When the Soviet Navy Lost 16 Admirals in a Single Accident: The Tu-104 Crash at Pushkin
February 7th, 1981. The Tupolev Tu-104 from the 25th Naval Aviation Division of the Soviet Pacific Fleet lined up on the main runway of the military airfield Pushkin and prepared to take off. It was a normal winter day with a slight crosswind and a little snow, but nothing serious enough to cancel the flight. As soon as permission to take off was granted, the aircraft began the run and soon lifted into the air. But just 8 seconds after the aircraft became airborne, all of a sudden, the Tu-104 crashed into the ground 1500 meters from the end of the runway.
The huge explosion that followed, left no survivors among those on board the aircraft. For the Soviet jetliners Tupolev Tu-104, the disaster at Pushkin airfield became the very last accident in their history, after which they were permanently retired from service. But the main reason the tragedy at Pushkin airfield went down in history was not because it had ended the career of the first Soviet commercial jetliner, but because this single crash had almost entirely beheaded the Soviet Pacific Fleet.
That day, in just a few seconds, the Soviet Navy lost 16 admirals and generals, including the commander of the Pacific Fleet himself. Whether you like it or not, but people who serve in the armed forces are not exactly equal. At least not in the way we have become used to in civil organizations. In its very essence, Armed Forces, no matter the country, are a strong hierarchical system and one person's value within the system is reflected by their military rank. Sure, there always will be some exceptions but as a general rule, the higher-ranking officers possess higher-level skills and expertise, which make them more valuable in comparison to the lower-ranking servicemen.
Thus, for the Armed Forces, the loss of the high-ranking officers is always an exceptional occurrence since the effect of such a loss will always have a negative, if not devastating, effect. But it is one thing when the commanders are lost due to enemy actions, like for example the death of Isoroku Yamomoto as a result of the exceptional operation by the US Army Air Force, and it is quite another when the enemy has nothing to do with it. And there may be a minor difference if the reason was due to bad weather, a human error, or a freak accident. Like for instance the death of Romanian major general Alexandru
Ioanitiu, who was walking around on the airfield waiting for his plane to get ready and, while being lost in thought, accidentally stepped into the aircraft's rotating propeller. But arguably, nothing can compare to the accident that happened in the Soviet Union in 1981, when just a single airplane crash killed 44 Navy servicemen including the commander of the Soviet Pacific Fleet admiral Emil Spiridonov. The awful accident itself was already an enormous blow for the Soviet Navy but finding out the reasons that caused the accident simply doubled the shock of the tragedy itself.
On February 1st, 1981, the high-ranking officers of the main Soviet fleets arrived in Leningrad for an annual general meeting. During the whole week that followed, the fleet commanders were reporting about the current condition and readiness of their fleets to hold the fight against the evil capitalist bloodsuckers. Based on the reports, the Admiral of the fleet of the Soviet Union, Sergey Gorshkov, pointed out that among all the Soviet fleets the highest level of proficiency and competence was demonstrated by the command of the Pacific Fleet. Since it was one of the most important and powerful fleets in the Soviet Navy, the Commander of the Pacific fleet, admiral Spiridonov, and his officers received personal gratitude from Admiral Gorshkov for such an outstanding service. Being acknowledged by the chief commander himself was a great honor, so the Pacific Fleet officers, despite the upcoming long flight to Vladivostok to the very east of the Soviet Union, were in a great mood. Although Pushkin was a military airfield, on February 7th it was a bit crowded in the airport's departure area - Navy admirals, Army generals, and various communist party officials were there still discussing with excitement the results of the General meeting they took part in.
There was even a special outdoor area, cleared of snow, made for them so they could better observe the departing airplanes. According to eyewitnesses, everything that day looked quite ordinary. Except maybe the takeoff run of the Pacific Fleet's Tu-104 that seemed to take a bit longer than usual, but in the end, the plane nevertheless took off in the air.
But as they recalled later, the aircraft, instead of slowly decreasing in size as it would normally do while flying away from the airfield, suddenly hung ominously in the blue sky like a huge cross. And then, rolling to the right, crashed on the ground. A huge explosion then rose into the sky - the aircraft's fuel tanks were fully loaded for the long flight and 30 tonnes of jet fuel, after exploding, were fiercely burning for yet another hour. The crowd in the departure area rushed through the deep snow to the crash site, but the strong flames did not allow them to approach the wreckage and help the passengers and the crew in any way.
