How the Soviet Concorde crashed and burned

How the Soviet Concorde crashed and burned


When the Soviet rival to the Concorde made its first foreign appearance at the Paris Air Show in 1971, everyone was impressed. In the heated race to develop a supersonic passenger jet, it was the USSR who got off to a head start.

French President Georges Pompidou, foregoing nationalism, called it “a beautiful plane.” The makers of the Concorde itself conceded that it was “quieter and cleaner.”

The Tupolev Tu-144 looked very similar to its Anglo-French competitor — which inevitably earned it the nickname “Concordski” — but it was somewhat more exotic and mysterious. And the Soviets’ track record in aerospace demanded respect: that same year, they had achieved the first probe-landing on Mars and launched the first space station. They seemed perfectly positioned to beat the West on supersonic passenger travel.

Instead, through a mix of shortcomings and bad luck, the Concordski would soon turn into one of civil aviation’s biggest failures.

The race for supersonic flight

Although it’s the Concorde that earned a place in history, the lesser known Tu-144 beat it to the skies twice: it had its maiden flight on Dec. 31, 1968 — two months before the Concorde — and then achieved its first supersonic flight in June 1969, beating the competition by four months.

These were no small victories. The Americans were out of the supersonic race (Congress had canceled funding to a similar Boeing project in 1971), but the program was still a badge of honor for the Soviet Union.
A Tu-144 on display at Moscow's international airport in 1968.

A Tu-144 on display at Moscow’s international airport in 1968. Credit: Bettmann/Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Every effort was made to outshine the Concorde: “Development started in the midst of a rivalry between two political systems,” Ilya Grinberg, a Soviet aviation expert and engineering professor at Buffalo State University, said in an email. “Expectations were high. The entire USSR was extremely proud of the Tu-144, and the Soviet people had no doubt that it was better than Concorde. And it was so pretty!”

Both planes were clearly ahead of their time, as civil aviation had barely just transitioned from props to jets. But their striking similarities have long fueled spy stories: “The design of the Tupolev was not a result of espionage. Although they look alike, they are rather different planes with many different aspects. External similarities are based on functional criteria and required parameters. But it is certainly possible that familiarity with the outlines of Concorde could have influenced some conceptual decisions,” said Grinberg.

The Tupolev was slightly bigger and faster than the Concorde, but its most distinctive feature was a pair of “canards” or winglets right behind the cockpit, which provided extra lift and improved handling at low speeds.

A crash over Paris

After stealing the show at the biggest event in the aviation industry in 1971, the Tu-144 did it again in 1973, but due to tragedy rather than triumph.

The rivals were once again squaring off. The Concorde completed its demonstration first, without a hitch, but the Tupolev put on a far more audacious show, with twists and turns that proved to be fatal: the aircraft broke up in midair and crashed into the village of Goussainville, killing six on board and eight on the ground.
The ill-fated TU-144 shortly before it exploded and crashed.

The ill-fated TU-144 shortly before it exploded and crashed. Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An outlandish conspiracy theory claims the Tupolev crashed to avoid collision with a french Mirage fighter that was trying to photograph it, but Grinberg is quick to dismiss it: “The Mirage had nothing to do with that crash. It was just speculation to divert attention from the real cause, which was drastic maneuvering of the Tu-144 that exceeded allowable stress limits.”
Footage of the crash shows the Tupolev going into a nosedive, presumably to reignite the engines after they had flamed out. Under too much pressure, the wings broke off.

“The pilots attempted to impress the public and the world’s press, to show that the Soviet plane could be ‘sexier’ than the more conservative display of the Concorde. That’s quite clear from the footage.”

55 flights

That was the start of a downward spiral from which the Tu-144 never recovered. The Paris crash delayed the Soviet program by four years, allowing the Concorde to enter service first. But it didn’t entirely convince the Soviets that the plane needed more testing.

“Political priorities to overcome the West, no matter what, obviously played a negative role, as they favored rushing over proper scheduling in a highly challenging and complicated field,” said Grinberg.

When it finally started flying passengers in 1977, the Tu-144 turned out to be cramped, prone to breaking and unbearably noisy because — unlike the Concorde — it could only sustain supersonic speeds using afterburners, like military aircraft: “A flight on the Tu-144 was not for those with sensitive hearing” Jonathan Glancey wrote in his book “Concorde.”
The cabin of a Tu-144.

