The Russian-built Tu-144 was the first supersonic passenger plane ever to fly, but it came with some flaws built-in. Bigger, heavier and less technologically advanced than Concorde, it blotted its copybook with a spectacular crash at the Paris Air Show. When it did enter passenger service, it was a horrific passenger experience – loud, uncomfortable and unpopular. These factors combined to end its production as quickly as it had begun, with just seven examples preserved for posterity.
The world’s first supersonic passenger plane
While Europe was busy working away on what it hoped would be the world’s first supersonic airliner, the Soviets were preparing to pip them to the post. Nicknamed the ‘Konkordski’ due to its close resemblance to the Anglo-French Concorde, the Tu-144 took its first flight on December 31st, 1968, several months ahead of its competitor.
In an era when nations were throwing everything they had into being first – whether it was sending a rocket into space or putting a man on the moon – the supersonic race became a matter of national pride. No matter what it took, the Russians were determined to be the first to fly a supersonic passenger plane.
They achieved this feat, but not without needing to cut some corners on the way. The Soviet aviation industry was some way behind that in Europe and the US. The Concorde pioneered some genuinely cutting-edge technologies, such as carbon fiber brakes and a partially fly-by-wire control system.
Concorde’s computer-controlled flight control systems allowed the aircraft to continually change the shape of the air inlets to maximize efficiency. It even changed, very slightly, the shape of the wings during flight to reduce drag. The Soviets poured everything into the Tu-144 in response, and it was an incredible achievement that they managed to produce such a plane.
However, there were some significant downfalls in the Tu-144s design. It was much larger than Concorde and more powerful, but it needed to be because the aircraft was more than 20 tonnes heavier than its Anglo-French rival. Engine control was less superior, the aerodynamics were not as good, and the braking system was inferior to the Concorde. These small differences meant it was never likely to be a real competitor, but something much more sinister was to conspire to seal its fate.
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Paris Air Show
The beginning of the end of the Tu-144 project came in 1973, when both supersonic aircraft were set to wow the crowds at the Paris Air Show. In front of 200,000 spectators, Concorde took off and flew a flawless demonstration in the skies above Le Bourget. Then it was the turn of the Tupolev.
The Tu-144 took off and made a successful 360-degree turn, transitioning into a steep ascent. It leveled off and began descending towards the ground. The plan was, reportedly, to fly at a low altitude to demonstrate its rapid acceleration.
But the aircraft could not withstand the stress. It began to break up some 1,500 feet above the crowds and came crashing to the ground in a nearby village. The accident killed all six crew members onboard, as well as eight French civilians on the ground.
There have been several theories as to why the Tu-144 failed that day. Some put it down to pilot error, claiming that the hard maneuvering at low speed caused the pilot to lose control. Others said it was the fault of a nearby Mirage fighter jet that had caused the pilot to swerve and lose control. Whatever the reason, the spectacular crash shook everyone’s confidence in the aircraft, raising questions over the quality of its design.
Aeroflot was to be the launch operator of the Tu-144. It began flying the jet between Moscow and Almaty in Kazakhstan in 1975, but it was only carrying mail on those initial flights. They were essentially test flights, and while they broke many records, the lack of commitment to carry passengers spoke volumes about Aeroflot’s confidence levels in the jet.
It was 1977 before the Tu-144 began flying passengers. The cabin was incredibly noisy, both due to the engines and the vital air conditioning units, which prevented passengers from becoming dangerously overheated from the air friction on the plane’s skin. Passengers reported being unable to hold a conversation onboard, resorting to passing notes to communicate.
Other quality control issues abounded. Passengers complained that the five-abreast seating was too cramped, tray tables were jammed, toilets didn’t work and window shades frequently dropped down without being touched. Tupolev had succeeded in bringing the Tu-144 to market, but once there, it almost seemed like more trouble than it was worth.
Aeroflot released a five-year plan to run from 1976 to 1982, which was notable for the absence of the Tu-144 in it. A modified variant crashed on a pre-delivery flight to Aeroflot in 1978, and that was the final straw. Aeroflot pulled the plug on the program after just 102 commercial flights, only 55 of which had carried passengers.
Production of the Tu-144 ended in 1982. At the time, 14 Tu-144s remained, some of which had a brief resurrection training crew for the planned Soviet Space Shuttle flights. But by the end of the 1980s, all the Tu-144s had been mothballed, many in storage at the Soviet aircraft testing base at Zhukovsky, near Moscow.
According to data from ATDB.aero, seven Tu-144s remain preserved to this day. Zhukovsky has two of them – CCCP‑77114 and CCCP-77115. One rests at the Auto und Technik Museum at Sinsheim, Germany, another at the Museum of Civil Aviation at Ulyanovsk in Southwest Russia. You can find the final three at the Research Institute in Samara, the Aviation School in Kazan-North and the Air Force Museum in Moscow. All the rest were scrapped.