In the race of supersonic travel between the west and the Soviet Union, Russia managed to produce the Tu-144. Almost identical to the Concorde, it operated for many years in behind the Iron Curtain – but where exactly did it fly? Let’s explore.
What was the Tu-144?
The Tupolev Tu-144 was first flown in 1968 and had the record as the world’s first commercial supersonic passenger jet (it was built and operated three months before the Concorde). It was designed not only as an answer to the Concorde but to link several major cities in the USSR. As the region was so vast and sparsely populated, a supersonic transport for government officials made sense.
You can read more about the story of the Tu-144 here.
Sixteen commercial ready Tu-144s would go on to operate 102 flights, but only 55 would carry passengers.
Where did it fly?
The Tu-144S variant started its entry into service on 26 December 1975, by flying mail and freight between Moscow, Russia, and Almaty, Kazakhstan. The crew used this time to practice the operation of the aircraft in preparation for one day flying passengers.
After almost two years of test cargo flights, the USSR gave its type rating on 29 October 1977, and Aeroflot began passenger flights the very next month.
Alas on 23 May 1978, during a pre-delivery test flight of a brand new Tu-144, something went wrong, and the aircraft crashed, killing both pilots. The last trip with passengers took place on 1 June 1978, and the plane would never fly revenue routes again.
It did, however, fly more cargo flights. Aeroflot would continue some flights to Alma-Ata and also open a route to Khabarovsk (far east Russia) using a particular long-range version of the aircraft (Tu-144D). The plane was officially canceled on 1 July 1983.
What was it like to fly onboard?
There were several design flaws with the aircraft that made it unpleasant, if not downright awful to fly onboard.
For one, there was very little in the way of sound isolation. It was so loud for so long that passengers reportedly had to pass handwritten notes to each other to have a conversation. The noise got far worse as the afterburners had to operate the entire route – not just the start like the Concorde. Looking at photos of the interior, you can see that it was the complete opposite of the luxurious Concorde.
Plus, there were so many faults with the aircraft that Aeroflot canceled many scheduled services at the last minute. According to records published in Howard Moon’s book Soviet SST (1989), “During 102 flights and 181 hours of freight and passenger flight time, the Tu-144S suffered more than 226 failures, 80 of them in flight.”
These flaws made Aeroflot so unconfident in the aircraft that despite having eight airframes at their disposal, they only ever put passengers on the route to Kazakhstan. And not even full flights, restricting the passengers to only fifty despite the demand justifying a full load of 140 passengers (11 first-class & 129 economy class).
After being phased out for passenger usage, a Tu-144 was bought by the US Government for use at NASA. So technically, the Tu-144 would go on to ‘operate’ many flights in the United States but not carry any passengers.
After the end of the program in 1999, some individuals tried to buy a Tu-144 to operate over the Atlantic. Despite having the money, the Russian government was reluctant to release the spare parts for the military-grade engines.
What do you think? Would you have liked to have flown on the Tu-144? Let us know in the comments.