Aircrash Investigations Series: The Russian TU-144 “Konkordski”: A Cold War Icon
The Russian’s built their own supersonic airliner, with the simple aim of beating the west into the air.
The Cold War was one of the most fascinating periods for aviation in the history of the world. After a brief period where airliners and civil aviation were the focus, military power soon started to become a priority as the advent of nuclear war and deterrents started to emerge.
Plus, the west and the east wanted to outdo each other in whatever way was humanly possible. And suddenly, that thrust the civil aviation sector back into the spotlight, even if it initially wasn’t meant to be.
France and Britain were creating Concorde, the world’s first supersonic airliner.
Concorde would go on to become probably the most advanced airliner ever built, and one of just two supersonic aircraft to ever carry passengers.
We say second because, thanks to industrial espionage, the Russian’s built their own supersonic airliner, with the simple aim of beating the west into the air with it no matter what.
As such, Concorde became the second supersonic airliner to fly despite being the first to exist, and famous Soviet aircraft manufacturer Tupolev produced the TU-144, which was quickly dubbed “Konkordksi” in the west due to its obvious similarities with Concorde.
Design And Development
Development of the TU-144 started in the summer of 1963, with a Mig-21 Analog used as a testbed aircraft for the wing of the ‘144, which would evolve greatly from the prototype to the production aircraft.
Concorde had engines that were an evolution of first the Avro Vulcan’s, then the BAC TSR2’s Olympus engines, and was engineered with supercruise, whereby the jet could cruise at Mach 2 with no afterburner.
The Tu-144 meanwhile was fitted with Kuznetsov NK-144 turbofans initially, before the later ‘144D version was fitted with Kolesov RD-36-51 turbojets.
Supercruise was not an option on these engines, however, and thus the ‘144 guzzled immense amounts of fuel trying to go supersonic.
Tupolev, thanks to a bit of help from Soviet spy’s in Paris, was able to develop an aircraft that looked very similar to Concorde and which had a similar delta wing to that of the Anglo-French jet.
The first prototype flew on December 31st, 1968, and just beat the western aircraft into the sky by a couple of months.
Extensive testing with the original prototype revealed the aircraft’s wing did not generate enough lift, so a double delta wing plus the addition of front canard/insect wings helped to resolve this problem.
Testing, Production, And Paris Crash
Despite the issues with the wing and the redesign that would soon follow, the TU-144 seemed to be going through a relatively successful testing program.
It went supersonic in June 1969, four months before Concorde, and also beat Concorde to Mach 2, doing so in May 1970.
But reliability proved to be a major issue, as did that wing and further development issues which meant the test program was not all smooth sailing and the west beating supersonic flights.
In total, some 16 TU-144s were built, including prototypes and later versions, which was even less than the 20 Concorde’s built.
Konkordski vs. Concorde
Then came the Paris Air Show crash of 1973. The Russian’s had sent one TU-144, CCP-77102, a TU-144S, to the show to perform at one of the world’s biggest air display events.
Its display followed that of Concorde on June 3rd that year, but around halfway through the show, the ‘144 climbed at full throttle before violently pitching downwards.
As the pilot, Mikhail Kozlov, tried to recover the aircraft, the ‘144 broke up, it’s left-wing disintegrating first before it split into two and crashed into a French village, killing all six onboard and eight more people on the ground.
Crash Cause And Limited-Service Life
The crash was a huge blow to the Soviet SST program, but there has never been an official, verified reason, as to why the crash happened.
The most likely is that a French Mirage fighter was secretly taking photos of the TU-144 and Kozlov had to violently pitch the aircraft down to avoid the fighter, causing the engines to cut out and as he tried to recover the aircraft after recovering power, the airliner could not handle the stresses.
It has long been speculated that Concorde could have handled both the aggressive dive and the sharp pull-up, with ease.
The accident massively reduced any Soviet enthusiasm for the airliner, before it had even entered commercial service.
It did enter service in 1975, but all manner of technical failures meant that most of the flights were delayed, canceled, or had issues in the air.
One flight had various issues, such as 22 of the 24 onboard systems and an alarm siren which was as loud as a civil defense warning, thanks to all the other failures triggering it.
The ‘144 served just one commercial route between Moscow and Almaty, and for barely three years before being retired.
The aircraft was too expensive to run, couldn’t fly at supersonic for extended periods of time, and the political will for the jet had gone. Plus, a second crash for the airliner in 1978 just helped to accelerate its demise from public passenger service.
The project was ultimately canceled altogether in 1983.
The TU-144 did have a second lease of life, however.
Aeroflot, the Russian national airline, did use them as cargo aircraft for some years, and they were also used as flying labs for research purposes.
Even NASA used one TU-144 for research into the next generation of supersonic airliners, and whilst the research was deemed a success, the project was canceled after the research flights due to a lack of funding.
The TU-144’s final flight was in 1999, and the remaining aircraft were sent off to museums, or put into storage, becoming perhaps one of the most mystical and intriguing relics of the Cold War.
Sources of Information:
BBC, Simple Flying, Wikipedia, Reddit, Speedbird Concorde, Russia Beyond, YouTube.