Concordski: The history of Tupolev Tu-144 SST

Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-144 (Image: Christian Volpati/GFDL/Wikimedia CC)
Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-144 (Image: Christian Volpati/GFDL/Wikimedia CC)

It is not uncommon for people to recognise the Concorde, that divisive but ground-breaking piece of aviation engineering; yet few can name its supersonic rival. Breaking both records the Concorde seemingly claims, the Soviet Tupolev 144 was the first supersonic commercial design aircraft to break the sound barrier and the first to begin passenger services. Why then, is the Tu-144 so frequently neglected?

Sharing an intimate history with the Concorde, its DNA was not so far from its Anglo-French rival, yet its tumultuous history and political intrigue easily demonstrate why the aircraft is often forgotten. The Tu-144, designed by the Tupolev Design Bureau (hereafter TDB), headed by Aleksey Tupolev, and manufactured by the Voronezh Aircraft Production Association (hereafter VAPA), its history was no less problematic than its rivals but exceedingly more dangerous. Only flying the rather underwhelming journey from Moscow, Russia to Almaty (formerly Alma-Ata) in Kazakhstan, the Tu-144 was certainly not as successful as its Western competitor.

Competition with the East

The Tupolev 144’s development was characteristically like Concorde’s, encountering several issues yet its development should be treated separately. The Tu-144’s creation should be recognised as distinctive enough in its own right. Typical with Soviet economic and national expansion, rapid industrialisation dominated the technocratic development of the Tu-144. Its predecessor, the Tu-104, a medium-range twin-engine jet, was one of the first of its kind and ruled the Jet Age for a brief period between 1956-1958. Riding on its coattails, the 144 was expected to be another Soviet success. With such high expectations the 144 was to be ground-breaking; indeed, the initial speed the TDB mustered, demonstrated their capacity to develop something revolutionary.

Unlike the British and French, the US and USSR, during the Fifties chose not to fashion supersonic aircraft, instead, both looked beyond their own airspaces and chose the stars as their destination. The Space Race is a crucial component of the Cold War and, whilst this is not the place to explore its significance, it is important to understand that it drained an extortionate amount of the Soviet Union’s engineering resources.

Coupled with expanding militarism, the USSR spent little money in its commercial sectors, thus, the TBD and VAPA had reduced resources to effectively develop the aircraft. With a lack of funding and minimal government interest, the Tu-144 would be designed from scratch.

The design of the Tu-144 has a politically contentious discourse. Despite preceding the Concorde’s debut by two months and reaching supersonic speeds four months earlier, the Tupolev was considered, within the political climate, a knock-off of the West’s creation. There is no doubt the two aircraft are remarkedly similar, resulting in many contemporary critics nicknaming the craft ‘Concordski’ to defame the Soviet mimicry.

Largely ascribed as Western jealousy in the heat of the Cold War, those West of the Iron Curtain were convinced the Soviet’s creation was suspicious. Despite the Tupolev flying first, theory and scepticism of Soviet espionage circulated, indicative of ideological and socio-economic superiority. Determining the West was far more technologically advanced than the East, commentators believed the Soviets must have copied their grand designs. Despite such claims, the evidence provided presented little in truly supporting the accusation. Flight International, the magazine dedicated to covering aviation news and continues today, provided a short report of an ‘unidentified’ aircraft sorting from Moscow.

Ensuring the news of the Soviets’ success was not expressed explicitly, the magazine commented on its achievements but assured its readers their contributions were ‘relatively ineffective’. Emphasising the importance of the Concorde nearing its first flight, the desire to underplay communist efforts for the sake of ideological security meant the West scarcely understood the realities of the Tupolev’s development. Nonetheless, in typical Cold War fashion, suspicion of espionage overruled any view that the Soviets were outshining Western achievements.

Concorde with its nose drooped partially in flight (Image: British Airways)
The Tupolev Tu-144 bore a striking resemblance to the anglo-french Concorde (Image: British Airways)

The development of the two supersonic aircraft and their consequential competition continued throughout the Cold War and is still subject to small but no less important debate. Editor of Flight Global David Kaminski-Morrow, in conversation with Stephen Dowling, believed the Soviets were unquestionably heavily influenced by the Concorde’s design. The extent is more difficult to ascertain, however. Kaminski-Morrow takes note of the uncharacteristic horizontal stabiliser which was not found on any other Soviet planes at the time, suggesting the Concorde’s design assisted TDB in developing the overall structure of the plane.

