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The Tu-144: The Soviet Union’s Concorde

When you think about the world’s first supersonic passenger airliner, only one name probably springs to mind – Concorde. However, while Concorde certainly became the most famous airliner to break the speed of sound, it certainly wasn’t the first. Today, a story that has been long overshadowed by its Anglo-Franco rival. It’s a tale of political bloodymindedness that created one of the most extraordinary, ramshackle pieces of aviation history we have ever seen. It was an aircraft that was briefly the envy of the world before a catalogue of problems brought it all down. This is the rise and fall of the Tupolev Tu-144   

A little point before we start. While the story of the Tu-144 may be littered with mistakes and decisions taken on safety that would leave your average health and safety officer curled up in a corner whimpering, the fact that the Soviets got this plane into the air is a true testament to both their tenacity and resourcefulness. 

Experts usually agree that the Tu-144 was about 10 to 15 years ahead of where Soviet aviation technology was at the time. Compared to what was being used in the west, their technology was simply sub-par – and yet they got their plane into the air two months before Concorde – not to mention the fact that it was also bigger and faster. So why exactly has the Tu-144 slipped through the cracks of time?

Rivalry 

The 1960s and ’70s saw a fierce rivalry between East and West. The Soviet Union and the western powers competed for just about everything. Technological advancements were seen as vital propaganda tools for both sides – whether this was the space race, the short-lived race to build the deepest borehole or the race to become the first nation to take a passenger airliner supersonic.           

By the early 1960s, Soviet leaders were getting a little nervous. Not one, but two proposed supersonic airliners were in development in the west. The American Boeing 2707, which never actually reached the production phase, and of course, Concorde.

British Airways Concorde
British Airways Concorde by Nubifer is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Increased industrialisation in the USSR had led to many important advancements, especially in the early stages of the space race. But this had also fueled an insatiable hunger to be first, whether or not it was entirely safe or practical. Orders came down from above that the Soviet Union had to beat Concorde into the skies – and the clock was ticking. 

Concordski    

If you look at a Tu-144 and Concorde side by side without any markings, you might well struggle to tell the difference, as visually they are very much alike. They both have delta wings and the distinctive pointed nose. 

Accusations of industrial espionage erupted almost from day one. The Soviets started the Tu-144 after Concorde and yet finished it before. The two projects had been developed in contrasting styles. While Concorde was being developed for the world to see, the Tu-144 was kept well under wraps. Its maiden flight was held under such concealed circumstances that if it were to crash it could be completely concealed. 

So did the Soviets steal information about Concorde? Almost certainly. Espionage, from both sides it must be said, was rampant at this time. Spies had been disrupted around the world, with many more willing to simply sell secrets for a quick buck. 

A spy, known as ‘Ace’ – who was later unmasked as James Doyle, a British man who worked as an aeronautical engineer at Filton in the UK, was found to have passed 90,000 documents relating to Concorde to the Soviets – while the French had their own problems. Sergei Pavlov was chief of the Paris office for Aeroflot, and though not linked with Concorde in any way, authorities grew suspicious of his activities, eventually arresting him. After seizing his briefcase, police found numerous documents relating to Concorde’s brakes, landing gear and structural design and he was quickly deported back to the Soviet Union. 

How much of this information was useful is another matter. As I said, the technology available in the west was far superior, so while it’s perfectly conceivable that certain aspects may have been copied, Tu-144 was certainly its own aircraft. Yes, they did share many similarities in shape, but most agree that this was always going to be the standard design needed for a supersonic airliner. 

Tiregate?

There is one counter-espionage rumour that has persisted. Sergei Pavlov apparently approached an employee working at the airfield that Concorde was based, with the hope he might be able to supply him some samples of the rubber that was being used for the tires. 

At this stage, counterintelligence was well aware of Pavlov’s motives, and the story goes that they passed bogus samples to him, with the hope of hindering Soviet plans. Apparently what was handed over to the spy was nothing more than a chewing gum-like substance.  

This might seem a little cloak and dagger, but this was the kind of tactics that were in operation throughout the cold war. Whether this is entirely true, and if so, how much more fake information was passed to the Soviets, we may never know.   

