By Burhan Turra
upersonic flight is an idea that has been around since the latter half of the 20th century. In the 1960s, the race for the first supersonic passenger jet began and ended when the Aerospatiale/BAC’s Concorde took flight in 1969. Well, that is how most people know it. What they don’t know is that the Soviets sneakily caught up with them…
The TU-144 beat Concorde in launch, being the first supersonic passenger jet to take flight and to break the sound barrier, all in 1969.
Have you ever heard of the Russian aircraft manufacturer Tupolev’s TU-144? Most people wouldn’t have, because it did not stick around for longer than the Concorde. The TU-144 was built and designed by the head of Tupolev, Alexei Tupolev. The TU-144 was quite similar to the Concorde’s design, with delta wings, four engines, and a “droop” nose which allowed the pilots to have better visual on the runway for takeoff and landing. The TU-144 beat Concorde in launch, being the first supersonic passenger jet to take flight and to break the sound barrier, all in 1969. The TU-144 was also faster than the Concorde, with a top speed of 1,510 mph compared to Concorde’s top speed of 1,354 mph.
The Soviets were quite ecstatic about being the first to achieve supersonic flight and being faster than the Concorde, but their happiness was short lived. In the 1973 Paris Airshow, the Concorde and the TU-144 both took flight for the first time in front of the press. The Concorde flew well, but the TU-144 broke up mid-air after entering a rapid descent, due to an engine flameout and the plane exceeding it’s stress limits on the dive. Everyone on board the flight was killed as well as people in a nearby town from raining debris. This crash dealt a severe blow to the Soviets by delaying the program for four years, allowing the Concorde to enter into commercial service first.
The TU-144 entered passenger service in 1977, where it was heavily criticized. Passengers complained of it’s tight 5 abreast seating compared to the Concorde’s 4 abreast seating. The TU-144’s engines were screaming loud, so much so that passengers had to pass notes in order to communicate. The plane was plagued with technical problems with some being severe enough to cancel flights. It was so bad that Alexei Tupolev himself had to inspect each plane before it could fly.
The TU-144 saw only one route, Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport in Russia to Almaty, Kazakhstan. The TU-144’s engines burned so much fuel that it didn’t have enough range to even cross the Soviet Union. Aeroflot operated the aircraft for less than a year before pulling the plug on the plane in 1978. With no other orders, the program collapsed quickly after that, and that was the end for the TU-144.
Or was it?
In 1999, NASA wanted a supersonic passenger jet for it’s research on supersonic flight. After all, they also entered the supersonic jet competition with designs of the Boeing 2707, which never took flight because of building and designing costs. The British and French could not offer them a spare Concorde, so they turned to the TU-144. NASA operated a modified version of the last TU-144 ever built. They kept it in service for a short time before retiring it. And that was the official shut down of the Tupolev TU-144.
The TU-144 was a technologically advanced aircraft for it’s time with features such as canards (small wing-like flaps that deploy at the front of the plane to increase lift), while being the first ever supersonic passenger jet. But one crash in front of thousands started a downward spiral from which the plane never recovered. Though it was less popular than the Concorde, the TU-144 will always be remembered as the true king of speed and for winning the race to building the first supersonic passenger jet.