Only one person was found in the snow having been thrown out of the cockpit through the glass in the nose of the aircraft. Unfortunately, the severeness of his injuries didn t leave him any chance of survival and he died on the way to the hospital. The plane crash killed all 50 people on board, among which were 12 colonels and captains of the first rank, as well as 16 admirals and generals, including the commander of the Pacific Fleet admiral Emil Spiridonov.
At first, it was simply impossible to believe what had happened. To better understand the extent of the tragedy - during all the years of World War Two, the USSR lost only 4 admirals. 6 years of war and 4 admirals.
And here in just a blink of an eye - 16. In a single moment, the Soviet Navy lost almost the entire command of the Pacific Fleet. It was an unbelievable loss for the Soviet Navy and the first reaction in the Head Quarters was - it's a war! The Soviets decided that the plane was destroyed as a result of the enemy's special operation to kill all the commanding officers so that the Pacific Fleet wouldn`t be able to withhold the powerful attack that would obviously be coming soon. So, the very next moment all Soviet military units in the Pacific were put on full alert, ready to meet the enemy. But time was passing, and the enemy was not coming. While the Pacific Fleet was waiting for a fight, and the soldiers of the Pushkin airfield guard were searching nearby woods and fields for any top-secret documents that might have flown away from the crash site, the Soviet Navy Command realized more and more clearly that the possibility of the enemy bringing the explosives to the heavily guarded military airfield, where every soldier went through a thorough verification process, was extremely low.
So, the conclusion was made - if the plane crash wasn't from the actions from the outside, it was from the inside then an internal sabotage. One of our own set the crash. Someone who would benefit from the death of the Pacific Fleet commander. To take his place, for example. But who? All of admiral Spiridonov's deputies died with him in the plane crash.
Or did they? When checking the passenger list, it was suddenly found that vice-admiral Rudolf Golosov, the chief of staff of the Pacific Fleet and the first candidate to replace admiral Spiridonov, was not on board the crashed plane. It turned out that at the very last moment Rudolf Golosov refused to fly with admiral Spiridonov and the rest of the officers. Was it because Golosov knew the plane would crash? And where is he? Admiral Golosov didn t board the plane, but he couldn t be found at the Pushkin airfield ether. For a moment, it seemed that investigators had caught a promising trace.
Although Vice-admiral Golosov indeed didn't fly on the plane to Vladivostok, it became clear relatively quickly that he had nothing to do with the crash. The thing is that Rudolf Golosov before being transferred to the Pacific Fleet, had served for some time in the command of the Northern Fleet and his daughter still lived there with her family. Taking advantage of attending the meeting in Leningrad, the vice-admiral asked his commander admiral Spiridonov way ahead of the trip for permission to visit his daughter during the weekend after the meeting and then he would return to Vladivostok by taking the commercial flight. Admiral Spiridonov replied that it would all depend on the results of the General meeting and he would give his decision then.
Since the meeting was a big success, Spiridonov allowed Golosov to visit his daughter, but their final conversation was just a couple of hours before the disaster and that is why vice-admiral Golosov was still on the passenger list. In the morning of February 7th, Golosov flew to Murmansk together with the command of the Northern Fleet, not even realizing that it saved his life. As he later recalled in his book while in the middle of the 4-hour drive to the small town to meet his daughter, a police car caught up to him asking to return immediately to the Northern Fleet Head Quarters.
Golosov spoke with Admiral Gorshkov over the phone, and it was a huge shock for him when he learned that all his comrades had died in the plane crash. The shock was no less when his friend, who worked in counterintelligence, privately told him later that for some time Golosov had seriously been considered as a suspect in the death of the Pacific Fleet command. But if the enemy had nothing to do with the crash, and it was not sabotaged, what was it then - airplane malfunction? Human error? But that would be impossible since the Soviet pilots don't make mistakes and the Soviet airplanes are the most reliable in the world. At least officially.
