An airshow was held on Sunday June 15, 1958 at Vancouver’s Sea Island Airport as part of the Province’s 100th anniversary celebrations. The race for leadership in the passenger jetliner market was heating up in the late 1950s with numerous aircraft builders bringing brand new jet powered airliners to the forefront.
The cold war realities brought the Americans and the Russians face-to-face at the Vancouver Airshow with Boeing bringing their new Boeing 707, and the Russians bringing their new Tupolev TU-104 jetliner. Both jetliners performed demonstration flights that day, and the story of the friction between the two competing aircraft builders was relayed to the public in newspaper stories of the day.
What follows is an account as described by the Price George Citizen paper that was headlined “Incident at Vancouver Airshow: Russian Pilot Gives – And Gets – Emphatic ‘Niet’”
The East-West curtain was parted for a day in Vancouver on Sunday, June 15, 1958, and what might have been become an international aeronautical incident, was actually averted.
The giant Russian airliner, the all-jet Tupolev TU-104, was on public view at Vancouver’s International Airport at an airshow. Air Force officials estimated 100,000 people attended the airshow, part of a two-day British Columbia centennial event.
But Russian-United States relations became a little strained at one point during the day. Captain T. T. Frolov, the Russian plane’s pilot, had been granted permission to make a courtesy flight and visit to Victoria airport from Vancouver – a mere 75 miles as the jet flies. But the trip had to be cancelled.
The flight path of the aircraft would have brought it close to the international border where San Juan Island (American Territory) juts into Canadian territorial waters in the Georgia Strait.
Captain Frolov, fearing slight drift might accidentally cause him to cross the US boundary, asked that assurances would be given so that his aircraft would not be challenged by U.S. jet interceptors. Canadian Air Force officials were told by the Americans that no such assurances would be forthcoming from the U.S. Air Force authorities.
The Russian pilot was told “Nobody will say, they the Americans won’t scramble, even if just to take a look at you.” Therefore, diplomatically, the TU-104 flight to Victoria was cancelled, and instead a courtesy flight over greater Vancouver was planned, with government officials, aviation representatives from both Canada and the USA, and newspapermen being invited aboard.
Earlier in the day, Captain Frolov and his officers were taken on a demonstration flight aboard the Boeing 707 jet Stratoliner, as guests of A. M. Tex Johnston, Chief of Flight Testing for the Boeing Aircraft Company. Once the 707 was aloft, Tex Johnston invited Captain Frolov to sit in the pilot’s seat and handle the 707’s flight controls for most of the hour-long flight.
Captain Frolov said the Boeing 707 had “beautiful flight control” and seemed impressed with Boeing’s new jetliner. Later the same day, a reciprocal invitation was extended by the Russians to the Boeing 707 crew to join the Tupolev TU-104 demonstration flight. Johnston asked if the favour could be returned so he could handle the controls of the Tupolev TU-104. Frolov said “niet”.
Johnston then asked if he could sit in the Co-Pilot’s seat and Captain Frolov again refused the request, explaining that it took two trained men to fly the Russian plane. At this point, Johnston retired from the discussion, but later said the TU-104 appeared heavy to handle and slow to respond. Tex Johnston was quoted in the media as saying “For my money their plane is obsolete”.
At the airshow’s ground display, a number of people collapsed in the 100-degree outdoor temperature near the Russian plane, which was a major attraction of the airshow. On one occasion, the barriers around the TU-104 were carried away by the crowd when told to stand back to avoid being scorched by the jet exhausts.
In his book Jet Age Test Pilot, Tex Johnston provided a detailed account of the events that took place at the 1958 Vancouver airshow. Specifically, he recalled that when they were back on the ramp upon arrival from the TU-104 demonstration flight, with the deplaning stairway in place, and the engines winding down, Tex Johnston turned to the navigator and said, “I have a message for the Captain. Please tell him that in my twenty-one thousand hours of piloting time, the TU-104 is the sorriest damn airplane I have ever had the misfortune of flying in.” The navigator sat and looked at me. “Go ahead. Tell him exactly what I said.”
As airline history would transpire in the decades after this event, the Boeing 707 family of jetliners became the staple of international jet travel, and were only replaced when more fuel efficient wide-body jetliners were delivered to the world’s airlines in the 1970s. Conversely, the Tupolev 104 was a commercial failure with only 201 airframes built by the time produced ended in 1960. The Tupolev 104 was only operated by Aeroflot and Czech State airline CSA. By comparison 1010 Boeing 707s were built by the time production of the last 707 variants ended in the early 1980s.
This interesting facet of the history of the jet race coupled with Cold War tensions, took place on the apron at YVR, some half century ago. And now you know the story!