The cabin of a Tu-144. Credit: Miroslav Zaj/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Aeroflot used the Tu-144 to serve the rather obscure two-hour route between Moscow and Alma Ata (now Almaty), then capital of Kazakhstan, chosen because it passed over sparsely populated areas. But the weekly flights were mostly half-empty and the plane ended up transporting more cargo and mail than people. The service was canceled after six months.
In its short life as a passenger plane — only 55 return flights — the Tu-144 suffered hundreds of failures, many of them inflight, ranging from depressurization to engine failure to blaring alarms that couldn’t be switched off. All sorts of stories have surfaced over the years about the plane’s woes, including reports that passengers had to communicate through written notes because of the deafening noise. Perhaps more tellingly, each flight from Moscow could only depart after the aircraft had been personally inspected by the plane’s designer, Alexei Tupolev himself.

“The country as a whole was not ready to deploy planes like this. It had teething problems, it was not economical, and ultimately there was no real need for high-speed passenger transportation,” said Grinberg.

The end of an era

The Tu-144 was already on its way out when another fatal crash happened. On May 23, 1978, one caught fire near Moscow and made an emergency landing during which two flight engineers were killed. Although the accident prompted a complete ban on passenger flights, the real reason for the plane’s demise lay elsewhere.

“It was loss of interest in the program by the Soviet leadership as well as Aeroflot top brass. They’ve had enough of the headaches associated with this highly complex program. There were no real economic incentives to use it in the Soviet domestic markets,” said Grinberg.

Over the next few years, without much fanfare, the plane was quietly retired and production of new aircraft was stopped. The program was finally grounded in 1984. In total, just 17 Tu-144s were produced, including prototypes. Most were scrapped, but a few are on display in aviation museums in Russia and Germany.
The very last flight of the Tu-144 happened in 1999, thanks to NASA, which sponsored a three-year joint US-Russian research program on supersonic flight. The aircraft used was the last Tu-144 ever built, which had logged just 82 flight hours. It was flown 27 times near Moscow before the program was canned due to lack of funds.
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The Tu-144LL supersonic flying laboratory at the Zhukovsky Air Development Center near Moscow in 1997. Credit: NASA

Tupolev briefly tinkered with the idea of a successor, called Tu-244, but never actually built one. The Concorde itself last flew in 2003, but it was doomed since its only fatal accident in 2000, which killed 113 near Paris — not far from where the first Tu-144 crashed in 1973.

Many other supersonic planes have been proposed since, but none have made it to production. “I do not foresee one anytime soon. In the age of Internet and real-time video conferences there is no need for high-speed transportation for business purposes,” said Grinberg.

“It is a pity that the Tu-144 and the Concorde have left the skies. Despite economic constraints and notwithstanding basic necessities, people need a dream, such as traveling at supersonic speed in comfort. Not the worst dream to have, I suppose.”



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A walking tour of New York's striking architecture

A walking tour of New York’s striking architecture


This feature is part of ‘A Walk With,’ a new series where some of the world’s most visionary urban designers take you on a stroll. See more here.
Yves Behar is a designer of seemingly limitless imagination. Through his Fuseproject design firm and wearable tech company, Jawbone, Behar and his team have taken on everything from traditional design standards (chairs, computers, logos) to ambitious philanthropic projects (a medical device that can take blood samples, low-cost laptops for children in developing countries) and more playful projects (a high-tech golf aid, a smart coffee cup).

While he lives and works in San Francisco, Behar has plenty of admiration for New York and its metropolitan design.

“New York has always been about great architecture,” he says. “I love it because even though you’re in an urban jungle, there’s a natural and architectural jungle you can explore. I love the juxtaposition between contemporary and older buildings. It reveals the layers of the city.”

For Behar, design is all-important, but it shouldn’t just exist in the abstract.

“What makes me truly happy is to see how people experience my work. Design preoccupies itself with the human experience, the human mind. It’s important to keep people in the moment.”

As we follow him on a leisurely afternoon walk around New York City, Behar talks architecture, design and our relationship with how things look and work.



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Hurricane preparedness checklist: What to do before, after the storm


It’s also important to know the difference between a watch and a warning, and when they are issued for tropical storms and hurricanes.

