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.
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.
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.
Unhappy TU-144 shortly before exploding and crashing. Credit: Keystone / Hulton / Getty Images file
"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.
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.
The cabin of a Tu-144. Credit: Miroslav Zaz / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images
"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
"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.
The ultrasonic Tu-144LL at the Zhukovsky Gas Development Center near Moscow in 1997. Credit: NASA
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."