Everyone was impressed when the Soviet Concorde rival made his first foreign appearance at the Paris Air Show in 1971. In the heated race to develop a supersonic passenger jet, it was the USSR that originally set off.
The Tupolev Tu-144 was very similar to the Anglo-French rival who inevitably earned him the nickname “Concordski”, but it was a little more exotic and mysterious. And the Soviet’s track record in the aviation field demanded respect: they made their first probe landing on Mars that same year and launched the first space station. They seemed to be perfectly positioned to defeat the West in supersonic passenger travel.
Instead, Concordski, with a mixture of shortcomings and bad luck, would soon become one of the biggest failures of civil aviation.
Supersonic flight race
Despite being Concorde, who won a place in history, the lesser-known Tu-144 beat him twice to the sky: on December 31, 1968, he made his first flight two months before Concorde, and then made his first supersonic flight. June 1969, beating the contest for four months.
Tu-144, exhibited in Moscow’s international airport in 1968. Credit: Bettmann / Bettmann / Bettmann Archive
“Development started in the middle of the rivalry between the two political systems,” said Ilya Grinberg, a Soviet aviation expert and engineering professor at Buffalo State University, by email. “The expectations were high. The entire USSR was extremely proud of the Tu-144, and the Soviet people did not doubt that it was better than Concorde. And it was beautiful!”
Both planes were far ahead of their time, because civil aviation was only switching from propellers to jets. But their striking resemblance has long been spying stories: “Tupolev’s design was not the result of espionage. Although they seem similar, they are quite different planes with many different aspects. External similarities are based on functional criteria and necessary parameters. Concorde’s outline it is definitely possible that it influenced some conceptual decisions. “
Tupolev was slightly larger and faster than Concorde, but its most distinctive feature was a pair of “canard” or wingers just behind the cockpit, which provided extra lift and improved handling at low speeds.
An accident on Paris
After playing the show at the biggest event in the aviation industry in 1971, Tu-144 did it again in 1973 due to tragedy rather than victory.
The bad unfortunate TU-144 is just before the explosion and crash. Credit: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
“Pilots tried to impress the public and the world press to show that the Soviet aircraft could be sexier than Concorde’s more conservative show. This is pretty clear from the footage.”
This was the beginning of a downward spiral, where the Tu-144 never recovered. The Paris accident postponed the Soviet program for four years and allowed Concorde to enter service first. However, he did not entirely convince the Soviets that the aircraft needed more tests.
“Political priorities to overcome the West, no matter what, they obviously played a negative role because they preferred to rush into proper programming in an extremely challenging and complex space,” Grinberg said. Said.
Tu-144’s cabin. Credit: Miroslav Zaj / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images
“The country was not ready to deploy such aircraft as a whole. There were teething problems, it was not economical, and ultimately there was no real need for high-speed passenger transport,” Grinberg said. Said.
The end of an era
“In addition to the Soviet leadership, this program had lost interest in Aeroflot top rice. The headaches associated with this highly complex program were sufficient. There was no real economic incentive to use in the Soviet domestic markets,” said Grinberg.
Tu-144LL supersonic flight laboratory at the Zhukovsky Air Development Center near Moscow in 1997. Credit: NASA
Many supersonic aircraft have been proposed since then, but none of them went into production. “I don’t anticipate one soon. In the age of the internet and real-time video conferencing, there is no need for high-speed transport for business purposes,” Grinberg said. Said.
“It is a pity that Tu-144 and Concorde leave the sky. Despite economic constraints and basic needs, people need a dream to travel comfortably at supersonic speed. I think it’s not the worst dream.”
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