The Concorde could rip across the Atlantic
in just over three hours, twice
as fast as any modern-day airliner.
Andyou’d do it in style while sipping champagne.
Wait a minute…
This is the only other supersonic jet to ever carry commercial passengers. No,
this isn’t Concorde. This is theSoviet Union’s Tupolev 144.
And yes, it looks
like the Concorde but flying on this thing was nothing
like the Concorde.
The Tu-144 was kind oflike the Concord’s crazy older sister.
She was loud, uncomfortable and a littledangerous.
But the 144 story is
definitely worth telling.It clearly knocked off a lot of the
Concord’s design – just look at –
it but it actually did some things better, like
carry more passengers, it even flewfaster.
But ultimately the 144’s story is
about faking it.
About deceiving theworld.
In the 1960’s the race to build a
supersonic passenger jet, well it was more
than about just flying fast, it was
about asserting superiority for both theSoviets and the West.
And the race to be
the first actually started as athree-way between the Americans with
their half-baked Boeing 2707, the jointBritish-French Concorde, and the Soviets
with their Tu-144.
The Americans ruinedtheir shot by tying themselves up in
bureaucracy and cost overruns, this put the Concorde project firmly in the lead.
The Soviets who had more primitive
technology had a lot of catching up to do,
so they relied
on good old Soviet ingenuity.. oh and they stole a whole
bunch from the Concorde program.
Early on Soviet spies made out with over 90,000
technical documents on the Concorde and other aircraft
so they caught up to the
Concorde program and the 144 took flighttwo months before Concorde
It’s obvious the Concorde was designedaround passenger experience. Journalists
marveled at how quiet and smooth
supersonic flight was and how flight
attendants had no trouble chatting uppassengers while they served martinis.
the 144? Well caviar and champagne were also brought out,
but Western journalists
fixated on the cramped seats,
window shades that would suddenly drop without
being pulled, and that some of thebathrooms weren’t even working.
The 144’s more primitive engines and coolingsystem worked together to produce a
sound so loud that passengers couldn’ttalk to one another.
Instead they had to
pass around handwritten notes andplaying pass the note with other
passengers must have killed some of theopulence.
Not that flying on the 144
was ever going to be a normal experience.
The plane only ever saw passenger
service on a single lonely route betweenMoscow and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
is the 144’s engines burned so much fuel,
it couldn’t actually fly much further,
it couldn’t even cross theSoviet Union.
Compare that to the Concorde,
its route spanned continents
and oceans and the Tu-144 flew only once
a week, even though there were seven more certified and ready for service.
shows how confident Soviet leaders werein the 144.
Out of 102 scheduled flights there were 226 mechanical failures,
80 of which were
serious enough to delay or canceled theflight altogether.
The possibility of 144
crashing with passengers on board was a huge political risk. From
the very beginning the one full force air worthiness was in serious question.
It crashed in front of thousands
of spectators during the 1973 Paris Air Show.
Then again in 1978 when a cargo version
went down after a fuel line rupture.
Andyet again in 1981 one suffered an engine explosion,
forcing an emergency landing.
The problem was the Tu-144 had clearly
been rushed in its development.
Gettingthis thing built before the Concorde was
more important for the Soviets than actually building it well,
and the 144’s
engineers had fewer resources andinferior technologies. But still, you
gotta hand it to them for actuallygetting it done.
The Concorde’s design
team had state-of-the-art rolls-royceolympus engines with computer-controlled
engine inlets that allowed for something called super cruise.
So once Concorde reachedsupersonic
her fuel thirsty
after burners could be switched off while still maintaining supersonic.
Tu-144 engineers had to make do
with engines that needed continuous
afterburners to maintain supersonic. TheConcorde had a sophisticated wing
optimized for both supersonic andlow-speed flying, the Tu-144’s wing was
really only good for supersonic,
so pilots had to land the 144
at higher speeds,
making for brutally hard landings that even required a parachute.
The Soviets worked aroundtheir wing limitations by designing canards,
little deploy-able wings at the front
of the aircraft which would
improve low-speed stability.
But all theinnovation on both sides of the Iron
Curtain couldn’t overcome the realitythat supersonic travel was just too expensive.
In the capitalist West
you could price Concorde tickets at 5 or 6
times what a regular flight would cost,
so the Concorde became about glitz and glamour,
but on the other side
of the Iron Curtain things were a little bit
more awkward. Who exactly
in the Communist Soviet Union was supposed to
fly aboard the Tu-144?
The price of a ticket was set
at just 37 rubles, not
much more than you’d expect to pay
on a regular flight and not nearly enough to
cover operational costs.
The 14 Concordes that entered service found a small niche
serving celebrities and the rich,
but even with that Concorde itself was still
a commercial failure.
The French and theBritish had poured billions into
developing it even as they knew very early
on that they’d never be able to
sell hundreds of Concordes needed torecoup development costs.
But the 144
without the same premium niche to fill on the other side
of the Iron Curtain,
could only ever be used as a propaganda tool and a prestige project.
would ferry passengers for 27 years up until it was retired in 2003.
was retired from regular passenger service
not even a full year after it