The second half of the 20th century was all about the fight of the west versus the east. Arms races, fights for influence in several countries all around the world, a space race and to some extent, a race for the best commercial airliner to grace the skies were the main topics of that time.
While the Brits successfully built the first commercial jet in the form of a Comet, when the aircraft actually served passengers, it saw minimal success, as the Comet had multiple fuselage failures during the years. This allowed other manufacturers, including the Soviets and, namely, Tupolev, to catch up.
And they did with the Tupolev Tu-104, which beat the first American manufactured jet, the Boeing 707, by 2 years. The Tu-104 entered commercial service in September 1956 while the 707 made its debut commercial flight in October 1958.
But the Tu-104 had a similar story as the Comet – while it was “the first”, the aircraft itself was not very good.
Anyhow, the main topic regarding the commercial airline race is, of course, the Supersonic race.
The Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144 were set to fight for the glory of every nation and manufacturer that built it. As much as the two supersonic aircraft were built for the comfort of the passengers, they were also huge political statements.
It all came down at the 1971 Paris Air Show when the two supersonic aircraft finally met face-to-face. While the two showed off, nothing really eventful happened compared to the next Paris show, which happened in 1973.
The Soviets had pulled the first punch, as they made the first test flight just a little earlier than the test of Concorde.
However, the Europeans revealed the Concorde in 1969’s air show.
But in 1971, the general public both from the West and the East could see the competition they were facing. In a newspaper clip from The Los Angeles Times quoted a U.S. Air Force official saying that the Tu-144 is “a beautiful plane, we should build one like it.” On the other hand, the Soviets lacked presentational skills, as another U.S. expert noted that “This plane flies a lot, but you’d think if they wanted to sell it to the West they would at least put new tires on it”, as the Tupolev Tu-144 had very worn tires.
Generally speaking, the 1971 Paris Air Show was a success for the Soviets, as they showed a slick, greatly designed jet. The technical specifications, which the Soviets presented at the time, were much better as well – less weight, more passengers, more range. All in all, a better package than the Concorde.
Yet the 1973 Paris Air Show painted a very different picture and put a huge stain on Tupolev’s reputation.
The number 2 chassis of the Tupolev Tu-144, CCCP-77102, stalled and proceeded to enter a steep dive. The aircraft’s left wing disintegrated first, while the rest of the body followed it. The Tupolev Tu-144 plunged into the village of Goussainville, about 10 kilometers north of Paris – Bourget Airport.
As a result, 6 people on board and 8 people on the ground have passed away. The crash injured 60 people and left a huge question mark on what exactly happened.
What followed is theories that lead to a land called “Nowhere” and a joint French-Soviet report that was never revealed to the public eye. Nevertheless, let’s look at the crash.
One of the most popular theories is that the pilot of the Tu-144, Mikhail Kozlov, tried to one-up the Concorde‘s show, which had performed just earlier. The video footage showcases some impressive maneuvers from the pilot and the aircraft right from the start, as the Tupolev started taking off at a very steep angle. Later on, as the Russian SST tried to show off, the pilot pulled the aircraft steeply and as Bob Hoover, an aeronautics legend, later recalled in his book “Forever Flying”, Bob said that “he pulled the nose up so steeply l didn't believe he could possibly recover.” As a result of this steep climb, the aircraft stalled and dived violently. Subsequently, the Tu-144 started breaking up, as the airframe became overstressed and it crashed into Goussainville, claiming 14 lives in total.
Another factor is that the Tu-144 had flaws, which Concorde did not. According to a PBS program NOVA in an episode dubbed Supersonic Spies that saw daylight in 1998, Raymond Baxter, a former Spitfire pilot, compared the shapes of the Tu-144 and the Concorde: “Concorde's worked and theirs didn't; Because it didn't create the anticipated lift and stability throughout the speed range.”
However, politics might have also contributed to the accident, as the French shortened the performance time of the Tu-144 in order to reduce its presence compared to the Concorde. Moreover, the French also tried to take pictures of the Tu-144 with a Mirage fighter. The French later on confirmed (as they had previously denied this fact) that there was a Mirage fighter flying above the “Konkordski” trying to take pictures of the mustache-like canards at the front of the aircraft.
And as the Tupolev started climbing, it might have encountered the fighter jet and in an attempt to avoid it, the supersonic jet dived steeply. Then, the pilots had lost all power from the engines, as the Tu-144 had stalled, so they had to restart the engines, but did not have enough altitude left to properly recover.
But other theories have also surfaced.
One more theory is that the Anglo-French consortium building Concorde knew that the Soviets also wanted to build their own Supersonic jet. The consortium also knew that the Russians were a sneaky bunch and liked to spy, so they handled the Soviet spy the wrong papers, which included faulty designs.
However, you can easily deny the theory because, for one, the Soviets had made several successful tests flights prior to the 1973 Paris Air Show; secondly, witness accounts and video footage clearly showcases that the pilot had really stepped out of bounds for the aircraft’s capabilities at the time.
One more theory was that V.N. Bendrov, the Deputy Chief Designer of the Tu-144, was filming the cockpit procedures for a French TV channel inside the cockpit. As the Tupolev climbed sharply, Bendrov lost the camera and it got stuck in the flight controls. But according to multiple sources, Benderov‘s body was not discovered at the location where the other bodies of the flight crew in the cockpit were found.
All in all, it's hard to determine what exactly caused the 1973 Paris Air Show Tupolev Tu-144 crash. However, it’s clear that the pilot had overstepped the operational boundaries of the aircraft in trying to showcase the Tu-144’s capabilities compared to the Concorde. What happened when the pilot had left the safe flight boundaries is entirely up to debate.
A debate that will end when the two respective governments reveal an official accident report, determining the cause.
Until then, we can only speculate.