As someone who hails the BAC/Aerospatiale Concorde as one of the greatest flying machines ever constructed and perhaps the most beautiful aircraft ever designed, it seems only natural that I should bombard the Tupolev Tu-144 with nothing but criticism and condescension for being nothing more than a cheap knock-off (in fact I can’t even call it that, it was a pretty expensive knock-off!). The world of aviation fans are torn in half when it comes to the Tu-144, some calling it an unappreciated gem and one of the best planes ever built (even though it crashed multiple times, only flew 55 service flights and failed by every definition of the word) while others malign it in profuseness. But I’m going to be fair on the old Tu-144, I will attempt to be as unbiased as possible when it comes to this review of one of the most controversial aircraft ever to hit the skies.
The Tu-144 was one of only two Supersonic Transport aircraft ever operated, and was in fact the first, beating Concorde by 2 months, making its first supersonic transit on 5th June, 1969, and on 26th May, 1970, became the first commercial transport to exceed Mach 2.
The very origins of the Tu-144 were due to the conception of Concorde, an idea that had been in development since the mid-1950’s. The Soviet Union attempted in every way possible to beat and humiliate the Western powers, and the idea of creating the first successful supersonic jet airliner would be the crown jewel of their campaign. They had put the first man into space, launched the first Satellite too, so carrying passengers through the sound barrier, how hard could it be?
Well seeing as BAC and Aerospatiale had already done a majority of the work developing Concorde, Tupolev felt that it would be easier to just copy them. Though not 100% clear as to how Tupolev were able to develop the Tu-144 as almost a carbon-copy of Concorde, most sources point to the intervention of Soviet Agent Sergei Fabiew, who obtained blueprints and designs from the Concorde development team. The Tu-144 project was given the go ahead in 1963, and construction based on these plans began in 1965. While it took between 1962 and 1969 to develop Concorde, the Tu-144 was created in half the time, with prototypes being rolled out in late 1968.
Despite the close similarity in appearance of the Tu-144 to the Anglo-French supersonic aircraft, there were significant differences in the control, navigation and engine systems. The Tu-144 lagged behind Concorde in areas such as braking and engine control. Concorde utilized an electronic engine control package from Lucas, which Tupolev was not permitted to purchase for the Tu-144 as it could also be used on military aircraft. In fact the Tu-144 was one of the last commercial airliners to use a drag parachute on landing!
Concorde’s designers used airliner fuel as coolant for the cabin air conditioning and for the hydraulic system. Tupolev installed additional equipment on the Tu-144 to accomplish this, increasing the weight of the airliner. While both Concorde and the Tu-144 prototype had ogival delta wings, the Tu-144’s wing lacked Concorde’s conical camber. Production Tu-144s replaced this wing with a double delta wing including such conical camber, and they added a simple but practical device: two small retractable surfaces called Moustache canard, one on either side of the forward section on the aircraft, to increase lift at low speeds. Moving the elevons downward in a delta-wing aircraft increases the lift (force), but also pitches its nose downward. The canards cancel out this nose-downwards moment, thus reducing the landing speed of the production Tu-144s to 196–207 mph, still faster than that of Concorde.
The Tu-144 prototype was originally fitted with the inefficient Kuznetsov NK-144 turbofan engines and consequently suffered from higher nacelle aerodynamic drag. While this permitted early test flights, it did not permit cruising at Mach 2 without afterburner. A maximum cruising speed of 1,510mph (Mach 2.29) was obtained with the afterburner. The Tu-144S model, of which nine were produced, featured the Kuznetsov NK-144F turbofan engines that offered better fuel efficiency over the original engine. The four engines each had a maximum afterburning thrust of 45,000lbf and each had separate inlet ducts in each nacelle and variable intake ramps in the inlets, giving a cruising speed of 1,200mph (Mach 1.88). This also gave it a longer range of 1,910 miles, but still less than half the range of Concorde.
In total, 16 Tu-144’s (including prototypes) were constructed, and upon its launch in 1968, the Western world was not impressed. The similarities between Concorde and the Tu-144 earned it the name ‘Concordski’, and it was clear from the outset that this aircraft had been the result of some kind of espionage. Nevertheless the Soviet Union expected this aircraft to take the world by storm, and paraded it at the Paris Air Show alongside its European rival.
However, Paris would herald the long slide to the Concordski’s undoing. During a display on the 3rd June, 1973, the first production Concordski had to manuver sharply to avoid a French Mirage jet fighter, resulting in it falling into a steep dive. Before the pilots could recover though, the aircraft was torn apart and crashed into a suburb near Le Bourget Airport, resulting in the deaths of all 6 crew members and 8 people on the ground. The crash of Concordski at Paris was a death blow to both it and its Western rival, with confidence in Supersonic aircraft now being damaged irreparably. Originally, airlines such as American Airlines, Pan Am, Japan Airlines, Eastern Airlines, United Airlines, and Air Canada had all put in orders to buy Concorde, but by 1975 only Air France and BOAC (later nationalised into British Airways) orders remained.
