In the heat of the Cold War, the militaries of both camps were competing not only in the space race. The civil aviation companies in turn raced supersonic flight.
Conceived by the Tupolev Design Bureau in the 60s in the Soviet Union, the Tu-144 was the largest and heaviest transport aircraft that reached Mach 2. As reported by Aerotime.aero, since the aircraft had a design very similar to that of the Anglo-French Concorde (which earned it the nickname “Concordski”), several conspiracy theories involving industrial espionage sparked.
The Tu-144 took off for the first time on May 26, 1970 but its glory was quite short. Its development was delayed after one sample crashed at the 1973 Paris Air Show. Moreover, the plane was unreliable and had questionable passenger experience onboard, which sealed the fate of the Tu-144 in 1978. In May 1978, another Tu-144 (an improved version, named Tu-144D) crashed on a test flight while being delivered, and the passenger fleet was permanently grounded after only 55 scheduled flights and just three years after it entered passenger service in 1975. It continued to carry cargo until 1983. The Tu-144 was later used by the Soviet space program to train pilots of the Buran spacecraft, and by NASA for supersonic research.
‘On paper, the Tu-144 was slightly bigger and faster [than the Concorde], peaking at Mach 2.15 (opposed to Concorde’s Mach 2.04) at its slightly higher operating altitude of around 66,000 ft as opposed to Concorde’s 60,000. Both had a near identical cruise speed of 1,320–1,340 mph,’ says Alex Patrick, an aviation expert, on Quora.
‘Saying that, Concorde could supercruise without afterburners at Mach 2, the first aircraft to be able to do so. The Tu-144 required far more use of the afterburners to achieve similar speeds.
‘The Tu-144 could carry around 20 more passengers, but had a range around 500 miles less than Concorde’s at roughly 4,000 miles.
‘The Tu-144 was rushed, however. No doubt about it. Concorde had its roots in mid-1950s British aircraft. The first report into a supersonic passenger aircraft was published in 1955 in the UK. It wasn’t until 7 years later, in 1962 that the Soviets put out a preliminary report and still beat Concorde to the first flight.’
‘On board, the avionics were considerably more crude, as the Soviets, whilst keeping pace and even leading in many aeronautical developments, lagged far behind with flight control and early computers. Concorde had more computer involvement in flight ability than any passenger aircraft prior, which was required when making minuscule adjustments at Mach 2+. Tu-144 didn’t achieve this, and made do with more conventional technology.
‘Of the many corners cut – the Tu-144 suffered extreme cabin noise, lack of cabin insulation and crude air conditioning (to cope with the heat generated by the speed) meant passenger experience was far below the level expected on Concorde. Instead of installing large, loud air conditioning units, Concorde used its own fuel as a coolant.
‘Concorde used carbon fibre in the advanced brakes (one of the first applications of carbon fibre in aeronautics), whilst the Tu-144 had to rely on a parachute to decelerate in time.
‘Bigger and more powerful, but under the surface the Tu-144 lacked the advanced internals, engine and braking technology, emerging computerised avionics and passenger comforts that allowed Concorde to fly day in, day out for 25 years whilst its Soviet rival lasted just 3 years as a passenger aircraft, and 8 years as a mail carrier.’
‘On top that, there simply wasn’t the market for the Tu-144. Being incredibly expensive to run necessitated first class fare costs for Concorde to be profitable, and communism wasn’t meant to breed a vast number of super-wealthy elite.’
Photo credit: RIA Novosti archive, via Wikipedia, NASA and Adrian Meredith / Crown Copyright
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