For many of us, flying has become something that we take for granted. It’s gone from an event that feels exciting and adventurous to something more akin to taking the bus.
Flying is also annoying, full of queuing, waiting around, and following rules, many of which might seem pointless. Why is it airlines are so strict on baggage allowance? Why do we have to sit where we’re told, even if the flight is half empty?
It feels like it’s just another way for the airlines to make another quick buck. Which, to be fair, is probably half the story. But the other half involves the T-104 Pushkin crash of 1981 which killed everyone onboard and could have been avoided if the passengers had only listened to the crew.
The crash occurred at around 18.00 on 7 February 1981. A Tupolev Tu-104A, a medium-range, twin jet-engined airliner belonging to the Soviet Navy’s Pacific Fleet, was taking off from Pushkin Airport near Leningrad when it ran into trouble.
Conditions were snowy and after taking off from runway 21 the airplane quickly pitched upwards beyond standard take-off altitude. Just eight seconds after lift-off, at a height of around 50 meters (165 feet), the plane’s engines stalled, and the plane banked sharply to the right.
The plane continued to roll to the right and ended up crashing into the ground 20 meters (66 feet) from the end of the runway. It was almost upside down when it hit the ground and at once burst into flames. 49 of the 50 people on board were killed near-instantly.
The only survivor had been ejected from the nose of the aircraft during the crash. They were found still breathing not far from the site of the crash. Unfortunately, their injuries also proved to be fatal, and they passed away on the way to the hospital.
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Of course, any plane crash that ends in fatalities is tragic, but the 1981 Pushkin Tu-104 crash received extra attention. Why? The answer lay in who was on board.
The plane was carrying some of the Soviet Pacific Fleet’s most senior officers. They had been attending important meetings with the naval command in Stalingrad and were flying to Vladivostok via Khabarovsk. Some high-ranking heavy hitters were victims of the crash, including 16 generals and admirals as well as the overall commander of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Emil Spiridonov, and his spouse.
The dead were laid to rest in Leningrad’s Serafimovskoe Cemetery and a memorial in their honor was erected on the orders of the Navy’s commander-in-chief, Sergev Gorshkov. To this day a memorial service is held every year on 7 February at the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral in St Petersburg.
What Went Wrong?
Unsurprisingly, the Soviets were keen to find out what had happened to so many of their highest-ranking naval officers. Was it sabotage? Were the Americans or another hostile power involved?
No, it was a simple matter of physics. An investigation showed that a combination of greed, incompetence, and ego on behalf of the officers had led to the crash.
It’s no secret that in the USSR luxury and ordinary consumer goods were scarce. It was common for people to have to travel long distances to stock up, but this was also true for high-ranking military officials. It seems that the officers on board the plane had used their trip to Stalingrad as a shopping opportunity. After leaving the meeting they had gone on a shopping trip, loading up on furniture, groceries, and other luxury items.
These items bumped up the plane’s weight. The pilot initially refused to carry the excess weight but was overruled by the greedy admirals and generals who outranked him. Making things even worse, the officials then refused to sit in their allocated seats and forced the crew to let them sit where they liked, affecting the plane’s balance.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the Navy then added 500 kilograms (1120lbs) of paper rolls to the cargo, at the insistence of one of the admirals. This was another very heavy package to add to the plane at the last minute, but nobody felt that they could override the wishes of the high ranking official.
The pilot worked out that with all this excess weight he needed to lift off at a higher speed than usual and lift the plane’s nose as late as possible. There was just one problem.
Someone had forgotten to tie down the paper rolls. As soon as the plane began to take off the rolls slid to the back of the plane. This shifted the plane’s center of gravity and caused the nose lift of the plane to increase by a few degrees.
This is what made the plane’s engines stall. The destabilized center of gravity and poor balance caused by the generals refusing to follow instructions, meant the pilot had no hope of saving the plane.
Air Safety vs Military Training
We’ve all become a bit blasé when it comes to air travel. The chances of being caught up in an accident during a flight are around one in 1.2 million and the odds of that accident being fatal are one in 11 million. Not bad.
But the tragedy of the Tupolev Tu-104A crash in 1981 at Pushkin Airport serves as a haunting reminder of the devastating consequences that can arise from seemingly small errors. The loss of all 50 lives, including high-ranking military personnel, was a stark consequence of improper loading, causing a fatal shift in the aircraft’s center of gravity.
Their deaths might be tragic, but it is important to remember that the passengers themselves were at least partly responsible for the tragedy. If they had listened to the crew and done as they were told, their deaths might have been avoided.
Top Image: The reason for the T-104 Pushkin crash was traced to an overloaded plane and incorrectlt stored cargo. Source: Tania / Adobe Stock.