In February 1981, the US came dangerously close to nuclear conflict as the world’s most costly grocery trip decapitated the Pacific Fleet of the Soviet Navy and convinced the Soviet Ministry of Defense that a devastating American attack had just occurred.
And it was all because of hubris and bad aircraft design.
The deadly trip started as a triumph. The senior-most brass in the Soviet Navy had assessed all of the geographic commands during exercises and determined that the Pacific Fleet, a strategically vital entity, was the best-performing part of the Red Fleet. The senior leadership was invited to Leningrad to be honored. And to go grocery shopping. Yes, really.
Unlike in the US market economy, access to consumer goods in the USSR was a function of both ability to pay and access to goods. Plenty of workers had savings because they weren’t allowed in the stores that had high-quality groceries or goods. The Pacific Fleet, based on Russia’s east coast, was far from the elite stores that had great goods, so many of the admirals and generals had nothing on which to spend their salaries most of the time. They invited their wives on the trip and brought deep pockets with them. This would be a rare chance to get gifts, good food, fashionable clothes, perfume, and more.
The visit to Leningrad went fine, and the officers headed back to Pushkin Airfield on Feb. 7, 1981, with hundreds of pounds of sausage, cheese, and other goods. Also, the commanding admiral brought massive rolls of paper for a unit newspaper as well as entire furniture sets.
All of these purchases were supposed to be packed onto the same Tupolev Tu-104 airliner that had taken the brass to Leningrad. The Tu-104 was an unreliable aircraft in the best of conditions, let alone when improperly balanced and overloaded. It was the second jetliner ever created and was known for being underpowered, unstable, and dangerous. It had already been removed from civilian service, but the Soviets had a long history of leaving planes in military service for years.
The plane took off into the snow of a Russian winter. The pilot reportedly used more of the runway to take off than other pilots that day, ascended slowly, and then lost control. The plane suddenly went nose up, banked onto its side, and plummeted to the ground. Witnesses described the banking plane as looking like a “cross in the sky.” The plane, fully fueled for the long flight across Russia’s interior, burst into a massive fireball. There were no survivors.
Nearly all of the Pacific Fleet’s senior leadership, including 16 admirals and generals and 12 other senior officers, perished instantly. For perspective: The Soviet Navy lost only four admirals to military action in World War II and another six to noncombat causes. The 1981 crash was a brutal loss for the sea service. The total dead included 44 passengers and six crew.
The depth of the loss was not just about the men’s rank. The Pacific Fleet had just proven itself the best in the Soviet Navy in recent exercises and had been testing how to implement new weapons that would later be rolled out to the rest of the fleet. The Soviet Navy literally lost their best and brightest in the accident.
The Soviet military — initially doubtful that such a tragedy could be an accident — assumed it was American sabotage and put all of its forces on high alert, preparing to engage in a hot war with the US. As no American attack came and no saboteur emerged, security services came to the conclusion that Pushkin Airfield was secure, and the USSR eventually conceded that it must have been a tragic accident.
In a rare break from standard protocol, the Soviet Union acknowledged the accident in papers at the time but only listed the top three officers in obituaries and gave few other details about what had happened. American newspapers, initially working only off of press reports and leaks, over-reported the number of deaths as potentially 70.
It’s believed that failure to properly stow and secure the goods and the Tu-104’s flaws caused the crash.