The Lost Brother of Concorde: The story of Tupolev Tu-144

When we hear about supersonic transport, immediately in front of our eyes there is a Concorde soaring through the skies. Flying for over 27 years, transferring 2.5 million passengers and completing 50 thousand flights, Concorde made a mark on the history of aviation. It had its reasons to retire, but it was a successful period. Both British Airways and Air France made yearly profits on Concorde’s routes (except the last few years of its service) and it was a very safe aircraft. Obviously the crash in 2000 had massively damaged its reputation, however, that was the only fatal accident in its history. Concorde was a symbol of pride for both the British and the French. They proved that the Americans were not the only ones capable of building a prosperous aircraft.

But they were not the only countries to bet their pride in an aircraft. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviets were designing another SST (supersonic transport). The Soviets wanted to prove to the world not only that they’re capable of building an SST, but that it would be the best. The Soviets had a mission – to build a better SST by all possible means.

Thus, the story of the Tupolev Tu-144 began.

First prototype of Tu-144
The first prototype of Tu-144

Glory to the workers… or disaster?

The design work began pretty much the time as on Concorde. But as the Anglo-French engineers prioritized safety and reliability, the Soviets wanted to see it flying as fast as possible, just so they could beat their counterpart. The fuselage designs were pretty similar for the prototypes – though the final designs were very different. The Tupolev Tu-144 used a double delta wing and it had its very distinctive mustache canards. Concorde used an electronic engine management developed by Lucas. The Soviets had to develop their own systems and engines, which were sub-par compared to the systems and engines used by Concorde.

One of the main issues of the engines was the fact that it had to constantly use afterburners, even when cruising in supersonic speeds. Concorde did not use afterburners to cruise at supersonic speeds.

One of the main reasons why the design was not as good – the landing speed of the Tupolev Tu-144 was between 315 and 333 km/h. Concorde’s landing speed was 287 to 296 km/h, which improved not only the flight experience for the passengers but safety as well.

The Tu-144 had nothing to write home about its flight experience or safety.

A head start to the demise

The first prototype flew on 31st of December, 1968. That was two months earlier than Concorde. Tu-144 first reached supersonic speeds 4 months earlier than Concorde. The beginning was very promising. But those were signs of false hopes.

The 1973 Paris Air Show proved that – while demonstrating the Tu-144 it crashed and killed 6 people in the aircraft and 8 people on the ground.

The Tu-144 was plagued with trouble. The airframe was built out of large panels, with this being advertised as a design feature. Instead, they were serious problems – as the engineers were testing the Tu-144, its body started to showcase cracks on much lower loads than it was supposed to be able to handle. Furthermore, these cracks would be very deep and would spread quickly. The engineers could not fix this issue quickly – they had to redesign it completely.

Another issue was the comfort of the passengers. Or rather lack of any comfort. While Concorde was the epitome of luxury during its years of service, the Tupolev Tu-144 seemed like a very primitive aircraft. The noise levels inside were so high, that the passengers could not even have a conversation between themselves – they had to pass notes to communicate.

Scheduled passenger flights began in 1977. The only operated route was Moscow – Alma-Ata (Almaty today) one time per week. The Soviets did not have the confidence in the supersonic jet. They were afraid of its failure damaging the reputation of Soviet technical capabilities. Considering the astonishing failure numbers, they were right. Out of 102 flights and 181 hours in the air, the Tupolev Tu-144 suffered 226 failures. 80 of them were mid-flight.

Asking the Western Powers for help. Wait, What?

Yes, you read that right – one of the most fun and interesting things about the Tupolev Tu-144 was that the Soviets ditched their pride and asked for help in 1977. They approached Lucas to help them with the engine management systems and BAC-Aerospatiale for help in designing the air intakes on the Tu-144. A year later, in 1978, they asked for even more Concorde technologies – from very primitive things such as firefighting equipment to various advanced equipment. The British government vetoed these requests, as those technologies could be used in military aircraft. British mainstream media reported about these inquiries and shattered the Soviet reputation.

The closing curtains

Everyone at this point knew that the Tu-144 was a failure. It had too many design flaws, it was very unreliable and uncomfortable to fly. Yet knowing these reasons, the question still stands: why did it fail?

The gruesome schedule, for one. The Soviet leaders decided that the Tupolev Tu-144 was to be introduced during the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Communist revolution. Airworthiness of the aircraft was of second importance. That is evident by such things as the toilets not working, ceiling panels not properly fixed and other small issues. Not to mention the huge design flaws that we mentioned previously.

Secondly, testing times – Soviets tested the Tu-144 for a total of fewer than 800 hours. Compare that number to Concorde’s testing hours, which equaled to 5000.

And lastly, the pressure to Tupolev. Tupolev’s engineers and designers did not have the luxury of working solely on the supersonic jet. Unlike the Brits and French, who had the opportunity to focus on Concorde, they had to design and work on two more projects – the Tu-154 trijet and the Tu-22M supersonic bomber. The people working on these projects could not focus on one thing at a time, causing them to have a lot of design errors.

The Soviets built sixteen Tupolev Tu-144s. Fourteen of them were airworthy, while 2 more were built as prototypes.

In the end, Tupolev Tu-144 did not make such an impact on aviation as Concorde, it definitely belongs in the museum of aviation. Tu-144 is a  perfect example of how great ambitions and determination might be not enough or even hinder the development process. Moreover, it showcases that political pressure to rush the design and engineering process is not a very good idea.