Nevertheless, he further underlines the importance of distinguishing features such as the engine’s configuration and the types of materials used on the skin of the aircraft. Kaminsky-Morrow thereby concludes that espionage certainly partially shaped the overall design of the Tu-144 but the Soviet engineers maintained confidence in their own ability to make executive altercations to their design. To name the most blatantly obvious difference between the two models were a pair of ‘canards’ or winglets positioned towards the nose end of the aircraft. This design choice is important as it illustrates one of the major problems the Tu-144 experienced, taking off and flying at low speeds.

Development and Problems

Like the Concorde, the development of the Tu-144 was wrought with difficulties and obstacles. The issues that arose were largely shared but the approach to these problems was handled with distinction. Firstly, the issues of maintaining speed, visibility, radiation, and flightpath were solved with essentially the same, if not similar tactics, but the largest problem that both shared was noise. Unsurprisingly both aircraft were sufficiently noisy due to sonic booms and high-powered engines, but at the very least, the noise inside the Concorde’s whilst not perfect was manageable.

Unfortunately for TDB, they could not overcome this issue. The route cause of the problem was the Tu-144’s overall size. Much larger than the Concorde, sitting at 67m (215ft) in length, 3.7m (12ft) longer and cruising over Mach 2 at around 1,340mph (2,158kph), it required enormous engines. In addition to its mass, its volume also contributed significantly. Weighing 20 tonnes more than its rival, not to mention having a larger passenger capacity, carrying 20 more passengers per flight (140), it required significantly more power to produce the required thrust to fly. Implementing four Kolesov RD-36-51 engines (various engines were used throughout the plane’s development and lifespan) producing 44,000lbs of thrust, around 6,000lbs more than the Concorde, the extraordinary power increased speed but significantly reduced control and noise.

The sheer power of the Tu-144 was incredible but its greatest asset was also its greatest curse. In generating so much power and speed, and flying at such heady heights, the aircraft would heat up very quickly. In response, the air conditioning had to be implemented to ventilate not only the plane but also the cabins themselves, adding further internal noise. Coolants were implemented, which reduced the extent to the air conditioning was required but nonetheless made making flights exceedingly uncomfortable. On its international debut, one reporter remarked the passengers were so abused by the noise they could not hear each other. In a comic, and no doubt intentionally humorous remark, passengers resorted to scribbling down notes and passing them to each other to converse.

Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-144 at the Paris Air Show in 1975 (image: Michel Gilliand /GFDL/Wikimedia)
Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-144 at the Paris Air Show in 1975 (image: Michel Gilliand /GFDL/Wikimedia)

Further problems arose from the plane’s mammoth power in the form of poor aerodynamics, causing great difficulty to brake confidently during landing. In-flight, the two winglets on the front no doubt helped, but when landing the sheer weight and force it generated made killing its speed haphazard and dangerous. The primary solution devised by the TBD was to increase the number of wheels in the cargo to ensure there would be enough grip to drag the plane down to the tarmac. Compared to the Concorde, this made the Tu-144 even heavier, and though not strictly amplifying the power issue, made the designers consider their options. Like the Concorde, it held two front wheels, however, in the rear, instead of two sets of four wheels, the Tu-144 had twelve, each stored under the wings (accounting for its large underbelly). The design helped; however, the Soviet engineer’s problems were not solved completely.

Not to undersell the Tupolev and give all praise to the Concorde, but even in this predicament, the Anglo-French design was far superior. The Concorde’s brakes were made of carbon fibre, which could effectively withstand the speeds it required. Meanwhile, the Soviets could not afford proper tyres for their wheels, relying on synthetic rubber which was notoriously easy to wear. The TBD and VAPA should not be held entirely accountable for this problem, as they were unable to procure the necessary materials to produce an effective model due to a lack of funding. Consequentially the Soviet’s efforts were largely inadequate and unsophisticated compared to the Anglo-French initiative. This was clearly recognised amongst the designers following the Tu-144 crash at the Paris Air Show. Hoping to purchase British engine management systems to improve the model following the international embarrassment, Cold War anxieties trumped them, the British outright refused to support their efforts. Despite turbulent development, it would still accomplish its goal of breaking records and temporarily outshone the Concorde, but these successes were unquestionably short-lived.