But the data from the aircraft's black box seemed to bluntly ignore the desires of the Soviet propaganda. From the point of safety and reliability, the Tupolev Tu-104, which the command of the Pacific Fleet used to fly on, was certainly not the best choice, to put it mildly. Very mildly. Developed in record time, the first Soviet jetliner the Tupolev Tu-104 was, of course, a huge technological accomplishment for the Soviet Union. But the rush in development, driven more by political rather than rational decisions, led the plane to have a long list of flaws.
Sure, when building something that is the very first of its kind, mistakes are almost inevitable. That's just a normal part of technological progress. But the problem was that being fully aware of all the Tu-104 flaws and the aircraft's extremely awful accident rate in fact, the worst among all the Soviet commercial airplanes that ever existed, the Soviet government stubbornly refused to retire the aircraft from service. Although the production of the aircraft was canceled in 1960, the Tupolev Tu-104 continued to fly for more than 20 years, regularly enlarging the death toll of its victims. The last straw for civil aviation was the aircraft disaster in March 1979, when yet another Tu-104 crashed not far from Moscow and the aircraft was then removed from service.
But not entirely. The Soviet military decided to keep their Tu-104s. But the thing is that the military Tu-104s being used at the beginning of the 1980s, from a technological perspective, differed little to nothing from the late 1950s, when those planes were built and put into service. Poor radio- and navigation equipment, multiple technological flaws, heavy on controls, the Tupolev Tu-104 has always been a difficult aircraft to fly, whose safety largely depended not on the airplane performance itself but rather on the skills and experience of any particular aircrew.
Going back to the disaster at Pushkin, perhaps, at the time, it was difficult to find a better fit for the old Tu-104 than Lt. Colonel Anatoly Inyushin - more than 8000 flight hours in total, almost 6000 of which were on the Tupolev Tu-104. Highly experienced pilot Anatoly Inyushin for several years was the captain of the airplane that carried the command of the Soviet Pacific Fleet. So, was the crash at Pushkin his fault? The problem is that, like most of the accidents in the Soviet Union, whether civil or military, the disaster in Pushkin was immediately classified. Only the general conclusion of the investigation conducted by the Ministry of Defence released almost two years after the accident was more or less official.
One of the official conclusions was that the plane became airborne at a speed of 40 km/h less than the required take-off speed. But is it possible that Inyushin, who had 17 years of flight experience on the Tu-104, had made such a stupid mistake? Moreover, why didn t the co-pilot or anyone else in the cockpit notice that and prevent the fatal mistake? According to the flight regulations, while on the take-off run, the Tu-104 pilot must reach the speed of at least 220 km/h, and then slowly raise the nose of the aircraft by 6 degrees. After completing the initial pitch of the nose gear, the Tu-104 would get airborne on its own and would gradually continue to climb. But according to Admiral Golosov, something weird happened during the Tu-104 take-off at Pushkin. In his book, Golosov claims that the commander of Soviet Naval Aviation General Mironenko, showed him the data from the aircraft's black box after the investigation was complete.
The flight recorder indeed had registered that the aircraft took off at a speed of 185 km/h instead of the required 220. But what is interesting is that the aircraft's angle of attack was much higher than the required 6 degrees and, even more importantly, the flight recorder did not register any pressure on the yokes when the Tu-104 got airborne. In simple words, according to Golosov, it was not the pilot who lifted the plane into the air. But if it was not Inyushuin then who? Or what? When trying to understand the reasons behind pretty much any event that happened in the Soviet Union, it is always important to understand the, let's call it, peculiarities of life in the USSR. The Soviet Union was in every sense quite an unusual country. Thus, for most of the people who were fortunate to be born outside of the USSR, some events might make no sense at all.
In fact, one might say that "making no sense" would be one of the main peculiarities of the Soviet Union. Sure, from a scientific and technological perspective, the USSR was indeed one of the most powerful countries in the world. Make no mistake, the list of technological achievements of the Soviet Union is impressive in comparison to any of the countries that existed at the time. But when making the conclusion about the greatness of the USSR, it is quite often that people forget or simply are not aware of the price that ordinary Soviet citizens had to pay for such greatness. The impressive list of technological accomplishments made by "the Greatest Country in the world", as most of the Russians still think, would make a completely different impression, if, for example, you start adding some other, less impressive achievements that most of you won't even think of, since they have been taken for granted.
