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Tu-144: Russia’s Big Plans to Build a Mach 2 Concorde Failed

Tu-144. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Tu-144. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The Communist Concordski Tu-144 Failed to Match the Concorde: You may remember the Concorde, the huge supersonic intercontinental passenger jet that could cross the Atlantic from New York to London in three hours at Mach 2 speed.

But you may not know the Soviets had their own version of the Concorde called the Tupolev-144.

It was nicknamed the “Communist Concordski,” and it actually flew before the Anglo-French Concorde. But the Tu-144 failed to catch on with passengers and it turned out to serve only as a technology demonstrator and museum piece. Let’s take a look at the reasons for its demise.

The History of the Concorde Was Not All Rosy

It’s illustrative to first examine the fate of the Concorde.

On July 25, 2000, a Concorde crashed and burned killing 109 people. A tire from the landing gear blew out after hitting a piece of metal on the runway and the rubber shards hit a fuel tank which caused a fire. The airplane went down in a suburb of Paris minutes later. Four others on the ground died. The tragedy led to the retirement of the Concorde in 2003.

The Tu-144 Had Its Share of Tragedy Too

Alternatively, the Tu-144 only flew 102 flights, and just around half of these had passengers aboard. That’s because it did not fly safely. Two crashes hastened its demise – one at the Paris Air Show in 1973 and another in 1978 that failed during testing. The 1973 tragedy killed six passengers on board and eight on the ground after the Tu-144 fell apart in the air when displaying twisting maneuvers that caused it to lose lift.

The Concordski and Propaganda Value Early On

But the Tu-144 did fly before the Concorde.

Its first flight was in 1968 and then it clocked the first supersonic journey in 1969. But it was initially considered a transport aircraft as it ingloriously delivered mail in the early days and didn’t carry passengers until 1977. However, beating the Concorde to the skies was considered a win by the Soviets before the 1973 crash. They were excited about the Tu-144’s demonstration of Soviet aerospace engineering might and supremacy in the air.

The Two Supersonic Jets Were Similar

The Concordski was slightly larger than the Concorde and could carry more passengers. It was 216 feet long and its wingspan measured 95 feet. With 44,00 pounds of thrust, it could fly Mach 2.2, a bit faster than the Concorde.

The Tu-144 resembled the Concorde in many ways. The first thing you noticed about the Tu-144 was its lower nose that could be raised and lowered. This allowed the pilot and co-pilot to see their surroundings better on take-off and landing. The wings were swept back in a double-delta fashion.

The Tu-144 Had Its Problems

There were downsides to the airplane, clearly. The Concordski’s weight didn’t help. It weighed around 20 tons – or 40,000 pounds heavier than the Concorde. The Tu-144’s extra weight was due to the additional wheels on its landing gear. This gear had 12-wheels. The Russian plane used manmade rubber for its tires, which could cause problems compared to natural rubber. This was a disadvantage because the Concorde tragedy in 2000 was caused by a failed tire. The Soviets added more wheels to improve safety, but this only added to the airplane’s heaviness.

Tu-144: People Didn’t Care to Fly On It

The Tu-144 also failed because its commercial flights never had a significant number of passengers. The flights were too noisy and uncomfortable for people’s tastes – hardly luxurious. It only flew from Moscow to Kazakhstan, reportedly because Aeroflot didn’t want to fly over cities and risk another fatal crash that could kill people on the ground.

The Concorde flew almost 30 years and the Concordski was put out to pasture early. This wasted time, money, and resources. Only 16 were built and a few are in museums now. The Tu-144 can be viewed as a cautionary tale that illustrated the downside of copying another airplane design from a rival. This made Russian designers and engineers overconfident after early successes.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

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Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.