It had a sleek fuselage and broad delta-shaped wings, and it let ordinary passengers break the sound barrier. But barely anyone outside the former Soviet Union had a chance to see it fly overhead, let alone ride in it.
The aircraft wasn’t the famous Concorde, but the Russian-built Tupolev Tu-144, the world’s only other supersonic airliner. Fifty years ago today, Dec. 31, it flew for the first time, beating the Concorde into the sky by two months.
For the Soviet Union, the Tu-144 was a notable achievement during the Cold War, when technological firsts, like Sputnik and the moon landing, were crucial battles. Five months later, the Tu-144 would also beat the Concorde to supersonic flight. But being first was the only success it would ever enjoy. A rushed development, serious design flaws and a fatal crash at the world’s premiere aviation event in 1973 ultimately made the Tu-144 one of aviation’s biggest failures. While the Concorde carried passengers for nearly 30 years, the Tu-144 was retired in 1978 after only six months of passenger service.
The promise of commercial supersonic flight was taking off in the late 1960s, when the Tu-144 made its debut. The British Aircraft Corporation and France’s Aérospatiale (later to become Airbus) were building the Concorde prototype, and in 1966 Boeing won a design competition from the US government to build the first American supersonic airliner. The jet age was a decade old, but the promise of rocketing around the world at faster-than-sound speeds appeared close to being a reality.
The Tu-144 was developed by the Tupolev Design Bureau and built by the Voronezh Aircraft Production Association. At the time, Tupolev was the Soviet Union’s most important aircraft designer, having created the world’s second jetliner, the Tu-104, the workhorse Tu-154 and the Tu-95 strategic bomber.
When the first Tu-144 emerged from the factory, it looked so much like the Concorde that Western observers dubbed it ‘the Concordski.’ Charges of industrial espionage abounded, but the basic arrow-shaped design the aircraft shared was a characteristic of supersonic aircraft. Besides, the Tu-144 and the Concorde were radically different under the skin.
Bigger, faster and less advanced
The Tu-144 was about 12 feet longer than the Concorde, and its wingspan was wider by 10 feet. With a passenger capacity of 140, it also carried 20 more seats than its rival and could fly higher and faster with a top speed of Mach 2.15. (Concorde’s top speed was Mach 2.04).
Concorde, though, had the advantage when it came to technology. It had longer range, its design was more efficient aerodynamically and it was 22 tons lighter when empty, enabling it to burn less fuel just to get in the air (both aircraft were huge gas guzzlers). Thanks to highly advanced onboard computers (for the time), the shape of its engine intakes also constantly adjusted during flight to ensure the optimal airflow.
The Tu-144 was more difficult to handle at at low speeds, so much so that it needed small wings near the nose called canards that extended at takeoff and landing to increase lift. And because it lacked the Concorde’s carbon-based brakes, parachutes extended from the tail to slow it down after landing.
What’s more, while afterburners made both the Tu-144 and the Concorde deafening at takeoff, the Tu-144 was almost as noisy in the cabin during flight. Passengers seated next to each other reportedly had to shout to be heard, and those seated farther apart had to pass notes. The cause of the noise was not just the engines, but also the Tu-144’s air-conditioning system, which was less advanced than the Concorde’s. (Air conditioning is vital in any supersonic aircraft, otherwise the cabin would become dangerously hot from the air friction on the plane’s skin generated during flight.)
A crash and a brief career
Though the Tu-144 also suffered from other problems, like frequent engines failures and faults in its pressurization system, its biggest setback came on June 3, 1973 at the Paris Air Show. Spectacular aircraft flybys are a hallmark of the event, and the Soviet delegation planned to show off the Tu-144’s potential by besting the Concorde’s demonstration flight earlier that morning.
The first part of the flight proceeded as planned, but after a low pass over the runway, the aircraft pulled up rapidly and appeared to stall. It then went into a steep dive before breaking apart and crashing into a nearby village. All six crew members onboard were killed, plus eight people on the ground.
Following the crash, several theories emerged as to the cause. They ranged from the pilots pushing the Tu-144 beyond its capabilities to the pilots trying to avoid a collision with a French Mirage fighter jet. Whatever the cause, the disaster delayed the Tu-144 program by four years, letting the Concorde enter service first in 1976.
When it finally started carrying passenger for Aeroflot on Nov. 1, 1977, the Tu-144 flew only a two-hour route between Moscow and Alma-Ata (now Almaty) in present-day Kazakhstan. Low passenger counts and a fatal crash during a test flight in May 1978 prompted the airline to pulled the Tu-144 from service for good in June 1978. The Tu-144 had made 55 passenger flights.
Production officially continued until 1983, when it was phased out after 16 aircraft were built.
Following passenger service, the Tu-144 made occasional test and scientific flights, and was used to train Russian cosmonauts. Between 1996 and 1997, NASA used a Tu-144 as part of its effort to bring back supersonic commercial flight, a program that continues today.
Concorde, of course, would go on to have a glamorous career flying the rich, the famous and the lucky until 2003. On the whole, though, supersonic passenger flight didn’t live up to those late 1960s dreams. Boeing canceled its supersonic program in 1971 to concentrate on its 747 jumbo jet, and even the Concorde, hampered by opposition to sonic booms and by its massive operating costs, flew only two routes across the Atlantic for Air France and British Airways.
Today, several companies, as well as NASA, are working to let civilians fly faster than sound once again. In the meantime, if you’d like to see a Tu-144 in person, you’ll need to visit one of a handful museums in Russia or the Technik Museum Sinsheim in Germany, where a Concordski is on display next to a former Air France Concorde.