A hurricane warning means hurricane conditions — sustained winds above 73 mph — are expected somewhere within the warning area, and it is time to finish preparation to protect people and property. “Because hurricane preparedness activities become difficult once winds reach tropical storm force, the hurricane warning is issued 36 hours in advance of the anticipated onset of tropical storm-force winds” — 39 to 73 mph, the National Hurricane Center says.

A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible in the watch area, and is issued 48 hours before the anticipated onset of tropical-storm-force winds.

A tropical storm warning means tropical storm-force winds are expected somewhere in the designated area within 36 hours. A tropical storm watch means such conditions are possible within 48 hours.

What to do as storm approaches

— Download an application to your smartphone that can notify people where you are, and if you need help or are safe. The Red Cross has a Hurricane App available in the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store as well as a shelter finder app. A first aid app is also available.

— Use hurricane shutters or board up windows and doors with 5/8-inch plywood.

— Bring outside items in if they could be picked up by the wind.

— Clear gutters of debris.

— Reinforce the garage door.

— Turn the refrigerator to its coldest setting in case power goes off. Use a cooler to keep from opening the doors on the freezer or refrigerator.

— Fill a bathtub with water.

— Get a full tank of gas in one car.

— Go over the evacuation plan with the family, and learn alternate routes to safety.

— Learn the location of the nearest shelter or nearest pet-friendly shelter.

— Put an ax in your attic in case of severe flooding.

— Evacuate if ordered and stick to marked evacuation routes if possible.

— Store important documents — passports, Social Security cards, birth certificates, deeds — in a watertight container.

— Have a current inventory of household property.

— Leave a note to say where you are going.

— Unplug small appliances and electronics before you leave.

— If possible, turn off the electricity, gas and water for the residence.

List of supplies

— A three-day supply of water, one gallon per person per day.

— Three days of food, with suggested items including: canned meats, canned or dried fruits, canned vegetables, canned juice, peanut butter, jelly, salt-free crackers, energy/protein bars, trail mix/nuts, dry cereal, cookies or other comfort food.

— A can opener.

— Flashlight(s).

— A battery-powered radio, preferably a weather radio.

— Extra batteries.

— A first aid kit, including latex gloves; sterile dressings; soap/cleaning agent; antibiotic ointment; burn ointment; adhesive bandages in small, medium and large sizes; eye wash; a thermometer; aspirin/pain reliever; anti-diarrhea tablets; antacids; laxatives; small scissors; tweezers; petroleum jelly.

— A small fire extinguisher.

— Whistles for each person.

— A seven-day supply of medications.

— Vitamins.

— A multipurpose tool, with pliers and a screwdriver.

— Cell phones and chargers.

— Contact information for the family.

— A sleeping bag for each person.

— Extra cash.

— A silver foil emergency blanket.

— A map of the area.

— Baby supplies.

— Pet supplies.

— Wet wipes.

— A camera (to document storm damage).

— Insect repellent.

— Rain gear.

— Tools and supplies for securing your home.

— Plastic sheeting.

— Duct tape.

— Dust masks.

— An extra set of house keys.

— An extra set of car keys.

— An emergency ladder to evacuate the second floor.

— Household bleach.

— Paper cups, plates and paper towels.

— Activities for children.

— Charcoal and matches, if you have a portable grill. But only use it outside.

What to do after the storm arrives

— Continue listening to a NOAA Weather Radio or the local news for the latest updates.

— Stay alert for extended rainfall and subsequent flooding even after the hurricane or tropical storm has ended.

— Use the Facebook Safety Check to let family and friends know you’re safe.

— If you evacuated, return home only when officials say it is safe.

— Drive only if necessary and avoid flooded roads and washed out bridges.

— Keep away from loose or dangling power lines and report them immediately to the power company.

— Stay out of any building that has water around it.

— Inspect your home for damage. Take pictures of damage, both of the building and its contents, for insurance purposes.

— Use flashlights in the dark. Do NOT use candles.

— Avoid drinking or preparing food with tap water until you are sure it’s not contaminated.

— Check refrigerated food for spoilage. If in doubt, throw it out.

— Wear protective clothing and be cautious when cleaning up to avoid injury.

— Watch animals closely and keep them under your direct control.

— Use the telephone only for emergency calls.

Sources: American Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Hurricane Center



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