Like, for example, the year 1969 when the Soviet Union launched the first factory producing toilet paper. So "the Greatest Country in the world" has already built and tested a nuclear bomb, launched the "Sputnik", completed the first manned journey into outer space, built the first supersonic jetliner but still couldn't produce toilet paper. And 1969 was not the year of solving the problem of toilet paper, but just the year of launching a single factory in a country with a population of 130 million people.
To be fair, the availability of toilet paper in the Soviet Union has always been an issue until the very last day of the existence of the USSR, making it yet another item in the long list of the so-called "deficit goods". A word familiar to every Soviet citizen no matter the age or place of birth. A catastrophically ineffective Soviet economy led to the situation that most of the consumer goods were either non-existent or were poor quality. And even those most of the time would be either hard or even impossible to buy. That applied to pretty much everything whether it's a car, TV set, furniture, shoes, or even food. Of course, for the high-ranking communist party members, this problem didn't exist, since they received the deficit goods from the special stores, which regular citizens were not allowed in.
The Soviet people were joking that The USSR was the only country in the world where everyone is equal. It's just some people are more equal than others. The situation with the availability of consumer goods in the stores was somewhat better in large cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, or Kiev, but for the remaining 90% of the country, the situation was simply awful.
When trying to get some deficit products, it was quite often that the Soviet people had to take a train and travel to, let's say, Moscow to do groceries. There was even a popular riddle in the Soviet time: "What is long, green, and smells like sausage?". The answer is "a passenger train". The thing is that the travelers returning from Moscow with bags packed with various food items, most of the time various sausages, provided passenger cars with quite peculiar and distinctive smells. That is why these trains were often called "sausage trains". And I'm talking here not about the Moscow suburbs but about the cities that are more than 1000 kilometers away, such as Kursk or Samara.
Just so you understand, population-wise those are cities that are comparable to Miami or Manchester. So going back to the Pushkin airfield in 1981, one might say that the military Tu-104 with navy officers, who flew from the far east of the Soviet Union to Leningrad, was in a way a "Sausage Plane" . While working through the version of the pilot's mistake that possibly caused the crash of the Tu-104, it was discovered all of a sudden that Lt. Colonel Anatoly Inyushin, the pilot of the admiral's airplane, long before the disaster at Pushkin, had sent a complaint to the political department of the Soviet Navy reporting that his plane was constantly flying overloaded while transporting furniture, refrigerators, washers, china sets, and even spare parts for the admiral's "Moskvich".
But Inyushin's complaint remained unanswered. Nobody dared to question admiral Spiridonov. Such facts, as well as the testimony of some eyewitnesses at Pushkin, were signaling more and more clearly about the cause of the disaster, which many had thought of from the very beginning, but didn't dare to voice it. The fact is that the officers of the Pacific Fleet decided to take full advantage of their working trip to the so-called "second capital" of the Soviet Union.
Of course, such a trip for them was not the first, but this time, the shopping tour for some unknown reasons completely spiraled out of control. As General Victor Sokerin, recalled after the crash ... the mess when loading the aircraft was pure chaos. A bunch of admirals giving commands to load their multiple purchases, the aircrew trying to bring the loading process into order, but admirals rudely telling the pilots that they are just "drivers" here and they should know their place. The co-pilot and the captain argued again, after which several admirals had "fired", "de-ranked"," retired", and verbally humiliated the pilots. Who is a co-pilot for the Soviet admiral - nothing, just an insect, even the captain of the airplane, albeit a Lt. Colonel.
Moreover, the commanders rarely flew home from the meetings sober. ". Admirals shoved in the airplane everything they were able to find and buy in Leningrad: starting with the furniture, TV sets, ceiling lamps, china and ending with regular oranges. According to some accounts, as a result, the aircraft became heavily overloaded. But to make it even worse, because of the disorder while loading, the cargo was placed in the aircraft unevenly, overloading the rear part of the plane, which in turn shifted the center of gravity to the rear. Of course, today it is impossible to find out why the captain of the aircraft agreed to take off in such conditions.
