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.
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.
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 ill-fated TU-144 shortly before it exploded and crashed. Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
“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.”
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.
The cabin of a Tu-144. Credit: Miroslav Zaj/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
“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
“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.
The Tu-144LL supersonic flying laboratory at the Zhukovsky Air Development Center near Moscow in 1997. Credit: NASA
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.”