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The Tu-144: The Future That Never Was

The TU-144 takes off...
by Ilya Kramnik
RIA Novosti military commentator
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Jun 13, 2008
Thirty-five years ago, on June 3, 1973, a Tu-144 supersonic airliner crashed during a demonstration flight at Le Bourget in France. The first and last Soviet supersonic passenger plane, which was the fastest commercial aircraft in history, opened the way for liners of a new class. Unfortunately, the road proved too short.

Work on the Tu-144 began in 1960, practically at the same time as the Anglo-French Concorde project. Tupolev has often been criticized for using industrial espionage to copy Concorde technological decisions, but most specialists say similarities between the aircraft were due to similar solutions found by designers for one and the same problem.

The Tu-144 first took to the air on December 31, 1968, two months ahead of the Concorde. Five months later, on June 5, 1969, it became the first passenger airliner to break the sound barrier.

In general, the Tu-144 was on a par with its European counterpart, but surpassed it in maximum speed and service ceiling, which resulted in lower noise levels over towns it overflew.

The Tu-144, however, suffered from a traditional shortcoming of Soviet aviation - it guzzled fuel. The defect was partly compensated for by its highly aerodynamic design, which ensured a flight distance of 6,500 km on a fuel supply of 70 tons. The Concorde, with 95 tons of fuel, covered a distance of 7,500 km.

But the Soviet liner had no luck. Its first major setback came on June 3, 1973. The disaster was caused by a French Mirage fighter appearing in the flight zone, which had climbed to take pictures of the liner. The sharp maneuver to avoid a collision led to a loss of control and the plane fell to the ground. The disaster killed 13 people - 7 on the ground and 6 crew.

This disaster, however, did not prevent the Tu-144 from beginning commercial flights. Its Moscow - Alma-Ata flights started on December 26, 1975, but they were short-lived.

The career of the world's first supersonic passenger jet was ended by a second disaster when, on May 23, 1978, an advanced prototype, the Tu-144D, fitted out with improved engines, made a forced landing near the Moscow Region town of Yegoryevsk, caused by flames that erupted as one of the fuel lines burst. Two of the seven crew members were killed.

On June 1, 1978, Aeroflot's management decided to cancel Tu-144 passenger flights. One of the improved Tu-144Ds was used for a time on the Moscow-Khabarovsk route to deliver urgent cargo. Between 1995 and 1999, another Tu-144 was exploited as a flying laboratory in a joint Russian-American program to look into the future of supersonic air travel.

Aside from the disasters, another factor that killed the Tu-144 was its low commercial potential - the Concorde, which was also expensive to operate, managed to turn a profit, thanks to the large numbers of people in the West who considered time to be money and needed fast intercontinental travel.

In the Soviet Union, such people did not exist at all, which automatically made the Tu-144 a superfluous. In the eight years of its production in the Soviet Union, only sixteen planes were built. Seven of them are now in aviation museums in Russia and abroad.

Concorde went commercial in 1976. Two companies - British Airways and Air France - flew the planes on the route from Paris or London to New York. The usual seven-hour flight time was cut to three and a half. Altogether, 14 Concorde aircraft were built, of which British Airways used five, and Air France, four. The others were employed as stand-bys and later as sources of spare parts.

Although the Concorde trod a precarious path between profit and loss, the airlines stuck to it - the airliner provided a sort of insignia for French and British civil aviation. But eventually an air disaster put a stop to its operation, as in the case with the Tu-144.

On July 25, 2000, Concorde No. 203 of Air France took off on a flight from Paris (Charles de Gaulle Airport) to New York. As it was climbing, its landing gear tripped across a 40-cm metal strip that had come off the thrust reverser of an engine on a DC-10 aircraft which had taken off a few minutes before. The piece struck and made a hole in the lining of one of the fuel tanks.

The fuel that flowed out caught fire in the engine's jet stream. The crew tried to continue taking off, turn around and land on the nearby aerodrome at Le Bourget but failed. The Concorde crashed, killing all 109 people on board, and another four on the ground. By a grim irony, it hit the ground just a few kilometers from the spot where the Tu-144 was wrecked in 1973.

The disaster required the costly upgrading of the other airliners to make them safer, but that did not save the liner - supersonic travel lost its appeal, and became unprofitable. The final line was drawn by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, which dealt a serious blow to passenger aviation. In 2003, all Concordes were withdrawn from service.

Current work on a new generation of supersonic passenger planes in many countries, including Russia, is concerned only with theoretical principles - growing petroleum prices practically rule out the commercial success of such aircraft, while engines burning alternative fuels are still a long way off.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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