As General Sokerin once said: "It's hard to say what would have happened to Anatoly Inyushin and his aircrew had he refused to fly. I suppose that in the best-case scenario, all the crew members would become retirees right on the airplane." . And it is hard to disagree with him. High-ranking officers in the Soviet Army and Navy had power so great that they indeed could ruin someone's career or even a life in an instant. General Sokerin believed that the pilot, knowing about the overweight, probably hoped that he would be able to keep the aircraft on the takeoff run in a three-point position until the required take-off speed or even slightly higher, after which he would carefully raise the nose of the aircraft and with a small angle of attack and a speed higher than required, he would be able to slowly lift the aircraft in the air. There was roughly a 10% margin in the possible shifting of the Tu-104's center of gravity before the critical levels on which the plane becomes uncontrolled.
According to General Sokerin, it's difficult but they had to perform such a take-off from time to time when their Tu-16 bombers were overweight, which were quite similar to Tu-104. And he thinks that Inyushin was hoping to "deceive" the wrongly loaded cargo by using such a take-off technique. But there was another thing. Right before the flight, Admiral Spiridonov managed to get two huge rolls of printing paper for the Pacific Fleet's newspaper. Each roll weighed roughly 500 kilograms.
It is believed that these rolls, when loaded on board, were not properly secured and during the acceleration on the take-off run, they all of a sudden rolled back in the cargo bay, shifting the aircraft's center of gravity further to the rear into the critically dangerous level. As a result of this rapid shift, the aircraft raised the nose itself, which in turn created the lift on the wing sufficient enough to get the aircraft airborne. But due to insufficient speed and high angle of attack, the plane stalled and a few seconds later fell to the ground. Unfortunately, there is nothing that the pilots could do in such a situation. As admiral Golosov wrote in his book: " Officers jumped into the cars and rushed to the crash site.
Alas! The heat of blazing jet fuel did not let them get closer. Bright orange flames quickly devoured the remains of the people. Only the oranges remained alive, rolling out from the burning debris. Brightly orange like little shards of the burning flame."
All 50 people on board were killed, as a result of the plane crash, 44 of them were navy servicemen and 6 were civilians. Among them was admiral Spiridonov's wife and some other people whom Admiral Spiridonov allowed to fly on his plane. Which was a flagrant violation of the Minister of Defense order that strictly prohibited civilians from flying on military flights. But apparently, admiral Spiridonov here again decided that rules are not for admirals.
Soon after the accident, the main Soviet military newspaper "Red Star" published a small note far in the corner on the third page, saying that the group of the Soviet admirals, officers, and other servicemen of the Pacific Fleet died in the air crash. The Ministry of Defence and Political Department of the Soviet Army and Navy expressed condolences to the relatives of the perished. The note also listed the names of three admirals who died in the crash.
And that's all. Nothing more than that. The Soviet Union didn t even notice the loss of 50 people. Like most of the accidents in the USSR, the disaster in Pushkin was immediately classified and remains so to this day. Most of the perished in the accident were quietly buried in a common grave in Leningrad, where a small memorial was later erected.
Interestingly enough, the widows of the navy officers received an official notice of the death of their husbands only in 1997, 6 years after the Soviet Union had collapsed. And a year later, in 1998, to the inscription on the memorial saying, "to Navy servicemen of the Pacific Fleet" was added: "who died serving on duty on February 7, 1981." Of course, no one would like the inscription on the memorial saying, to servicemen who died while doing groceries. But the problem is that such an approach and total secrecy significantly reduces the chances of learning from mistakes, which doesn't help by any means to avoid such accidents in the future. With the total secrecy in the USSR and then Russian Federation, it's hard to say how many similar accidents had occurred since.
Unfortunately, we only know about those that were impossible to hide. Like for example, the 1996 crash of the military aircraft Antonov An-12 in which 17 people died, including the commander of the Leningrad military district General Sergey Seleznyov. The cause of the disaster was that the aircrew was forced by the general to take off in the overloaded airplane in harsh weather conditions. The aircraft, in addition to the military cargo, was also transporting various construction materials for the general Seleznev s house, as well as his personal car. It is well known that obtaining enormous power may blind and change people. Unfortunately, when it comes to the USSR and modern Russia, it is quite often that this problem gets to the extent that those possessing power not only reject the basic rules of human ethics but even the laws of physics.
And the worst part is that most of the time the final bill for such negligence is not only paid by themselves but shared with innocent people too. And that s the story! If you like aviation and stories like this, hit the like button to support new episodes on this channel. Special thank you to all who support Paper Skies on Patreon. That s all for now. Thx for watching and see you in the next video.