The First Supersonic Airliner: The Russian Concorde

It is a common belief the joint British-French Concorde was the first supersonic airliner. This however, is not the case. The Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 beat the Concorde to flight by 2 months and 3 days. These two aircraft are so visually similar, that the Tu-144 has earned the unofficial name; the ‘Russian Concorde’.

In 1960, the Soviets became aware of the British-French collaborative effort to produce a supersonic passenger airliner. Also at this time, the US-Soviet space race was in full swing.

The Concorde gracefully taking off. Image by Ian Gratton CC BY 2.0

Officials in Moscow were desperate to show the world the benefits of communism, and their superior engineering.

In 1963, the Soviet government gave the green light on an aircraft to rival the British-French project. Its name was the Tu-144.

Almost immediately, it was clear the Tu-144 wasn’t going to be as sleek, smooth and eloquent as its European counterpart.

The Design

The Concorde had to make significant pioneering breakthroughs to fly passengers faster than the speed of sound. The Tu-144 relied on more conventional technology, and old fashioned brute force to solve the same problems the British and French encountered.

The Tu-144 was a huge aircraft, with a maximum take-off weight of 200 tonnes; 20 tonnes more than the Concorde. Its wings also had a 30 percent larger surface area, and the fuselage was 4 metres longer.

The Tu-144 is an enormous aircraft.

Four Kuznetsov NK-144 afterburning turbofan engines powered this Goliath aircraft into the sky. On full afterburner, each 5.2 metre long engine provided 40,000 lbs of thrust, even more than the Concorde’s Rolls-Royce Olympus engines.

This gave the Tu-144 a faster top speed of 1,400 mph, versus the Concorde’s 1,354 mph.

The huge NK-144 engine.
Image by Добрый ТиП CC BY-SA 3.0

Both of these aircraft used a triangular delta wing, which increases an aircraft’s high speed performance. However, delta wings suffer at low speeds from a lack of lift, and require high take off and landing speeds.

European engineers performed extensive testing on the Concorde’s wing to perfect its shape and increase low speed performance.

The smooth lines of the Concorde were perfected over the course of years.

They discovered that lengthening the delta wing increases low speed lift. Consequently, they extended the Concorde’s wing along almost the entire fuselage. Its distinctive ‘ogee’ shape maintained the correct centre of gravity to further reduce landing speeds.

The Tu-144 had a similar shaped wing, but wasn’t as refined as the British-French design. This meant the Tu-144’s low speed performance was poor, requiring canard wings above the cockpit to increase frontal lift.

The Tu-144’s much simpler, more angled wings.
Image by RuthAS CC BY 3.0

Its landing speed was 207 mph, almost 30 mph faster than the Concorde. It required a landing parachute to reduce the amount of runway needed to stop.

Tupolev’s Tu-144 flew for the first time on December 31st 1968, despite its shortcomings.

It then broke the sound barrier on June 5th 1969, four months before the Concorde.

The aircraft may have achieved flying status before the Concorde, but was this the win the Soviets thought it was? Unfortunately, it seems not.

The rushed development would fatally hamper the aircraft for the rest of its service life.

1973 Crash

The first production airliner suffered a devastating crash in 1973 at the Paris Airshow. The aircraft came in as if to land, then applied full throttle and nosed up into a steep climb. The Tu-144 then appeared to loose power, before nosing down into a dive. At around 700 ft, the aircraft tore apart in mid air.

The bulk of the wreckage landed on a small village, killing 8 people. All 6 crewmen on board also perished.

Tu-144 CCCP-77102 on the ground at the 1973 Paris Airshow, the day before it crashed.
Image by P.L THILL CC BY-SA 3.0

The exact reasons for this accident are still unknown to this day. The crew were following instructions to out do the Concorde’s display, deviating from their planned routine. Most likely, the crew pushed the air frame past its limits to out do the Concorde, causing it to stall and loose control.

The event has generated many theories over the decades since. What is for sure, is that the aircraft’s reputation was severely damaged.

In Service

The Tu-144 entered service delivering freight in 1975. When it entered passenger service in 1977, the Tu-144 had less than 800 hours of flight testing. The Concorde had 5000.

The air frame was rushed and unsafe, and the Soviets knew this.

Even on its first passenger flight, it had poor fitting interior panels, some reading lights didn’t work, not all toilets worked and window sun shades would fall on their own. A faulty passenger ramp then delayed the flight by 30 minutes.

The noisy interior cabin of a Tu-144.
Image by Mike1979 Russia CC BY-SA 3.0

During supersonic flight, passengers were subject to over 90 decibels of noise inside the cabin, around the same volume as a petrol lawn mower. This was because the Tu-144 could only sustain supersonic speeds with its thunderous afterburners ignited.

Passengers could just about maintain a conversation when sat side by side. However, almost comedically, passengers sat more than two seats apart were unable to hear each other even when screaming. To communicate, hand notes would be passed around.

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On a flight in 1978, Tu-144 Pilot Aleksandr Lerin recalls when his aircraft had 7 to 8 onboard system failures while still on the runway. Officials instructed him to continue on to save embarrassment as there was western media onboard.

Aleksandr Lerin and his crew had to contend with 22 system failures in one flight.
Image by Bahnfrend CC BY-SA 4.0

In flight, a further 15 systems failed. Tupolev predicted only one landing gear would lower, requiring an emergency belly landing at the destination. The potential international reaction caused such alarm amongst officials, even Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev was personally involved in the situation. Luckily, the landing gear successfully deployed and the aircraft landed safely.

Tupolev acknowledged all of these issues, and promised to solve them. But unfortunately, this wasn’t to be.

As proof of the lack of faith the Soviets had in the plane, Tu-144s only flew passengers on one route between Moscow, Russia, and Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Tu-144 CCCP 77102 in flight.
Image by Lev Polikashin/Лев Поликашин CC BY-SA 3.0

The Tu-144 only flew a total of only 55 passenger flights, with an average of 58 people on board. The aircraft could hold 140 people, but it is believed the amounts were reduced to limit the potential damage if an aircraft did crash.

The aircraft stayed in service only to save the embarrassment of withdrawing it.

Retirement

On June the 1st 1978 it was retired from airline service after officials finally accepted the danger the Tu-144 posed to passengers. It continued on until 1983 as a freight transporter.

It is now clear to see the aircraft was never safe to fly, and should never have done so, especially as a commercial airliner. The rush to beat the Concorde meant the airframe was crude and unfinished. It is incredibly lucky there weren’t more Tu-144 incidents.

Tu-144 CCCP 77107 on static display at the KNRT University.
Image by Олег Исмаилов CC BY 4.0

There is no doubt with the right amount of time Soviet engineers could have created a genuine equal to the Concorde.

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Unfortunately, as is so common with stories from the Soviet Union, meddling officials forced an untested, unready and unsafe aircraft into the air, in hopes of proving the superiority of the Communist system.