Concorde vs The Tupolev Tu-144 – Which Plane Is Better?

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.

Concorde
Tu-144 vs Concorde. Photo: Simple Flying

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.

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PlaneTu-144Concorde
Crew3 (1 Commander and 2  Engineers)3 (2 Pilots and 1 Engineer)
Passengers140 passengers (11 first class & 129 tourist class)92–120 passengers (All business)
SpeedMach 2.15 (≈ 2,300 km/h or 1,429 mph)Mach 2.04 (≈1,354 mph, 2,179 km/h, 1,176 knots)
Range6,500 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.

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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.

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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.

Tupolev
The Tu-144 now on display. Source: Wikimedia

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.

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).

Concord
Singapore operated a concord with British Airways. One side was painted in BA livery, the other side was Singapore. Photo: Wikimedia

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!

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mpetry912

Great article comparing two iconic aircraft from the last century. And you can tour both of them, if you are willing to travel a bit. Both aircraft had service histories marred by tragic crashes. As for which aircraft is better – that’s a matter for debate but I’d point out that the Concorde flew for 15 years and while I could not find a source for “total flight hours” for the fleet, I note that one example alone (G-BOAB) had accumulated 22000 hours which is extraordinary. I also did not know that the Concorde was capable of “Super Cruise”, that… Read more »

Matt

Of course the Tu-144 also had variable geometry inlets with moving ramps. It was a must to have proper compressed airflow reaching the engine without shockwave. They apparently even had to produce a higher compression ratio than those of Concorde because of what the NK-144 engines required. The first prototype is documented to have quite inefficient ones hence their huge length. But on the following aircrafts the length is mainly a result of the nacelles housing the landing gear (and the APU). A feature dictated by the engine placement so close to the centre body. It’s the NK-144 engines that… Read more »

Matt

In the article’s text the Tu-144 has greater range but in the spec table it’s the Concorde…  By the way, the Tu-144’s 6500 km range was only achieved by the Tu-144D, improved variant that never saw commercial service entry. It was powered by more efficient and non-afterburning turbojets. All passenger flights were performed by Tu-144S. It’s low-bypass turbofans indeed required low afterburning in cruise and range was around 4300km. There was so much teetering issues that only about 50+ scheduled passenger flights happened before political cancellation of the program.  No ejection seats on production Tu-144 😉 only the first, much… Read more »