Exclusive: Inside Russia’s Concorde – The Tu-144

The Tupolev Tu-144 conducted its first flight over five decades ago. However, I had the opportunity to step on the Soviet Union’s supersonic passenger airliner just last month. Here is a first-hand look inside this historic jet.

Tupolev Tu-144
The Tu-144 was the world’s first commercial supersonic transport aircraft. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying

Where it all started

The Tu-144 conducted its first flight on December 31st, 1968, which was notably two months before the legendary Concorde. It departed Zhukovsky Airport to make history that day, which was the location where I toured inside a unit of the type – 53 years later!

Tupolev Tu-144 Side
The Tu-144 has a length of 65.7 m (215 ft 7 in), a height of 12.55 m (41 ft 2 in), and a wingspan of 28.8 m (94 ft 6 in). Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tu-144 Nose
I recognized the distinct dipped nose from a distance. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying

Only 16 units of the Tu-144 were produced by the Voronezh Aircraft Production Association in Voronezh. After covering many articles related to Soviet Union aviation in the months leading up to my trip to the MAKS-2021 airshow in Moscow Oblast, I was so excited to see this aircraft.

Tupolev Tu-144 Front
There were notable modifications at the front of the cabin. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Windows
The front section had been fitted with plaques commemorating the history of the aircraft’s program. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying

The Tupolev Design Bureau was behind this aircraft. While Andrei helped to get the Soviet commercial aviation industry off the ground, his son, Aleksey, was also integral when it came to jet operations. The group was behind other famous builds such as the Tu-104, which was the second jetliner to enter commercial service.

Exclusive: Inside Russia’s Concorde – The Tu-144
Eras were colliding during my experience on board the Tu-144. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Interior
When supersonic travel makes a comeback in the near future, the on board setting is expected to be completely different from the initial offering. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Galley Close
I wonder how the inflight meals on the Tu-144 compared with the caviar and lobster on the Concorde. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying

Across the cabin

It would take seven years for the Tu-144 to enter service after its first flight. The plane was introduced with Aeroflot on December 26th, 1975, to handle mail operations after years of challenges with the launch.

Tupolev Tu-144 Aisle Wide
I imagined that some game-changing VIPS of the 1970s discussed some crucial policies on board the Tu-144. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying

There was a lot of space throughout the cabin. Nonetheless, I tried to envision how it would be during passenger service with more seats, people, and equipment. One thing that was evident was the abundance of legroom.

Tupolev Tu-144 Seating Cabin
11 first class and 129 “tourist” class passengers could fit on board the Tu-144, but bookings were limited to 70–80 passengers or fewer for each service. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Seat
Despite passengers having plenty of legroom, the same can’t be said for the crew. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Lavatory Door
Soviet-era patterns can be spotted on the furnishings on doors and other objects. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Lavatory
In the words of Bald and Bankrupt – It’s a Soviet sink! Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying

A short-lived program

An infamous crash at the 1973 Paris Air Show, which saw the aircraft break up above 200,000 spectators set the tone for what was to come. After entering passenger service in 1977, a crash that followed the year after caused Aeroflot to ground the type after only 55 passenger flights.

Tupolev Tu-144 Wing
The shape of the aircraft’s wings would change slightly to help reduce drag, thanks to a flight control system. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying

The aircraft’s four Kuznetsov turbofan engines and air conditioning units caused a lot of noise disturbance on board. This air conditioning was critical as it prevented overheating amid the high friction.

Tupolev Tu-144 Inside
A regular complaint was the loud noise throughout the aircraft measuring at least 90–95 dB on average, forcing many travelers to pass notes to each other in order to communicate. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Cockpit
A commander and two flight engineers made up the crew of three on board the Tu-144. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Cockpit Seat Right
The plane could fly at a speed of Mach 2.15 (2,300 km/h or 1,429 mph). Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Cockpit Seat Left
The Tu-144 had a range of 3,500 NM (6,500 km), which was 400 nautical miles fewer than the Concorde. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Cockpit Side
The plane’s computer-controlled systems allowed it continually alter the shape of its air inlets to optimize efficiency.  Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Exit
While in passenger service, the model flew weekly between the Soviet cities of Moscow and Almaty. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

Leaving a legacy

Aeroflot was the sole commercial operator of the type, with only the Soviet Union’s ministry of aviation and NASA being the other two entities to hold units. Interestingly, the latter worked with the aircraft’s manufacturers to develop a new variant – the Tu-144LL. The project resulted in the Supersonic Flying Laboratory, which played an important part in a joint research program between the United States and Russia.

Tupolev Tu-144 Livery
The type was fully retired from the air in 1999. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying
Tupolev Tu-144 Tail
Commercial supersonic travel’s life was cut short across the board, but the Tu-144’s lifespan for passenger operations only lasted a few years. Photo: Sumit Singh | Simple Flying

So, even though the Tu-144 represents a period of intense competition between Russia and the West, in its latter years, it had a crucial role in a new era of cooling in the global political sphere.

I felt privileged to be able to witness such an aircraft firsthand. This is a factor that may not have been possible if I was around during the plane’s heyday. Nonetheless, it truly felt like I was going back in time when walking through the cabin of the plane in Moscow that day.

Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) is working on a new supersonic passenger solution. With it being around half a century since the Tu-144 first took flight, the entire production will be worlds apart from what we have witnessed with the original.

What are your thoughts about the Tupolev Tu-144? What do you make of the history of the plane? Let us know what you think of the aircraft and its cabin in the comment section.

879 Shares: