The Concorde could rip across the Atlantic in just over three hours, twice as fast as any modern-day airliner. And you’d do it in style while sipping champagne. Wait a minute… This isn’t
Concorde! This is the only other supersonic jet to ever carry commercial passengers.
No, this isn’t Concorde. This is the Soviet Union’s Tupolev 144. And yes, it looks like the Concorde but flying on this thing was nothing like the Concorde. The Tu-144 was kind of like the Concord’s crazy older sister. She was loud, uncomfortable and a little dangerous. But the 144 story is definitely worth telling. It clearly knocked off a lot of the Concord’s design – just look at – it but it actually did some things better, like carry more passengers, it even flew faster. But ultimately the 144’s story is about faking it. About deceiving the world. In the 1960’s the race to build a supersonic passenger jet, well it was more than about just flying fast, it was about asserting superiority for both the Soviets and the West. And the race to be the first actually started as a three-way between the Americans with their half-baked Boeing 2707, the joint British-French Concorde, and the Soviets with their Tu-144.
The Americans ruined their shot by tying themselves up in bureaucracy and cost overruns, this put the Concorde project firmly in the lead. The Soviets who had more primitive technology had a lot of catching up to do, so they relied on good old Soviet ingenuity… oh and they stole a whole bunch from the Concorde program. Early on Soviet spies made out with over 90,000 technical documents on the Concorde and other aircraft so they caught up to the Concorde program and the 144 took flight two months before Concorde.
It’s obvious the Concorde was designed around passenger experience. Journalists marveled at how quiet and smooth supersonic flight was and how flight attendants had no trouble chatting up passengers while they served martinis. In the 144? Well caviar and champagne were also brought out, but Western journalists fixated on the cramped seats, window shades that would suddenly drop without being pulled, and that some of the bathrooms weren’t even working. The 144’s more primitive engines and cooling system worked together to produce a sound so loud that passengers couldn’t talk to one another. Instead they had to pass around handwritten notes and playing pass the note with other passengers must have killed some of the opulence. Not that flying on the 144 was ever going to be a normal experience.
The plane only ever saw passenger service on a single lonely route between Moscow and Almaty, Kazakhstan. The thing is the 144’s engines burned so much fuel, it couldn’t actually fly much further, it couldn’t even cross the Soviet Union. Compare that to the Concorde, its route spanned continents and oceans and the Tu-144 flew only once a week, even though there were seven more certified and ready for service. This shows how confident Soviet leaders were in the 144. Out of 102 scheduled flights there were 226 mechanical failures, 80 of which were serious enough to delay or canceled the flight altogether. The possibility of 144 crashing with passengers on board was a huge political risk. From the very beginning the 144 air worthiness was in serious question.
It crashed in front of thousands of spectators during the 1973 Paris Air Show. Then again in 1978 when a cargo version went down after a fuel line rupture. And yet again in 1981 one suffered an engine explosion, forcing an emergency landing. The problem was the Tu-144 had clearly been rushed in its development. Getting this thing built before the Concorde was more important for the Soviets than actually building it well, and the 144’s engineers had fewer resources and inferior technologies. But still, you gotta hand it to them for actually getting it done. The Concorde’s design team had state-of-the-art Rolls-Royce Olympus engines with computer-controlled engine inlets that allowed for something called super cruise. So once Concorde reached
supersonic her fuel thirsty afterburners could be switched off while still maintaining supersonic. Tu-144 engineers had to make do with engines that needed continuous afterburners to maintain supersonic.
The Concorde had a sophisticated wing optimized for both supersonic and low-speed flying, the Tu-144’s wing was really only good for supersonic, so pilots had to land the 144 at higher speeds, making for brutally hard landings that even required a parachute. The Soviets worked around their wing limitations by designing canards, little deployable wings at the front of the aircraft which would improve low-speed stability. But all the innovation on both sides of the Iron Curtain couldn’t overcome the reality that supersonic travel was just too expensive.
In the capitalist West you could price Concorde tickets at 5 or 6 times what a regular flight would cost, so the Concorde became about glitz and glamour, but on the other side of the Iron Curtain things were a little bit more awkward. Who exactly in the Communist Soviet Union was supposed to fly aboard the Tu-144? The price of a ticket was set at just 37 rubles, not much more than you’d expect to pay on a regular flight and not nearly enough to cover operational costs. The 14 Concordes that entered service found a small niche serving celebrities and the rich, but even with that Concorde itself was still a commercial failure. The French and the British had poured billions into developing it even as they knew very early on that they’d never be able to sell hundreds of Concordes needed to recoup development costs. But the 144 without the same premium niche to fill on the other side of the Iron Curtain, could only ever be used as a propaganda tool and a prestige project. The Concorde would ferry passengers for 27 years up until it was retired in 2003. The Tu-144? Well it was retired from regular passenger service not even a full year after it started.