Back in the last century, the capital West was locked in a vicious cold war with the communist East. Battle lines were drawn across land, resources, and technology. And no technological marvel is more prestigious than a supersonic passenger aircraft. Two were built, both mirror images of one another, and both designed to be the best; The European Concorde and The Russian Tu-144.
But which of the two is the best? Was the Concorde the result of the best minds of a generation, or was the Russian Tu-144 a little bit better?
How do they match up?
Let’s begin by seeing how each aircraft matched up, below is a simple chart with their main specifications.
|Crew||3 (1 Commander and 2 Engineers)||3 (2 Pilots and 1 Engineer)|
|Passengers||140 passengers (11 first class & 129 tourist class)||92–120 passengers (All business)|
|Speed||Mach 2.15 (≈ 2,300 km/h or 1,429 mph)||Mach 2.04 (≈1,354 mph, 2,179 km/h, 1,176 knots)|
|Range||6,500 km (4,000 mi)||3,900 nmi (4,488.04 mi, 7,222.8 km)|
As we can see above, the Tu-144 was actually much faster than the Concorde (by 100 km/h) and had a bigger range (only by 100 nmi, but back then it was a matter of pride). But when we say faster, we mean ‘faster’ with extra emphasis.
The Tu-144 only achieved this speed by using afterburners the entire time, quickly burning through all its fuel and limiting the aircraft to short routes. The Concorde actually reached cruise on its normal engines and did not require as much fuel by far.
The Tu-144 also did not have any pilot aids or electronic controls. Unlike the cutting edge computers and controls of the Concorde, the Russians went old school. Whether or not this is because they didn’t have the technology is a matter of debate.
What is not mentioned are the passenger comforts. The Tu-144 had practically no insulation; there was so much vibration and teeth chattering that passengers had to pass notes to talk! Whilst it could carry more passengers, only 11 actually sat in first class (compared to the all business configuration of a Concorde). Although it was not all bad on the Tu-144; if you were a crew member you actually had an ejection seat!
Is the Tu-144 a rip-off of the Concorde?
One of the conspiracy theories that we came across in our research was that the Tu-144 was not only a rip off of the Concorde, but was developed from fake plans given to Russian spies that had several built in flaws.
Apparently, the development team of the Concorde somehow knew that the Russians would be stealing the plans (remember these are not spies but engineers) and created duplicate plans with flaws in the engines and airframe. Whether or not this is true we will leave up to you, but we like to think anything was possible during the Cold War era.
The Tu-144 would go on to borrow plenty of Concorde technology, with Russian engineers touching base with the Concorde team to ask about everything from computer systems to simple fire extinguishers. The British government would go on to publish these letters, much to the embarrassment of the Soviet Union.
Which was more popular?
The Concorde was by far more popular with airlines than the Tu-144. It was operated by Air France, British Airways and had two very short leases, one to Singapore Airlines and another in America by Braniff Airways (Dallas To Washington).
The Tu-144 only ever flew one route, Moscow to Almaty once a week. The government had such little confidence in the aircraft that they did not report its successful flight until after the event. In the case of it breaking down or crashing, they would have simply forgotten to mention it.
If you are wondering where the Americans were in all this, you can read about their American Concorde here.
Let us know which you think is the best in the comments!