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YESTERDAY’S PART 1 discussed Russian aircraft designer Andrei Tupolev’s various responses to Soviet “requests.” A most recent one involved Supersonic Transport competition between Russia and the West. Today in Part 2, we examine the Tu-144 SST’s short career.

A model of the first Tu-144 prototype in the T-101 wind tunnel. This and following images from FlyPast, September 2021.

Indeed, Tupolev put his talented son Alexei in charge of the project. In FlyPast, September 2021, Piotr Butkowski cites, “The work was relentless, with a permanent three shift pattern until the aircraft was finally assembled on October 9, 1968.”

Tragedy was to come later.

The Paris Disaster—Maksim Gorki Déjà Vu? On May 18, 1935, the Tu-25 Maksim Gorki was part of an air show over Moscow when a “hooligan” pilot of an accompanying Polikarov fighter plane attempted aerobatics around the giant aircraft. The two planes collided, the fighter pilot perished along with 45 people aboard the large craft and three on the ground.

“On June 3, 1974,” Butkowski writes, “during a performance at Le Bourget, CCCP-77102 crashed. The crew of six, and eight people on the ground, were killed.” 

“It all started the day before,” Butkowski notes, “when Concorde and Tu-144 both flew at the show. While the Soviet aircraft demonstrated a standard take-off, flypasts, and landing, Concorde presented itself very dynamically. The Russian seemed to decide that the next day, the Tu-144 would create a similarly energetic display.”

CCCP-77102, the craft destined to crash at the Paris Air Show in 1974.

This time around, it’s possible that the Tu-144’s pilot may have been the erring exhibitionist: “Unfortunately,” Butkowski writes, “the Russians did not warn the organisers that they were altering the display, and likewise the French did not tell the Russians that the aircraft’s performance would be filmed by a Mirage IIIR reconnaissance jet flying at 4250 ft.”

Butkowski recounts, “After passing low over the runway, the Tu-144 made a dramatic climb to 4000 ft, then began to level off. It was then most likely that the pilot spotted the Mirage. Analysis showed there was no danger of a collision, but the unexpected appearance of another aircraft distracted the pilot and may have triggered his instinctive reaction.”

The Tu-144 headed earthward and, in trying to exit the dive, the pilot put excessive stress on the Tupolev’s airframe. “At around 900 ft,” Butkowski says, “the left wing broke off, and CCCP-77102 disintegrated in mid-air.”

The Aftermath. Tu-144 flights were suspended for six months. “From its inception, the Tu-144 caused conflict between two government structures. On one hand, the USSR Ministry of Aviation Industry (MAP) supported the programme; on the other hand, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MGA) was against it. This,” Butkowski says, “guaranteed problems.”

Inherent Problems. The Tu-144 had inherent problems as well: Airframe  failures were discovered early on in testing. Wikipedia cites, “While fatigue cracks of an acceptable length are normal in aircraft, they are usually found during routine inspections or stopped at a crack-arresting feature. Aircraft fly with acceptable cracks until they are repaired. The Tu-144 design was the opposite of standard practice, allowing a higher incidence of defects in the alloy structure, leading to crack formation and propagation many metres in length.”

Wikipedia also notes, “A problem for passengers was the very high noise level inside the cabin, measuring at least 90–95 dB on average.The noise came from the engines; unlike Concorde, it could only sustain supersonic speeds using afterburners, like military aircraft.” 

CCCP-77101 at Kiev Borispol airport, April 1974.

Wikipedia continues, “Passengers seated next to each other could have a conversation only with difficulty, and those seated two seats apart could not hear each other even when screaming and had to pass hand-written notes instead. Noise in the back of the aircraft was unbearable. Aleksey Tupolev [Andrei’s son, who led the project] acknowledged the problem to foreign passengers and promised to fix it, but never had the means to do so.”

Today, the Tupolev Tu-144 poses with the Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde at the Sinsheim Auto & Technik Museum. Note the Tupolev’s extended canard nose wings. Image from the Sinsheim Auto & Technik Museum. 

The Soviets cancelled the Tu-144 program on July 1, 1983. At least in part because of the Concorde’s Paris takeoff disaster on July 25, 2000, the Concorde ended service on October 24, 2003. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021

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