Not known by many people, the Tupolev 144 was the world’s first supersonic transport aircraft (SST) just two months before Concorde. It was also the first SST to exceed Mach 2. Very similar in design to Concorde, allegations were often made that the Soviets had stolen Concords plans. In this article we will look into the history, and present status of this remarkable aircraft.
During the 60s, the race was on between the West and the Soviet Union to develop a supersonic transport (SST). First to publish a SST study was Douglas in 1961. The US started a competition in 1964 to develop a SST. North America, Lockheed and Boeing competed. In 1967 Boeing was awarded a contract for two prototypes of the proposed model 2707. Only a wooden mock-up was build when the program was cancelled.
Meanwhile a Anglo-French consortium formed on September 1961 started the development of their own SST. The aircraft called Concorde was evolution of the Bristol 223 study. The 001 prototype construction started February 1965 with it’s roll out on 11 December 1967. It than took another 15 month before the first flight on 2 March 1969.
Like the West, the Soviets wanted a SST of their own. The plans were first published in 1962. Development of the Tu-144 started 26 July 1963 as a passenger version of the un-build Tu-135 supersonic bomber (called the Tu-135P). The canard layout, wings and nacelles were retained in the Tu-144 prototype.
The prototype called “044” was build in the MMZ factory in Moscow and assembled at Zhukovsky flight test center. First flight was on the last day of 1968, when test pilot Elyan made a test flight of 37 minutes. 6 months later the aircraft passed the Mach 1 marker, and on 26 May 1970 it was the first civil aircraft to reach Mach 2. During the test face, the first problems started to occur. The problems included severe vibrations and tail overheating due to the location of the engines. Only on the prototype the 4 engines were placed in one line, partly under the main fuselage. It was clear the design had to be changed.
The first pre-production aircraft, series “004” first flew 1 June 1971. The most noticeable change was the location of the engines. The engines, upgraded to the NK-144A model, were placed in pairs, next to the fuselage. This solved the heat and vibration problems. The wing surface was also increased to improve the aerodynamics. The fuselage was lengthened to support 150 passengers. Another improvement was the addition of two canard wings on the forward fuselage to increase stability on take-offs and landing.
Five Tu-144S preproduction aircraft were build. The last one, aircraft 03-1 was later the first Tu-144D model when she was re-engined in 1976.
Paris airshow crash
Actual footage of the first fatal accident during the 1973 Paris Air Show at Le Bourget.
The first fatal accident occurred during the 1973 Paris Air Show at Le Bourget. The second pre-production aircraft (CCCP-77102) was shown together with Concorde. this airframe was the first build in the VASO factory. It featured an further improved wing area and new wingtips were fitted.
On the last day of the show (3 June 1973), the Tu-144 performed a demo flight just after Concorde impressed the 250.000 spectators present. What happened during the display remains controversial to this day and is still undetermined.
After a low pass over the runway, the engines were pushed to full power, to climb to 1.200 meters. The aircraft went into a sudden dive, some suggested due to low quality fuel. When the crew tried to recover, the left wing broke off and the aircraft crashed in the village of Goussainville, killing all 6 crewmembers and 8 people on the ground.
Another theory is that the crew tried to avoid a Mirage 3, maneuvering into a steep dive, pushing the structural limits. The Mirage 3 was chasing the Tu-144 to photograph it’s canards, state of the art during that time. The presence of the Mirage was denied in the early investigation reports, but was later admitted.
Until this day, the real reason for this crash remains undetermined.
The first Tu-144S went into service on 26 December 1975, flying mail and freight between Moscow and Alma-Ata. The first passenger services not started until November 1977. The S model was extremely unreliable. During the 102 flights it suffered 225 failures, 80 of them inflight. During 1976 a pre-production Tu-144S was converted to Tu-144D model “044D”. The aircraft were fitted with new Kolesov RD-36-51 turbojet engines. This provided an increase in cruise speed, similar to the Concorde and improved range of 6.500 km.
Soviet leadership decided the Tu-144 had to enter passenger service in 1977 even when reports the aircraft was not airworthy for regular service. Another problem was the high levels of noise during the flight. Passengers sitting next to each other couldn’t have a normal conversation. The noise came partly from the engines, and also from the fuselage cooling system. The noise in the back of the plane was unbearable.
Another accident in 1978 marked the end of the passenger service. D model CCCP-77111 crash landed at Yegoryevsk, losing the whole plane in the following fire. Combined with the economical situation and high oil prices the days of operational service were numbered.
The Tu-144 program was cancelled by the Soviet government of 1 July 1983. Remaining aircraft were used as airborne laboratories. From 1985 until 1988 the aircraft were used to train Buran pilots and perform medical and biological research.
In 1995, Tu-144D (CCCP-77114) was taken out of storage and converted at a cost of 350M US dollars. This aircraft designated Tu-144LL was later re-registered RA-77114. One of the improvements was the use of the Kuznetsov NK-321 engines, also fitted to the Tu-160 bomber. Tupolev, Rockwell, NASA and other US companies joined forces and used the Tu-144LL as a testbed for its high speed commercial research program.