But even without the Paris crash, the Tu-144 was mired in unreliability and riddled with faults. During 102 flights and 181 hours of freight and passenger flight time, the Tu-144S suffered more than 226 failures, 80 of them in flight, while another 80 of them were so serious they resulted in delays or flight cancellation.
Other faults came from the fact that the Tu-144 was assembled from large machined blocks and panels, many over 62ft long and 2.1 to 4.2ft wide, which, while endearing at the time, turned out to contain inconsistencies in the alloy’s structure that cracked at stress levels below what the part was supposed to withstand. Once a crack started to develop, it spread quickly for many meters, with nothing to stop it.
The aircraft was also noted for being very noisy, coming from a mixture of the engines, the air conditioning and the aircraft skin cooling system. Things got so loud apparently that passengers had to sit very close, scream at the top of their Lungs, or pass each other hand-written letters!
The aircraft was highly inefficient, consuming fuel like it was going out of fashion. It was also permitted to do commercial flights on only one route, Moscow to Alma-ata in Kazakhstan, due to a lack of confidence in the aircraft’s abilities by the Soviet premiership not wanting to risk it flying to (and most likely crashing at) more important airports such as Leningrad. In desperation, Tupolev turned to Lucas Industries of Britain, providers of parts for Concorde, to help get their Tu-144 working, but the British Government denied the USSR use of the company’s assistance in a highly publicised veto.
Regardless of the seemingly insurmountable and irreparable faults, the Tu-144 entered service with Soviet national carrier Aeroflot on Boxing Day, 1975, flying mail and freight between Moscow and Alma-Ata in preparation for passenger services, which commenced on 1st November, 1977. The passenger service ran a semi-scheduled service until the first Tu-144D experienced an in-flight failure during a pre-delivery test flight, crash-landing on 23rd May, 1978, with two crew fatalities. The Tu-144’s 55th and last scheduled passenger flight occurred on 1st June, 1978.
The Soviet government formally cancelled the Tu-144 project on the 1st July, 1983, amid the many publicised failures of the aircraft and numerous fatal crashes. This was however not the end of Concordski, as following removal from passenger service, many of the Tu-144’s were put to work training Cosmonauts as part of the Buran Space Shuttle project. In 1986–1988 Tu-144D 77114, built in 1981, was used for medical and biological research of high-altitude atmosphere radiological conditions. Further research was planned but not completed, due to lack of funding.
Following the completion of the Buran project, the remaining Tu-144’s were placed into storage. In the early 1990’s however, NASA experimented possible future supersonic air transport alternatives to Concorde, known as the High Speed Commercial Research project. As such, a Tu-144 was bought and modified extensively, returning to flight in 1995. The aircraft flew 27 flights between 1996 and 1997 before cancellation of the project in 1999 due to lack of funding. This aircraft was reportedly sold in June 2001 for $11 million via an on-line auction, but the aircraft sale did not proceed.
Today, five of these aircraft have been officially preserved, four within Russia, one in Germany. Two other examples are known to exist, these being in storage at Zhukovsky Airport in Moscow surrounded by redundant Soviet fighters and bombers.
Another recent formal preservation was that of Tu-144 77107. This aircraft, after retirement in the early 1980’s, was transported in August 1985 to the Aviation Institute in Kazan, Russia. While this was meant to be some form of preservation for the aircraft, apparently the institute went out of business because years of neglect left this aircraft a rotting hulk, seemingly dumped in a suburban backlot with no love. Eventually though, after 32 years of languishing under the harsh Russian elements, the aircraft was sold on Ebay in early 2017, whereupon it was dismantled, moved by truck and reassembled in the centre of Kazan as part of a new display, with a full restoration expected to take place in the near future.
With such a catastrophic reputation, small wonder that the Tu-144 has often been cited as among the worst aircraft ever made. After multiple failures, several fatal crashes, high amounts of inefficiency and the inescapable fact that this aircraft was a complete rip-off of the infinitely more successful Concorde, it’s no surprise that people think such harsh things of it! But, like with all underdogs, the Tu-144 does have its followers, followers who will fight tooth and nail to justify that this aircraft was one of the best ever and is simply misunderstood.
To be honest, Concordski wasn’t a bad idea, especially for use as a supersonic transport across the vast Russian landscape. Indeed a supersonic flight from Moscow to some of the nation’s far cities would certainly be useful. But sadly a mixture of bad practice and very poor design helped doom this bird before it even left the ground, literally!