a-Boeing”. Ours was an SU charter flight, departing Anchorage in June, 1990. We flew west, to Anadyr (DYR), where we got out and cleared customs. I noticed there were five people on the flight deck, including a political officer. They had blocked off the forward lavs….because it was OBVIOUS they were malfunctioning. Gah. After standing around on the dirt tarmac for an hour, with Migs taking off in the background, we shuffled into a gray building for a passport check, etc. Then, off to Norilsk (NSK) for some gas.
Our last leg was from NSK to Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport (DME), where I was surprised to see Air Force 1 on the tarmac. Actually, Sec’y of State George Shultz was borrowing it …Pres. Bush was visiting Sec’y Gorbachev in MSP at the time.
After spending a week in and around Moscow, we continued on an SU Il-96 from SVO-SNN-YQX-JFK. That’s a different story. Let’s just say that I did, indeed, kiss the ground upon arrival in NYC. hahaa
Wait a second, you got to land at NSK? That’s a closed city!
Yup. We stayed on the plane, but I could see some old DC-3s on the side of the runway. Nickel capital of the north!!
Don´t we just love our chest-thumping ´murrican chauvinist pals?
I was just at Minsk Aiport and saw the line up of Tu154s and wondered if they still flew to Europe. I despise Belavia so much that I’d really have to want to fly the Tu154 to ever subject myself to another flight with them.
Looks like I’m going to have to see about a Minsk-Moscow flight…
Also the Minsk airport has quickly fallen back to its terrible self after looking so good after the hockey championships last year.
Belavia only flies the 154s on a couple holiday charters out of Minsk. The rest of the 154 fleet do oil charters out of Gomel into Siberia.
Also, why do you hate Belavia so much? They’re one of the best airlines I’ve flown on recently. Legitimate curiosity here.
I don’t hate (that is a strong word) just despise flying them. Why? The catering is pretty crap, the gates they leave from at CDG and FRA are not pleasant, the fleet is a bunch of tired 737-3s, 4s and 5s – plus I don’t get any miles with them. I would rather fly a Lufthansa CRJ than Belavia. I don’t mind Aeroflot – though I tend to limit flying them becuase more of my miles are with Star Alliance than Skyteam.
Okay, fair point about the miles. Even on GVA-MSQ I felt like I was leaving cash on the table. MSQ-LGW was a heart-wrenching time for a miles collector like me! I think we will never agree on the catering, it I basic much more substantial than many other European airlines I have flown. If most of your flights into Minsk are not from continental Europe at the start, have you considered Etihad. I plan to use them when I go. Pity Air Serbia doesn’t fly to MSQ yet, they are also fantastic.
I like the interesting way you write about the Tu-154. Man, I wish I could travel on one if I had your job. For now, I’m just aiming to fly on a 727……
can you help me, which flights fly still with TU-154? I would fly with that type of airplane, but it is rather hard to find a flight. I am in Hungary, I can solve to flight to an airport, from the TU-154 starts, than come back to Hungary.
Thanks your answer!
Think… There’s a Tu-154 doing something from Minsk to Moscow either this month or next. I have no idea who is putting it together or when- that’s all I’ve heard.
That’s about it, really.
I flew on one of these to Krasnoyask on a late night flight from Moscow in 2006. We were right at the back by the engines which have a distinctive loud ghostly hairdryer sound. It was hideously warm – I think there must have been a heat exchanger for some a/c plant in the sidewall and this was hot to the touch. I was initially apprehensive about these at the time as I knew they were banned in the UK and had recently been involved in a few high profile accidents. I now know them to be pretty hardy aircraft – the accidents were human error and they were only banned because of the noise levels.
You had talked with and photographed the flight engineer. During the 90 minutes delay in the hot cabin, were you not curious to ask him why the cabin was so hot? You had mentioned that the APU was working, but was there a problem with the air cycle machines, or does the jet use prehistoric freon systems while on ground? You also didn’t mention if the cabin temperature was OK in flight. How was the noise level at seat 13F? Was there any inflight entertainment system? If you had used the Lavatory: Was it clean? Was there adequate soap and paper towels?
Very much, the lavs were basic, but clean.
Regarding the fact the plan was stiflingly hot- I did ask, the answer was just not very interesting. It was a very hot day in Geneva, over 28 if I recall. The A/C packs just weren’t completely up to the job when the flight was full, the avionics needed to be cooled, and passengers were moving around.
Can’t imagine many planes faring that well in such a situation.
As a kid I used to fly Balkan Air from Amsterdam Schiphol to Varna Bulgaria on Tu154’s ! Not paying much attention to it then, I was just following my mom to my fathers country.
Now I have quite some passion for airplanes and especially these older Tupolev’s
Is there any advice you can give me on how and where to find a flight with a 154?
I would love to go on one once again….
I flew on one once in 2006 from Moscow to Krasnoyask. We took off at 2100 and landed 3-5 hours later past several time zones at 0600 the next day. I didn’t sleep much as I was right at the back by the screaming engines (the article sound description is spot on) and sweating from being right by some kind of heat exchanger situated behind the marble effect cabin wall. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable at the time, but I have come to really appreciate the experience!
Iam from pakistan studied in ussr very familiar with TU 154 very sad to heard that TU 154 has been grounded why it is the most classic soviet flying machine
Comment* Iam from pakistan studied in ussr very familiar with tupolev 154 which is very classic soviet flying machine should not be grounded but upgraded