TU144 Nose Crash Site Goussainville (CC BY-SA2.0)
TU144 Nose Crash Site Goussainville (CC BY-SA2.0)

The Fall of the Tu-144

Perhaps the largest turning point in Tu-144’s history was the incident that saw its first major public setback. Destined to be exquisitely showcased at the 1973 Paris Air Show, the worst-case scenario happened. To make matters worse, its international rival, was also on display. Although only in its prototype stage, Concorde managed to complete a full aerial routine. Maintaining complete confidence, Tu-144 pilot Mikhail Koslov confidently took to the sky and produced amazement amongst the crowd, however, this would not last.

The plane began its performance smoothly but as it appeared to approach the runway as if to make a landing, its nose drooped, and its undercarriage levered down. In response, Koslov made a rapid climb at an intense speed. Merely seconds passed and the plane from seemingly nothing pitched over and began to break up mid-air. Diving down into the distance, the carcass crashed into a nearby village with all six crew members and eight unsuspecting villagers killed in the disaster. What was intended to be a display of Soviet might and ingenuity was shattered as quickly as it had begun. A media disaster, the crash saw an enormous drop in confidence and respect for the TBD from both the public and government.

What caused the plane to crash was heavily debated and, to some, the reason is still uncertain. The most popular theory, as supported by Ilya Grinberg argued the crash was purely resultant of the pilots overly ambitious manoeuvres when bringing the craft lower to the ground. As the Tu-144 lacked control and aerodynamic capacity in lower altitudes and slow speeds, the plane lost all lift. Attempting to regain speed to ensure it didn’t plummet into the runway the pilot desperately banked upwards. Consequentially, the engines experienced too much pressure, causing them to rupture. Under such strain and de-stabilising rapidly, the wings shattered.

To date, this is the most accepted theory yet others, largely more politically motivated Soviet to suggest other factors. One popular theory suggests Koslov had to take sudden but necessary avoiding action when a French Mirage Fighter, the aircraft responsible for aerial photography, had come too close to the Tu-144, sending it off course.[ii] No matter the cause, the damage was irreparable, and the TBD’s reputation was destroyed. Although the model had not yet been perfected, increased anxieties over the reliability and safety of the aircraft suspended its commercial usage. It would have to wait until 1975 before it could confidently carry passengers, but there was very little confidence in its abilities. Aeroflot, the Soviet Union’s (and today’s Russia’s) largest airline company demonstrated the little faith it had in the Tupolev model as it was removed from their five-year plan that ran between 1976-1982.

As it would happen, Aeroflot was right to be worried; in May 1978, a pre-delivery test flight saw another Tu-144 crash, ending its life as a commercial aircraft. It would be officially decommercialized in June later that year.

TU144 Crash Site Goussainville (CC BY-SA2.0)
TU144 Crash Site Goussainville (CC BY-SA2.0)

The Tupolev’s Resurgence

Following the Tu-144’s decommission, the narrative surrounding the aircraft fell quiet. It was not until the 1990s that the aircraft resurfaced. In the United States, NASA had begun its High-Speed Research programme, created to stimulate supersonic commercial transport (it is worth noting Concorde was still flying). Desiring a base point, NASA contacted Concorde to lease one of its planes, but due to their limited capacity, they were denied the privilege. As only one other supersonic commercial carrier had been created, the American’s somewhat begrudgingly approached the new Russian Federation about using the old Tu-144 models. In 1993, a convoluted agreement was signed between the two nations with Britain acting as an intermediary (at this stage, US Dollars were illegal in Russia and trade between the two nations was still incredibly tense).

Through transactions at night and several bureaucratic deals, the Tupolev would fly again. Contractually, only Russians could fly the aircraft and the pilots were legally bound not to give any accounts of their flight experiences to the Americans. Further negotiations were required with the Americans eventually reaching a middle ground, they were to send their pilots to Moscow to test the aircraft itself. While a major score for NASA, their pilot Rob Rivers suffered an accident that saw him severely incapacitated.

