When the Soviet rival to Concorde made its first overseas look on the Paris Air Show in 1971, everybody was impressed. In the heated race to develop a supersonic passenger jet, it was the USSR who received off to a head begin.
The Tupolev Tu-144 seemed very comparable to its Anglo-French competitor — which inevitably earned it the nickname “Concordski” — however it was considerably extra unique and mysterious. And the Soviets’ observe document in aerospace demanded respect: that very same 12 months, they’d achieved the primary probe-landing on Mars and launched the primary area station. They appeared completely positioned to beat the West on supersonic passenger journey.
Instead, by a mixture of shortcomings and dangerous luck, the Concordski would quickly flip into one in every of civil aviation’s largest failures.
The race for supersonic flight
Although it is Concorde that earned a spot in historical past, the lesser recognized Tu-144 beat it to the skies twice: it had its maiden flight on Dec. 31, 1968 — two months earlier than Concorde — after which achieved its first supersonic flight in June 1969, beating the competitors by 4 months.
A Tu-144 on show at Moscow’s worldwide airport in 1968. Credit: Bettmann/Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
Every effort was made to outshine Concorde: “Development started in the midst of a rivalry between two political systems,” Ilya Grinberg, a Soviet aviation skilled and engineering professor at Buffalo State University, mentioned in an e mail. “Expectations were high. The entire 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 pretty!”
Both planes had been clearly forward of their time, as civil aviation had barely simply transitioned from props to jets. But their hanging similarities have lengthy fueled spy tales: “The design of the Tupolev was not a result of espionage. Although they look alike, they are rather different planes with many different aspects. External similarities are based on functional criteria and required parameters. But it is certainly possible that familiarity with the outlines of Concorde could have influenced some conceptual decisions,” mentioned Grinberg.
The Tupolev was barely greater and quicker than Concorde, however its most distinctive function was a pair of “canards” or winglets proper behind the cockpit, which supplied additional raise and improved dealing with at low speeds.
A crash over Paris
After stealing the present on the largest occasion within the aviation business in 1971, the Tu-144 did it once more in 1973, however due to tragedy reasonably than triumph.
The ill-fated TU-144 shortly earlier than it exploded and crashed. Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
“The pilots attempted to impress the public and the world’s press, to show that the Soviet plane could be ‘sexier’ than the more conservative display of Concorde. That’s quite clear from the footage.”
That was the beginning of a downward spiral from which the Tu-144 by no means recovered. The Paris crash delayed the Soviet program by 4 years, permitting Concorde to enter service first. But it did not solely persuade the Soviets that the airplane wanted extra testing.
“Political priorities to overcome the West, no matter what, obviously played a negative role, as they favored rushing over proper scheduling in a highly challenging and complicated field,” mentioned Grinberg.
The cabin of a Tu-144. Credit: Miroslav Zaj/CORBIS/Corbis by way of Getty Images
“The country as a whole was not ready to deploy planes like this. It had teething problems, it was not economical, and ultimately there was no real need for high-speed passenger transportation,” mentioned Grinberg.
The finish of an period
“It was loss of interest in the program by the Soviet leadership as well as Aeroflot top brass. They’ve had enough of the headaches associated with this highly complex program. There were no real economic incentives to use it in the Soviet domestic markets,” mentioned Grinberg.
The Tu-144LL supersonic flying laboratory on the Zhukovsky Air Development Center close to Moscow in 1997. Credit: NASA
Many different supersonic planes have been proposed since, however none have made it to manufacturing. “I do not foresee one anytime soon. In the age of Internet and real-time video conferences there is no need for high-speed transportation for business purposes,” mentioned Grinberg.
“It is a pity that the Tu-144 and Concorde have left the skies. Despite economic constraints and notwithstanding basic necessities, people need a dream, such as traveling at supersonic speed in comfort. Not the worst dream to have, I suppose.”