Yup, that’s a Tu-134A-3 there.

Ulyanovsk? Where’s that?

This is the internet, and everyone has opinions and rage. So I need to be vague. Ulyanovsk is named after a person. He was born there on April 22. Depending on your opinion- said the person was either a hero or a villain.

The person did things.

I was going there because Ulyanovsk is home to both the Aviastar-SP aircraft factory and a fascinating aircraft museum.

I did want to visit the person’s home, but it appeared there was not going to be time.

The Second Regional Jet

The first regional jet, the Tu-124. Photo: Bernie Leighton

Above, you can see the Tu-124. The World’s first regional jet. It was not very good at its job. To say the least, the D-20 engines were far too thirsty to make it cost effective on short-range missions. Still, it was very much a 50-70 seat jet aircraft with its capacity for roughly 56 passengers.

The Ministry of Aircraft Production liked the idea of the Tu-124, but not the reliability or economics. Tupolev was also not as enthralled as it was never their idea.

Tupolev realized that they could create a much more versatile airliner by using bits and pieces of existing inventory.

The Tu-134 certainly shares a heritage with the civil jetliners that came before it. Photo: Bernie Leighton

Take a Tu-124, remove the mid-fuselage hump that everyone used to trip over in the cabin, move the engines, design a new empennage… Move the wings, design new wings. Boom! You have a Tu-134.

Oh, I forgot to mention. Remove the Soloviev D-20 engines and replace them with Soloviev D-30s for more power and greater efficiency.

Either way, Tupolev built a legendary airframe.

The Tu-134 became one of the most produced and exported Soviet airliners with a whopping 854 entering service.

Unlike its foreign peers, the Tu-134 had to be able to land on poor-quality runways in any season.

Another distinctive element is the wing. Beyond its 35 degrees sweep, it has boundary layer control fences more akin to a heavy interceptor than a civilian airliner. This makes it incredibly quick and also contributes to a unique ride.

Tu-134s are getting harder to find within Russia. Both of the former Turukhan birds were scrapped with great speed. Alrosa will likely be retiring their example by September. Sirius Aero has one or two, but they are not in scheduled service. Sirius Aero also has a Yak-42D, but it too is a business jet.

That leaves Kosmos. The Airline of the Russian Space Agency.

An aircraft with an illustrious history

This is not your ordinary civil airliner. Prior to Kosmos acquiring this aircraft it was operated by the Federal Security Service. Before that; it belonged to the Russian State Transport Company. Before that, it served a similar role within the Soviet Air Force’s VIP flight detachment out of Vnukovo, where it is still based.

Instead of being parked behind high fences and armed guards as it once was, it is now located at the Kosmos terminal next to Vnukovo-3, the VIP terminal for civilians.

Better art than almost every other airport terminal I’ve been to. Photo: Bernie Leighton

The Kosmos terminal is a strange building. It has customs facilities for the flights to Baikonur, which makes perfect sense. What was surprising was the duty-free shop. When I was there, it was closed, which is a good thing.

I made my way through security and onto the ramp.

Sirius Aero’s lovely Yak-42D could be seen whilst boarding. Photo: Bernie Leighton

Boarding was, of course, by stairs.

The Business Class Cabin of RA-65995. Photo: Bernie Leighton

Now, I had found out about this tour rather late – so I was unable to book the VIP seats. Instead, I found my way to the Business Class cabin towards the back of the plane. Which is fine, as it had a better view of the wing and engine.

I would say the seats had roughly 34-36 inches of pitch. They were also capable of folding forwards, like all Russian seats.

Since the aircraft had been made VIP except for that part of the cabin, the seating capacity was only 28.

If only I had found out sooner! This is what I was missing out on. Photo: Bernie Leighton

Being in the mere business class had another benefit. You see, on a Tu-134 the real “thrash” as the train enthusiasts refer to noise happens roughly three rows ahead of the engine. Exactly where I happened to be.

Russian planes of a certain vintage have gigantic windows. Photo: Bernie Leighton

The Flight

My friends Anton and Maxim arranged this excursion, I need to give them as much credit as possible. Anyway, the flight to Ulyanovsk would be roughly one hour and fifty minutes. I should also clarify now that Ulyanovsk has absolutely nothing to do with space.

In case you were wondering where Ulyanovsk was relative to Moscow. Image: GCmap

Given the rather curious positioning of our Tupolev, we pushed back towards the VIP ramp, then the tail was turned left so we could taxi under our own power whilst making a turn that a larger aircraft would be able to do.

We made our way to Vnukovo’s Runway 24. There, the fun began in earnest.

Now, the iPhone 7+ doesn’t have the World’s best microphone – so the faint howl of the pair of D-30s may have been rather hard to hear. I assure you, in situ,8000 foot it was not.

We continued ascending to roughly 31,500 feet. How do I know? There’s an altimeter in the VIP cabin!

A hallmark of seemingly all Russian-built VIP airliners. Photo: Bernie Leighton

See, not lying! Low for a Tu-134 cruise, but this was a short flight.

A lovely view of the engine and wing. Photo: Bernie Leighton

Even better, on this frame – to get a great view of the engine all one must do is travel to the aftmost cabin door. It has a very large window, and even a handy crew seat if you want to sit and watch.

Thing is, that’s not even the most interesting view on the Tu-134.

This is. Photo: Bernie Leighton

In, roughly, the middle of the fuselage skin above the lavatory – there is a window. It’s challenging to take a photo out of, but you can actually see the vertical and horizontal stabilizers using much more ancient and biological technology.

Or you can just use your phone. Photo: Bernie Leighton

The ride quality of any Tupolev was only matched in the West with the latest airframes. I compare Tupolevs to 787s and A350s in terms of smoothness with great frequency. They’re very stable and were designed with a smooth ride in mind. Even the highly swept Tu-134 is very, very, easy going in turbulence (which we would find out upon our return to Vnukovo).

Unlike A350s and 787s, however, it is both wonderfully loud – and sadly, very dry. There’s no 6000-foot cabin altitude in here. Not only will you want to drink all the water provided to you, the cabin altitude will help deform the empty bottles.

No, that’s not a negative critique. I’ve never really noticed any improve element in the quality of life after stepping 8000-foot cabin altitude aircraft vs. a 6000-foot cabin altitude aircraft. It’s a nice to have, at most.

Because I did not have a seat in the truly Premium cabin – the only service I had on offer was water. Yet this did not upset me. This is one of those flights where I spent more of my time standing and taking pictures than wanting a snack. Besides, we could eat in Ulyanovsk.

It was an exceptionally smooth flight. Because of this, almost everyone was standing. I am glad that there were only twenty-eight passengers on board. I kept imagining a sudden, uncommanded, climb as everyone was patiently waiting for their turn to take a photo of the engines.

After what felt like an instance, we began our descent into Vostochny airport.

After parking, I got up once more to check out the area of the Tu-134 I refer to as the Felix hold.

Most people probably call this area the cargo hold. Not me. Photo: Bernie Leighton


Whilst in North Korea, an ardent enthusiast named Felix made his way into the aft cargo hold of the Tu-134 in service with Air Koryo. Undetected, he spent the entirety of taxi and takeoff therein. I still can’t believe he did it. I respect him, but even I think that’s going quite far!

After that, of course, I had to make a customary flight deck visit.

The Flight Deck of a Tu-134A-3. Photo: Bernie Leighton

So, to conclude, if you get an opportunity to fly on a Tu-134 of any variant – do it!

I must warn you that there are not many left, and because of this, it may get expensive.