The First Supersonic Airliner

On 31st December 1968 pictures emerged of the Tu-144 airborne for the first time. The choice of the last day of the year was no coincidence, as Soviet leaders had effectively decreed in 1963 that they would put a supersonic airliner in the skies by the end of 1968. As I mentioned, this was a tightly controlled inaugural flight with no independent media there to witness it. What appeared was bigger and faster than Concorde. At 67 metres (215ft) in length, it was 3.7 metres (12ft) longer than its European rival and at just under 100 tonnes, it was more than 20 tonnes heavier than Concorde. It also had more power, each of its four-engines, combined with their afterburners, could provide 44,000 lbs of thrust – 6,000 lbs more than Concorde. The Soviet plane had a maximum speed 1,400 mph (2,300 km/h) – that’s roughly two and a half times faster than the top speed of a 737. It had an official service ceiling of 20,000 m (66,000 ft), slightly faster and higher than Concorde, but as we will get to, this was rarely achieved.   

There were numerous differences to the planes if you looked close enough. The Tu-144 used mustache canards close to the front of the plane, which helped to reduce the landing speed – a feature Concorde didn’t require. While Concorde had two wheels at the front and two sets of four wheels under the wings, the Tu-144 had two at the front and twelve under the wings, because the synthetic rubber used on the Tu-144 was far inferior to Concorde’s. 

The world got its first live glimpse of the Tu-144 at the 1971 Paris Air Show and it wowed a captive audience. Even those connected with Concorde agreed that the Soviets had put together a marvellous aeroplane. The scene looked set for a two-way battle for the supersonic skies, however, this was about as good as it was going to get for the Tu-144.   

Plagued with Problems

I don’t really know a better way to say it – except that the Tupolev Tu-144 was not a very good aeroplane. Yes, they got it into the air before Concorde, but the corners that were cut along the way were extraordinary. 

In short, it was rushed – very rushed. In their eagerness to push the plane into the air, Soviet designers had gambled dangerously – a gamble that would end in disaster in 1973 – which I’m just coming to. 

The Tu-144 was plagued with problems as soon as it appeared. Reporters on board were slightly shocked at the rag-tag nature of the interior. Window blinds would fall down without anybody touching them, and the very structure didn’t feel exactly solid. The aeroplane was assembled from large blocks and panels, many over 19 m (62 ft) long and 0.64 to 1.27 m (2.1 to 4.2 ft) wide. These were initially considered cutting-edge, but it soon became apparent that the whole-moulded and machined parts contained serious defects and were particularly susceptible to cracks – not exactly what you want in an aeroplane. 

Then there was the noise. A flight on Concorde was typified by champagne, caviar and pleasant conversation with whoever might be nearby. It was a grand social event for many, but aboard the Tu-144, things couldn’t have been more different. 

The noise within the cabin of Tu-144 was about 90–95 dB, that’s about the same as standing next to a running motorcycle. If you’ve ever stood next to a running motorcycle, you will know that it is nearly impossible to have a conversation with anybody around you – and this was exactly the case on the Tu-144. The noise was so loud that passengers resorted to passing notes between themselves – probably not the dream that Soviet designers had been aiming for. 

Tu-144 Cabin First Class
Tu-144 Cabin First Class by Mike1979 Russia is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The main reason for this was that, unlike Concorde which could turn off its afterburners once it had reached supersonic speed, and maintain a constant speed, the Tu-144 could not. All four engines were required to fire ferociously, and constantly. This also meant that that the aircraft had a much shorter maximum range of 3,312 miles (5,330 km) to Concorde’s 4,020 miles (6,470km)  

Showdown   

Like any great rivalry, the world longed for a showdown – and the 1973 Paris Air Show was just that. For the first time, the world would finally see Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144 go head to head in the skies above the French capital.  

The first day went according to plan for both planes, but the second was quite a different story. Concorde was up first and displayed a similarly graceful, yet steady flight. The Tu-144’s flight also began well, but as it came in for a routine landing, the plane suddenly accelerated and climbed once again. As it struggled skyward its engines lost power, and it plunged back down to earth, breaking apart before crashing – killing all six onboard.  

A terrible accident was magnified even further as it destroyed 15 homes on the ground, killing a further 8 people. The exact causes of the crash remains unclear. A popular Soviet take on it was that a French Mirage jet flying close by may have been attempting to take pictures of the Tu-144’s canards and got too close, causing a reaction from the pilot. Fuel was thrown onto this theory when the official report by the French did not comment on the jet, but it did appear in later reports. However, most experts agree that the role of the jet was heavily exaggerated by the Soviets.   

The more accepted view was that the crew on board had done away with the approved flight profile, and in an attempt to outmatch Concorde the pilot had made a catastrophic human error. In a bizarre coincidence, the crash site that day lay only 6 kilometres from where the first, and only, Concorde crash would occur 27 years later.      

