HomeInternationalTupolev Tu-144 : The Soviets' doomed rival to Concorde

Tupolev Tu-144 : The Soviets’ doomed rival to Concorde

Read extra unknown and curious design origin tales here.

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.

French President Georges Pompidou, foregoing nationalism, called it “a beautiful plane.” The makers of Concorde itself conceded that it was “quieter and cleaner.”

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.

These had been no small victories. The Americans had been out of the supersonic race (Congress had canceled funding to the same Boeing undertaking in 1971), however this system was nonetheless a badge of honor for the Soviet Union.
A Tu-144 on display at Moscow's international airport in 1968.

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 rivals had been as soon as once more squaring off. Concorde accomplished its demonstration first, with out a hitch, however the Tupolev placed on a much more audacious present, with twists and turns that proved to be deadly: the plane broke up in midair and crashed into the village of Goussainville, killing six on board and eight on the bottom.
The ill-fated TU-144 shortly before it exploded and crashed.

The ill-fated TU-144 shortly earlier than it exploded and crashed. Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An outlandish conspiracy idea claims the Tupolev crashed to keep away from collision with a french Mirage fighter that was attempting to photograph it, however Grinberg is fast to dismiss it: “The Mirage had nothing to do with that crash. It was just speculation to divert attention from the real cause, which was drastic maneuvering of the Tu-144 that exceeded allowable stress limits.”
Footage of the crash reveals the Tupolev going right into a nosedive, presumably to reignite the engines after they’d flamed out. Under an excessive amount of strain, the wings broke off.

“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.”

55 flights

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.

When it lastly began flying passengers in 1977, the Tu-144 turned out to be cramped, susceptible to breaking and unbearably noisy as a result of — in contrast to Concorde — it might solely maintain supersonic speeds utilizing afterburners, like army plane: “A flight on the Tu-144 was not for those with sensitive hearing” Jonathan Glancey wrote in his e book “Concorde.”
The cabin of a Tu-144.

The cabin of a Tu-144. Credit: Miroslav Zaj/CORBIS/Corbis by way of Getty Images

Aeroflot used the Tu-144 to serve the reasonably obscure two-hour route between Moscow and Alma Ata (now Almaty), then capital of Kazakhstan, chosen as a result of it handed over sparsely populated areas. But the weekly flights had been principally half-empty and the airplane ended up transporting extra cargo and mail than individuals. The service was canceled after six months.
In its quick life as a passenger airplane — solely 55 return flights — the Tu-144 suffered a whole bunch of failures, lots of them inflight, starting from depressurization to engine failure to blaring alarms that could not be switched off. All kinds of tales have surfaced over time in regards to the airplane’s woes, together with reviews that passengers had to talk by written notes due to the deafening noise. Perhaps extra tellingly, every flight from Moscow might solely depart after the plane had been personally inspected by the airplane’s designer, Alexei Tupolev himself.

“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

The Tu-144 was already on its method out when one other deadly crash occurred. On May 23, 1978, one caught hearth close to Moscow and made an emergency landing throughout which two flight engineers had been killed. Although the accident prompted a whole ban on passenger flights, the actual motive for the airplane’s demise lay elsewhere.

“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.

Over the subsequent few years, with out a lot fanfare, the airplane was quietly retired and manufacturing of latest plane was stopped. The program was lastly grounded in 1984. In complete, simply 17 Tu-144s had been produced, together with prototypes. Most had been scrapped, however a couple of are on show in aviation museums in Russia and Germany.
The final flight of the Tu-144 occurred in 1999, thanks to NASA, which sponsored a three-year joint US-Russian research program on supersonic flight. The plane used was the final Tu-144 ever constructed, which had logged simply 82 flight hours. It was flown 27 occasions close to Moscow earlier than this system was canned due to lack of funds.
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The Tu-144LL supersonic flying laboratory on the Zhukovsky Air Development Center close to Moscow in 1997. Credit: NASA

Tupolev briefly tinkered with the thought of a successor, referred to as Tu-244, however by no means really constructed one. Concorde itself final flew in 2003, however it was doomed since its solely deadly accident in 2000, which killed 113 close to Paris — not removed from the place the primary Tu-144 crashed in 1973.

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.”

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