Why don't US airlines use Tupolev planes

The Russian Concorde: Tupolev TU-144 supersonic jet

The sixties were not only the time when the East-West confrontation of the Cold War politically dominated world affairs despite a brief thaw. It was also years of technological race after the Soviet Union, Yuri Gagarin, sent the first human into space and the United States set out to fly to the moon. In the east as well as in the west everything seemed to be possible in these years - from vertical take-off commercial aircraft to nuclear-powered spaceships.

In the Soviet Union, after the destruction in World War II, tremendous development efforts had to be carried out, which at that time were already rewarded with double-digit growth rates and left scope for challenges. It was known that after several years of preparation, a Franco-British team had been working seriously on the Concorde supersonic airliner since 1962 and had thus aroused the ambition of the US economy.

Cold War competition

In 1963, state and party leader Nikita Khrushchev commissioned aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev to develop a supersonic airliner - and to take it into the air. The competition was partly conducted with unfair means, and Eastern Bloc intelligence services were also involved in industrial espionage at the time. But the majority of the developments around the project called Tu-144 took place completely independently - the aircraft could certainly have been built without any illegally obtained knowledge. Maybe not that fast.

The fact that the design looked so similar to the Concorde at first glance was due to the requirements of physics, especially aerodynamics, as is the case with other aircraft. But there are also big differences: the engines are positioned closer to the fuselage, the wing geometry is less complex, and the Tupolev only reaches the required landing speed thanks to canard wings.

Triumph over the west

In the area of ​​aerodynamics, the developers even used two scaled-down prototypes based on the MiG-21, with which Tupolev tested the performance of the wing design, especially in the landing configuration. In addition, the engineers developed new materials, especially metals, the use of which was particularly important because of the required temperature resistance. The developments later also benefited other developments.

The project became known in the West when it was presented at the Le Bourget Aviation Salon in 1965. Both sides were now fighting doggedly for first place in supersonic passenger flight - the Soviets with the goal of being successful by the end of 1968. When the Tupolev, the first supersonic airliner in history, made its half-hour maiden flight on the last day of 1968, this could not be compared with the Sputnik shock eleven years earlier.

Presentation at the Le Bourget Aviation Salon

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union made no secret of its feeling of superiority over the West and appropriately exploited its success for propaganda purposes. However, despite its success, the testing revealed major deficits, and the design had to be modified so heavily that the second aircraft, including the wing and engine position, almost corresponded to a new design. Almost five years later, the Concorde was already flying at Mach 2, the program experienced a severe setback when the flagship of Soviet aircraft construction broke apart in the air during a demonstration in Le Bourget, in front of the world’s eyes.

Six people on board and eight others on the ground were killed. There are various hypotheses about the possible causes, but no publicly known final judgment: An attempt was made to abruptly avoid a French Mirage that suddenly appeared - the crew could have exaggerated the flight maneuvers and thereby overloaded the structure in order to put on a particularly spectacular show deliver. Another variant says that the copilot should have lost his private camera, which then blocked the controls. In any case, Soviet propaganda and the self-esteem of Soviet aircraft construction suffered tremendously from this negative publicity.

Commercial flights

On December 26, 1975, seven years after the first flight, a TU-144 made its first commercial flight - without passengers and with mail on board. Less than a month later, a British Airways and Air France Concorde each rose to the first scheduled flights with full passenger cabins. The TU-144, ridiculed in the West for its similarity as "Concordski", had problems with the fuel system, among other things, so that two-hour passenger flights to Alma-Ata could not be started until November 1977 - in time for the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution.

But the aircraft, which was built in 16 copies, remained unreliable and uneconomical - operations ceased after just over 100 flights with less than 3,500 passengers, while the Concorde was to continue to fly successfully for many years. While the Soviet Union had a huge land mass, speed was less of a problem in the planned economy than in the competitive western economy.

The supersonic jet remained uneconomical

The rapid transport of mail and freight could not hide the latent inefficiency. As a civil project, the TU-144 was an expensive prestige object that never lived up to the demands placed on it. It was used as a set in popular films, it was printed on postage stamps. But Soviet people always quickly recognized the discrepancies between the prescribed belief in progress and everyday reality, as the following anecdote shows: "Soviet technology is the best in the world," boasted a Muscovite in a 1970s joke to his wife.

“We have satellites to broadcast television even from Vladivostok, and a supersonic aircraft that can carry passengers across the country in a few hours.” His more practical wife immediately knows how to capitalize on it: “Wonderful - when we are in the Seeing television that there are eggs for sale in Vladivostok, I can take the plane there and buy a few! ”It must be mentioned, however, that many developments around the TU-144 were also used militarily.

Military use of the TU-144

There were projects as bombers and long-range reconnaissance aircraft based on the civilian model, which ended up in a detour in the TU-160 atomic bomber with swivel wings. This is measured against the American Rockwell B-1 to this day. In addition, from the end of 1996, a heavily modernized aircraft called RA-77114 with new engines was used as a research aircraft on behalf of NASA. Another aircraft was the only one that found its way abroad permanently and is exhibited together with its eternal competitor from the West, the Concorde, in the Technik Museum Sinsheim.

Text: Robert Kluge, AERO INTERNATIONAL 1/2019