Aeroflot, the route to a modern airline

By Bjorn Fehrm

April 12, 2017, ©. Leeham Co: Aeroflot, established as the Soviet Union’s flag carrier in 1923, transformed from a state enterprise to a modern airline group after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The airline is today Europe’s seventh largest airline, two-thirds the size of Turkish Airlines, but having the same fast growth since 2005. We will cover Aeroflot’s journey in a series of articles, starting with the group’s history.

Figure 1. Aeroflot Boeing 777-300ER. Source: Wikipedia.

The early years

Aeroflot’s history is synonymous with that of the Soviet Union and the many airliner types that it developed since the 1920s. The airline started as Dobrolet in the Spring 1923, transporting passengers and mail the 400km flight eastward from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod.

The airline expanded fast and was named Aeroflot (Air fleet) in 1932. At the time, the Communist Party decided to reduce the dependence on imported aircraft (50% of fleet, mostly Dornier Merkurs). The development of domestic aircraft was promoted.

One of the developed Soviet types was the Tupolev ANT-20 Maxim Gorkij, which had a wingspan as wide as Boeing’s 747 (Figure 2). It carried 72 passengers with a crew of eight.

Figure 2. Tupolev’s ANT-20 with eight engines and a 64m wingspan. Source: Wikipedia.

Other aircraft used during the 1930s were the Tupolev ANT-35 (figure 4) and Douglas DC-3.

Figure 4. Tupolev ANT-35 carrying 10 passengers and mail. Source: Wikipedia.

The 21-seat DC-3 was the superior aircraft and was license produced as the Li-2 since 1938. It became the backbone of an Aeroflot which was operating as part of the Soviet war effort during World War II. In total, 4,900 Li-2s were built. 

The 1950s and 1960s

The Li-2 was gradually replaced by the Ilyushin IL-14 during the 1950s. It had a tricycle landing gear, flew faster and took 10 more passengers, Figure 5.

Figure 5. Ilyushin Il-14 could carry 30 passengers at 220kts. Source: Wikipedia.

The Il-14 became the standard airliner in the Soviet Union during the late 1950s and was the main airliner for Aeroflot until jet airliners entered the network in the 1960s.

Aeroflot carried 2.5m passengers during 1955 to 700 destinations in its network. Regional traffic was flown with the Antonov AN-2, Figure 6.

Figure 6. Antonov AN-2 regional aircraft. Source: Wikipedia.

In 1956, the 20th Communist Party Congress decided on a major expansion of Aeroflot with jet and turboprop aircraft.

The Tupolev Tu-104 (Figure 7) was the world’s first jet airliner to enter sustained service in 1956 after the deHavilland Comet was withdrawn from service between 1954-1958. It flew longer routes like Moscow-Omsk-Irkutsk. The Tu-104 carried 50 passengers at 500kts, flying up to 39,000ft.

Figure 7. Tupolev Tu-104 landing at Arlanda, Stockholm 1968. Source: Wikipedia.

Note the brake parachute when landing at Arlanda, Stockholm. The brake parachute was necessary as many airfields in the Soviet Union had short runways and the design lacked thrust reversers.

By 1961, Aeroflot flew 22m passengers to 40 cities and half of the flights were done with modern aircraft like the Tu-104, AN-10 and Il-18 (figure 8).

Figure 8. Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop serving domestic Soviet routes. Source: Wikipedia.

For long-range international flights, the Tu-114 Turboprop was developed, based on the Tu-95 Bomber, Figure 9.

Figure 9. Tupolev Tu-114 turboprop serving long-range routes. Source: Wikipedia.

The aircraft took 220 passengers with a range of 5,200nm when flying at 415kts and FL200. Service entry was 1961.

The Ilyushin Il-62 (Figure 10) replaced the Tu-114 on international routes from 1967. It had a range of 5,000nm when carrying 140 passengers.

Figure 10. Ilyushin Il-62 Aeroflot long-range airliner. Source: Wikipedia.

In 1968, Aeroflot introduced the world’s first regional jet, the Yakovlev Yak-40 (Figure 11) and in 1970, the airline flew more than 50m passengers to 3,500 destinations inside the Soviet Union.

Figure 11. Yakovlev Yak-40 at Bromma Stockholm 1971. Source: Wikipedia.

The mid-range Tupolev Tu-154 was introduced 1972. It became the Aeroflot workhorse for traffic inside the Soviet Union (Figure 12).

Figure 12. Aeroflot’s Tu-154 mid-range airliner . Source: Wikipedia.

The decline

As Aeroflot approached the 1990s, the airline had 200,000 employees operating 2,000 aircraft. The fleet consisted of aircraft and helicopters of all types. Responsibilities included presidential and VIP flights, search and rescue, aerial surveys and diverse services for the Soviet Air Force in addition to the main airline services.

Aeroflot was in no way efficiently run operationally or economically. It was the authority which had the right to all civil air transport inside the Soviet Union and to its international allies.

As the Soviet Union dissolved during 1990-1991, Aeroflot’s organizations in the resulting independent countries formed own airlines. We will cover the post Soviet era for Aeroflot in the next article.

8 Comments on “Aeroflot, the route to a modern airline

  1. Hi Bjorn

    Thank you for bringing back great memories of flying extensively on these aircraft in the late 90s. Aeroflot seemed to splinter not just on national lines but almost destination by destination. Each major city/airport seemed to start offering services under the loose ‘Aeroflot’ banner, at least for internal flights. One problem, you missed my favourite aircraft. Flying the Tu134 was always a bit like having your own private jet, large windows, facing seats and a racy take off and landing. A proper sleek jet compared to the Tu154, Il62 workhorses. Sometimes you even got the bomb aimer nose!

    • Hi Bob,

      thanks for the memories. I jumped the baby Tu-124 which is as a shorter Tu-104, but I should not have jumped the Tu-124A which went on to be the Tu-134, adding engines and empennage like the DC-9. Took 80 Pax 1,000nm at 400kts. Used for domestic short haul, 850 produced between 1966-1989.

  2. I can’t say I ever thought to think of Aeroflot as a historic entity but it truly is.

    Now I will to dig up some books on it.

    Thank you Bjorn.

    • That TU-114, 220 passengers 5200 nm in 1961, makes me wonder how that stacked up with the DC-8, B707, and the turboprops like the big Lockheed Constellation as far as distance. Also, I thought I read once the TU-154 was a British designed jet.

      • The Tu-114 like the Tu-95 bomber is a unique design, even today. It’s the largest and fastest turboprop ever and has a high efficiency. The engines/propeller combination has an incredibly high bypass ratio. At the same time its counter-rotating supersonic propellers makes it fast but incredibly noisy in cruise. The DC-8-62 and B707-320B had the range but not the passenger capacity (about 50 less). Other models had the capacity but not the range. The Tu-114 was unique, the Tu-95 still is.

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