His is a fascinating story as he became the only man to fly both the Concorde and the Tupolev 144, one that is recommended to discover yourself! Modifications to the plane would swiftly be made to improve reliability, however, the craft was still inconsistent and proved to be unhelpful in developing NASA’s position. Lack of funding and overall desire to maintain the project left the programme incomplete and was eventually canned at the turn of the millennium. No doubt the Concorde’s crash had some influence on this decision. NASA’s use of the Tu-144 illustrated unequivocally that its continued unreliability meant it would, like the Concorde, resign its fate to the history books.

The Tupolev’s Close

The history of the Tupolev 144 is clearly one dominated by struggle and setbacks. Its development, commercialism, and eventual short resurgence all faced frustration. Between 1965-1984, a total of seventeen planes were created. Despite its superiority in capacity, speed, and potential in comparison to Concorde, it’s rival undoubtedly outmatched it in all other areas. During its official operation between 1975-99, performing passenger services only in 1977-78, it only flew 102 commercial flights.

When it operated for public use, Aeroflot, despite its popularity and dominance in the Soviet Union and Russian Federation, frequently failed to fill the flights. Perhaps the obscurity of its regular flight path minimised revenue, or maybe the news of its tumultuous history meant people knew better. Throughout its use, it was nothing more than a glorified postal service, only carrying mail and occasional cargo between the Russian and Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republics. Despite NASA’s short term use following its decommission, the Tu-144 can be considered an ambitious failure. Nevertheless, it cannot be overly criticised as its main rival would also fall into disrepute, ending its services in 2003. Since its final rejection, most of the remaining models are stored in the Zhukovsky airbase outside Moscow, collecting dust, acting as a reminder of the world’s desire to rapidly accelerate transport. Rather poetically, in the heart of Germany (the former epicentre of Cold War rivalry) in Sinsheim’s Technik Museum, a Concorde and Tupolev stand together.

Whilst physically similar, the two aircraft had very different experiences, but ultimately their history binds them. The Tu-144 experienced ideological rivalries that accelerated its development but stunted its growth, while Concorde operated independently from politics. Nevertheless, in attempting to revolutionise commercial aircraft, the race for supersonic speed became symptomatic of the intense political and ideological rivalry of the Cold War that pitted two ideas and two planes against each other. Together, the Concorde and Tupolev 144 represent a time where experimentation was ambitious, and the world was split in two. Now they stand together, uniting East and West.

Notable References & Sources

  • D. Kaminsky-Morrow, ‘Retrospective: Tu-144 beats Concorde to first flight’ (FlightGlobal, 31 December 2018) www.flightglobal.com/programmes/retrospective-tu-144-beats-concorde-to-first-flight/130810.article [Date Accessed, 12 October 2021].
  • D. Kaminsky-Morrow, interviewed by S. Dowling, ‘The Soviet Union’s flawed rival to Concorde’ (BBC Future, 14 August, 2020) www.bbc.com/future/article/20171018-the-soviet-unions-flawed-rival-to-concorde [Date Accessed, 12 October 2021].
  • H. Moon, Soviet SST: The Techno-Politics of the Tupolev Tu-144 (London: Crown, 1989).
  • I. Grinsberg, interviewed by J. Prisco, ‘Concordski: What ever happened to Soviets’ spectacular rival to Concorde?’ (CNN, 10 July 2019) http://edition.cnn.com/style/article/tupolev-tu-144-concordski/index.html [Date Accessed, 12 October 2021]. [1] R. Beresnevicius, Explaining The Tupolev Tu-144 Accident At The Paris Air Show In 1973 (Aerotime Hub, 3 June 2019) www.aerotime.aero/22933-tupolev-tu144-paris-air-show-crash [Date Accessed, 17 October 2021].
About Alex Witt 2 Articles
Alex is currently an MA History student at the University of Bristol. Proficient in many historical subjects and periods, his work explores the origin stories and unique events throughout aviation's history. With a love of travel, his motivation to explore the world and uncover its past transcends interest, it's his lifestyle. As a burgeoning professional researcher and writer, Alex hopes to broaden people's horizon on aviation history.

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