How the Soviet Concorde crashed and burned

When the Soviet rival with Concorde made his first appearance at the Air Show in Paris in 1971, everyone was impressed. In the hot race to develop an ultrasonic jet passenger aircraft, it was the USSR that was launched.

French President Giorgos Pompidou, the old nationalism, called it "a beautiful plane". The Concorde's own manufacturers admitted it was "quieter and cleaner".

Tupolev Tu-144 seemed very similar to his Anglo-French competitor – which inevitably took the nickname "Concordski" – but it was somewhat more exotic and mysterious. And the history of the Soviets in aerospace demanded respect: in the same year, they had achieved the first survey-landing on Mars and started the first space station. It looked perfectly positioned to defeat the West with ultrasonic passenger travel.

However, through a combination of weaknesses and bad luck, Concordski will soon turn into one of the biggest failures of civil aviation.

The fight for ultrasonic flight

Although the Concorde has won a place in history, the youngest known Tu-144 hit him in the sky twice: he had his maiden flight on December 31, 1968 – two months before Concorde – and then succeeded in the first supersonic flight in June 1969, winning the competition for four months.

These were not small victories. The Americans were out of the supersonic fight (Congress canceled funding for a similar Boeing project in 1971), but the program was still a token of appreciation for the Soviet Union.
A Tu-144 screened at Moscow International Airport in 1968.

A Tu-144 screened at Moscow International Airport in 1968. Credit: Bettmann / Bettmann / Bettmann Archives

Every effort has been made to overcome Concorde: "Development began amid rivalry between two political systems," Ilya Grinberg, an aviation advisor to the Soviet Union and a professor of engineering at Buffalo State University, told an email. The whole USSR was extremely proud of the Tu-144 and the Soviet people had no doubt that it was better than Concorde and it was so beautiful! "

Both aircraft were apparently ahead of their time, as civil aviation was just moved from the jets to jet airplanes. But their striking similarities have provided many spying stories: "Tupolev's design was not the result of espionage, although it looks pretty, there are quite different planes with many different sides." External similarities are based on functional criteria and required parameters. it is certainly possible that familiarity with Concorde's outlines could have influenced some conceptual decisions, "Grinberg said.

Tupolev was slightly larger and faster than Concorde, but his characteristic feature was a pair of "boats" or blades just behind the cockpit, which offered extra lift and improved handling at low speeds.

A crash in Paris

After the hit of the show in 1971's biggest event in the air, the Tu-144 did it again in 1973, but due to tragedy and not triumph.

The opponents were once again squared. Concorde finished his show first, without obstacles, but Tupolev made a much more bold look, with bends and turns that turned out to be fatal: the aircraft broke down and crashed into the village of Goussainville, killing six passengers and eight on the ground.
Unhappy TU-144 shortly before exploding and crashing.

Unhappy TU-144 shortly before exploding and crashing. Credit: Keystone / Hulton / Getty Images file

An outrageous conspiracy theory claims Tupolev was crushed to avoid a clash with a French fighter Mirage who was trying to photograph it, but Grinberg is quick to reject him: "Mirage had nothing to do with this crash. the real cause, which was a drastic maneuver of Tu-144 that exceeded the allowable stress limits. "
Crash screens show that Tupolev has come to a night, probably reviving the engines after the launch. Under the excessive pressure, the wings were cut off.

"The pilots tried to impress the public and the world press to show that the Soviet plane could be" more sexy "than Concorde's most conservative appearance.

55 flights

This was the beginning of a downward spiral from which Tu-144 never recovered. The crash of Paris delayed the Soviet program for four years, allowing Concorde to begin the service first. But he does not fully convince the Soviets that the plane needs more checks.

"Political priorities to overcome the West, no matter what, obviously played a negative role, as they preferred to rush for proper planning in a very difficult and complex field," Grinberg said.

When passengers finally began to travel in 1977, the Tu-144 proved to be narrow, prone to breakage and unbearably noisy, because – unlike Concorde – it could maintain ultrasonic speeds using underground fuel such as military aircraft: Tu-144 did not was for those with sensitive hearing, "writes Jonathan Glancey in his book" Concorde ".
The cabin of a Tu-144.

The cabin of a Tu-144. Credit: Miroslav Zaz / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

Aeroflot used Tu-144 to serve the rather tricky two-hour route between Moscow and Alma Ata (now Almaty), the then capital of Kazakhstan, chosen because it was passing through sparsely populated areas. But the weekly flights were half empty and the plane ended up carrying more freight and mail than people. The service was canceled after six months.
In his short life as a passenger plane – only 55 return flights – the Tu-144 suffered hundreds of failures, many of which ran from de-accumulating until the engine failed to shout alarms that could not be deactivated. All the historical evidence has been revealed over the years about the airplane woes, including reports that passengers had to communicate via written notes due to deafening noise. Perhaps more clearly, any flight from Moscow could only depart after the aircraft had been inspected personally by the aircraft designer himself, Alexei Tupolev himself.

"The country as a whole was not ready to develop such aircraft, had teething problems, it was not economical, and there was no real need for fast passenger transport," Grinberg said.

The end of an era

The Tu-144 was already on his way out when another lethal crash occurred. On May 23, 1978, one shot near Moscow and made an emergency landing during which two flight engineers were killed. Although the accident led to a total ban on passenger flights, the real reason for the aircraft's fall was elsewhere.

"It was the loss of interest in the program by the Soviet leadership as well as by Aeroflot's top brass, which had several headaches linked to this extremely complex program; there were no real economic incentives to use it on Soviet domestic markets," he said Grinberg.

Over the next few years, without much imagination, the plane was quietly withdrawn and the production of new aircraft stopped. The program was finally shut down in 1984. In total, only 17 Tu-144s are produced, including prototypes. Most were dissolved, but some were exposed to the air museums in Russia and Germany.
The last Tu-144 flight occurred in 1999, thanks to NASA, which funded a three-year joint US-Russia research program for ultrasonic flight. The aircraft used was the latest Tu-144 ever built, which had only recorded 82 hours of flight. They spent 27 times near Moscow before completing the program due to lack of funds.

The ultrasonic Tu-144LL at the Zhukovsky Gas Development Center near Moscow in 1997. Credit: NASA

Toufulef soon came up with the idea of ​​a successor, called Tu-244, but never built it. The Concorde itself flew in 2003, but was doomed by the only fatal accident in 2000, which killed 113 near Paris – not far from the point where the first Tu-144 crashed in 1973.

Many other ultrasonic planes have been proposed since then, but no one has done it in production. "I'm not going forward soon." In the age of internet and teleconferencing in real time there is no need for high-speed transfer for business purposes, "said Grinberg.

"It is a sad fact that Tu-144 and Concorde have left the sky despite financial constraints and despite basic needs, people need a dream, such as traveling at supersonic speed without the worst dream of guessing."