Official Service

Despite the horror of the Paris Air Show, the Tu-144 staggered on, thanks in no small part to belligerent Soviet pride. But it suffered from a steady stream of problems. In total, the Tu-144 flew 102 commercial flights, but only 55 with passengers on board. Incredibly these flights managed to clock up 226 notable flight issues, ranging from problems before take-off, to when the plane landed. 8 of these were serious enough for the flight to be delayed or cancelled.  

Between 1975 and 1977 the Tu-144 was only ever used to transport the mail between Moscow and Almaty in Kazakhstan – surely making it the most expensive postal service of all time. In 1977 passengers were welcomed on board, but only ever on the same route. Again the timing was everything, as this coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The service ran only once a week, despite seven more Tu-144 being readily available at the time. 

Though it was never admitted, the Soviets had enormous doubts about this aeroplane, which probably explained its limited use. A report, published before the launch of passenger services, had labelled the airframe unsafe and not airworthy for regular use. The fact that this plane ever carried passengers is nothing short of shocking. The Tu-144 averaged only 58 passengers per flight throughout its commercial use, despite the plane having a capacity of 140. This was certainly not down to a lack of interest, but more to do with keeping numbers low if there was ever an accident.   

Another factor that hindered its progress was who exactly was supposed to be using it. Flying on Concorde was an expensive travel decision, at its peak, a first-class ticket was as much as 30 times as expensive as the cheapest flight option. This was outrageously expensive, but when you consider the development and running costs, it was at least understandable. The Soviet Union – being Communist and all – couldn’t ask travelers on the Tu-144 to pay anything like these kinds of prices. A seat on a Tu-144 would set you back around 37 roubles, which was remarkably similar to what you would pay on any other flight of that distance. It made absolutely no financial sense, but the powers that be seemed content to run it at a huge loss to save them from losing face. 

It was this fear of embarrassment that sustained the Soviet effort, but things finally came to a head on 25th January 1978. A large number of foreign journalists and dignitaries sat on board a Tu-144 as it readied for take-off in Moscow. It was at this point that the first of what would total 22 to 24 system failures on this specific flight began. In total 7 failures had occurred even before the plane took off. 

Unbelievably, the decision was taken to press ahead with the flight out of fear of revealing the planes crippling deficiencies to their foreign guests. Once the plane was airborne, a steadily increasing number of warning lights began flashing. A crisis centre on the ground made the dark prediction that part of the landing gear would not be able to extend, resulting in the plane needing to land on its left landing gear only. 

Now, just before we continue. The wings on the Tu-144 were excellent for flying supersonic, but not much else. This meant that the plane landed at a terrifying speed between 195 and 207mph (315 and 333 km/h) before deploying a parachute to slow it down. Even on the best days, this was a nightmare to land. 

Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev by Kohls is licensed
under CC-BY-SA

OK, back to the story. By this point, the situation was bad enough that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was being personally updated on the stricken flight. The Soviets held their breath as the Tu-144 approached Almaty. But miraculously, the landing gear deployed without a hitch, and the plane landed safely. 

Soviet leaders were losing patience, and the end seemed near, but not without one final, hugely controversial role of the dice. The Soviets approached Lucas Industries, who had formed part of the design team for the engine control system on Concorde, asking for technical assistance with the Tu-144. I can’t quite over-state this, that a project which was always designed to promote Soviet prestige came to an end with them having to ask the enemy for help. Unsurprisingly, the British turned them down, and the request was conveniently leaked to the papers – much to the embarrassment of the Soviet Union.      

Afterlife

The Tu-144 flew its final passenger flight on 1st June 1978, but official construction didn’t cease until 1983. But the story wasn’t quite done yet. The early ’90s, with its thawing cold war sentiment, saw a Tu-144 used by NASA as a way to test a potential second generation of supersonic airliners. The final Tu-144 flew 27 times close to Moscow during the short program, which ended in 1999. 

The Tu-144 is now an almost forgotten aircraft. Concorde, whose service stretched until 2003, completely overshadowed the Soviet plane. Indeed, it’s easy to look at it as one of aviation’s great failures. However, not all megaprojects have the luxury of becoming a success, the very nature of innovation means we must also encounter numerous failures. Yes, it was essentially thrown together as a ridiculous act of prestige, and probably should never have climbed into the skies – but the sheer audacity and drive to do it, makes it one of the most extraordinarily successful failures we have ever seen.

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