A total of 27 flights were made between 1996 and 1997. Although a technical success, the program was cancelled in 1999 due to lack of funds. The aircraft is until this day stored a Zhukovsky.
Specifications listed for the Tu-144D variant:
||Length 65.50m (215.54ft), Wingspan: 28.80m (94.48ft), Height: 10.50m (34.42ft).
||4 Kolesov RD-36-51 turbojet ,each rated at 200 kN (44,122 lbf).
|Fuel and load
||95,000kg (209,440lb) with 180,000kg (397,000lb) max. takeoff weight.
||2,142 km/h (1,331 mph).
|Crew and equipment
||3 crew, 120-140 passengers. Normally 70-80.
Aircraft build, and their current status:
||Scrapped at Zhukovsky
||First SST flight, First Tu-144 Flight. Visited 1971 Paris Air Show, and met with Concorde for the first time. Last model with engines in one line. Total flying time 180 hours. Last flight April 1973.
||First S model with NK-144A engines. Total flying time 339 hours (56 supersonic)
||Crashed June 3 1973 at Paris Air Show
||Aeroflot titles. Improved wing area and wing tips. First aircraft build in the VASO factory.
||Scrapped at Zhukovsky in 1984.
||Aeroflot. Used for test flights to different Soviet cities. Used to test the NPK-144 navigation system. In total 313 flying hours.
||Scrapped at Zhukovsky in 1987.
||Aeroflot. Until 1975 registered as CCCP-77104 for the Paris Air Show. Conducted flight tests on aerodynamics and angles of attack behavior. 431 hours flying time.
||Scrapped at Zhukovsky in 1995.
||Aeroflot. Converted to Tu-144D to test new engines in 1976. Performed longest flight of a Tu-144 with a distance of 6.200km. dumped at Zhukovsky in 1978, last seen during MAKS in 1993. 314 flying hours.
||On display at the Central Air Force museum in Monino.
||Aeroflot. “1st production aircraft” delivered to Aeroflot and equipped for commercial use. Did first operational mail cargo service to Alma-Ata. This was also the first SST to land on a dirt strip (monino). Total flying time 582 hours.
||On display in the museum of Samara (state Aerospace University)
||Aeroflot. Used for navigation system testing. Aeroflot titles were applied, but the aircraft was never delivered. 68 hours flying time.
||Preserved in the institute of Aviation of the Kazan State Technical University.
||Aeroflot. 357 flying hours. Also used for government testing.
||Probably stored at VASO factory.
||Aeroflot. One of two aircraft used for actual passenger flights.
||On display at the museum of Civil Aviation in Ulyanovsk.
||Aeroflot. This was the second aircraft used for regular passenger flights. It was shown at the 1977 Paris Air Show, which was the last visit for a Tu-144 to the West. 06-1 was the last Tu-144S build. 314 flying hours.
||Crashed at Yegoryevsk, 23 May 1978.
||Aeroflot. First production D model powered by Koliesov RD-36-51A engines. This aircraft was also used to test a new route to Khabarovsk.
||On display at Auto & Technik museum in Sinsheim Germany.
||Aeroflot. Used as a testbed after the crash of CCCP-77111. In October 2000 the aircraft was shipped to Sinsheim after twenty years of storage at Zhukovsky. 197 hours flying time.
||Scrapped at Zhukovsky in 2001.
||Aeroflot. Also used to certify the D model after the crash of CCCP-77111. This aircraft made an emergency landing at Engels Air base when one engine suffered a disc failure. It suffered structural damage and the program was suspended for a short while. flying time 223 hours.
||Stored at Zhukovsky.
||Converted Tu-144D used by Tupolev/NASA. This aircraft, called 101, established 14 world records. After cancellation of the program this aircraft was still used as a flying testbed. It was stored in 1990. In 1993 it was converted to the LL model with the NK-321 engines fitted. This aircraft made the last ever flight on 14 April 1999.
||Stored at Zhukovsky.
||Resently restored in full Aeroflot livery. During the second half of the 80s, this aircraft was used to train pilots of the Buran (Soviet Space Shuttle) program. The aircraft was never used by Aeroflot and stayed at Zhukovsky until present day. It now repainted and is often shown at the MAKS airshow. It was designated to be converted to the Tu-144LL standard, but this was never done. Also the last build D model with only 38 flying hours.
||Never flew. Probably stored at VASO factory.
||Work on this aircraft stopped in 1985 when the program was cancelled.
During the course of the Tu-144 project, Tupolev designed a number of military versions, of which none was ever build. The Tu-144R was developed to carry up to three solid fuel ICBMs. This version was initially based on the Tu-144S, later changed to the Tu-114D. Plans for an air launched ICBM were dropped and a version was designed to carry the Kh-55 cruise missile. In the late 70s a study was made to develop a long-range interceptor. This project later evolved into an ECM aircraft called the Tu-144PP. In the early 80s an reconnaissance version was proposed, the Tu-144PR. The last proposed military version was the Tu-144MR, a long range reconnaissance version for the Navy.
This factsheet is based on information from Wikipedia.org and tu144sst.com