"Konkordski": The Tu-144 What's the old saying? "Industrial espionage is the sincerest form of flattery?" With the Americans hard at work creating the SST and the British and French working together on the Concorde, the Soviets decided they had to have one too. And not just any one; it would be the biggest and fastest too. And where better to start than with the actual blueprints for the Concorde prototype? Who needs world-class engineers when you have world-class spies? Riding high on the success of Sputnik and other space achievements, Nikita Khrushchev was not about to let his perceived technological lead over the west slip over the development of little more than an airplane. He gave his vast spy network their orders and thus undertook an high-flying project involving exchange students, executives for the Soviet Aeroflot airline in Paris, and even top KGB agents. Though the intelligence gathering alone probably involved more man-hours than the British and French spent total to make the Concorde, the Soviets had enough "borrowed" technology to proceed. One Step Ahead The Soviet goal was not only to copy what the British and French (and separately, the Americans) were doing, but to beat them to finish line too. In charge of getting the Soviet project finished before the Concorde was Andrei Nicholayvich Tupolev. Tupolev had designed many Soviet aircraft (even while jailed by Stalin in the early 1940s) that had bore his name (he's the "Tu" in Tu-144). As the prototyping project was nearing completing, the Soviets learned the Concorde prototype was going to fly for the first time in early 1969. The project was put into overdrive to ensure they flew theirs first. The goal then became to fly the Tu-144 by the end of 1968. First Test Flight of Supersonic Commercial Aircraft The first flight of a supersonic passenger plane took place on December 31, 1968 on the secret Zhukovsky Airfield near Moscow. The flight was not announced to the world in advance so that if something went wrong, they would not have to admit failure. Among the invited crowd that cloudy day to witness the historic flight were the 80-year-old Tupolev and his son Alexei, who would inherit his fathers role upon the elder's death in 1972. As the delta-winged aircraft made its way down the snow-covered runway, nobody was prouder at having beat the Concorde (by two months) than Tupolev. It was the crowning achievement in a life that began before the Wright brothers even tinkered with bicycles. http://www.super70s.com/Super70s/Science/Transportation/Aviation/images/MirAgency_TU-144(320).jpg Western Response When the Soviets sent pictures of the triumph around the world, the French and British, who knew what the KGB had been up to and countered by giving phony plans to known spies, were not amused. The Western press soon nicknamed the Concorde look-alike the "Konkordski." However, in their race to be first, the Soviets had taken shortcuts: Where they did not have complete blueprints for a critical part or when they did but they couldn't decipher the complex plans, they engineered it themselves. But they did so without the experience of the Western engineers who had designed each part to work well with all the rest. As an engineer who has spent several years perfecting the design of a wing for a particular plane can tell you, this lead to some fairly serious deficiencies in the design. Most notably, the plane was far less stable at slower speeds which lead to some harrowing landings. The Soviets went back to the drawing board and radically re-engineered the Tu-144 and were ready in early 1973 to show off their new marvel to the world. This new design relied far less heavily on "borrowed" technology from the West and even featured an innovative feature called cannards, which were two smaller wings immediately behind the cockpit. These cannards provided more lift for takeoff and more stability at landing (they were retracted during flight). 1973 Paris Airshow With the new and improved Tu-144 ready, the Soviets wanted to show off their new plane at the most prestigious event in aviation: The annual Paris Airshow. This is where the best and latest aircraft are shown to potential buyers and the world. As Boeing had all but given up on the SST, this show turned into a showdown between the Concorde and the Tu-144. Neither had flown a single passenger yet and the world waited to see who would dominate supersonic transport in the Super70s and beyond. Before a third-day crowd of 200,000, the Concorde, flown by British pilots John Farley and Andy Jones, went first and wowed the public with speed and maneuvers never seen on a commercial craft before. Then it was the Soviets turn. The Tu-144 taxied and took off. It made some impressive 360 degree turns above the runway and other maneuvers similar to what the Concorde had just done. What happened next is best summarized by John Farley who watched it all from the ground: "Because there was no cloud, he could go up and up and up, and, I don't know, three and a half, four thousand feet. This thing was just going up, looking at it as we were, you know, going away from us like this. And then suddenly, it just very abruptly leveled off. I mean, really violently. And it did something that you never see big airplanes do: Really violently change their pitch attitude. And both Andy and I went, "Ooooh!" You got this vision of this aircraft coming down. And it has to do with the angle, the speed, and the distance remaining when you think, 'That's not right.' And I said to Andy, "He's lost it." And at that point, with the aircraft still fairly well up, probably -- I don't know -- 1,500 feet or a bit less, it started to break up and had clearly been overstressed." All six aboard the Tu-144 were killed as were eight French citizens on the ground. Why did the plane make the sudden move to level off? Only since the opening of the former Soviet Union has evidence surfaced to back up what had long been suspected. A French Mirage fighter had been ordered to shoot footage of the plane from above it and, as this was a covert operation, the Soviet pilots were not informed. The sudden, fatal maneuver was made to avoid a collision with the Mirage. The French government colluded with the Soviets to cover up the story (they conveniently lost the black box recorder and never publicly released a full report). In return, the French would not claim in their abbreviated report (little more than a press release) there was anything mechanically wrong with the Soviet aircraft. Despite the cover-up, the damage was done and the Tu-144 was destined to become little more than a footnote in the history of aviation. Commercial Success? Nyet! The Soviets put the Tu-144 into service delivering mail Moscow and Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan on December 26, 1975. On November 1, 1977, the Tu-144 commenced passenger service on Aeroflot airlines on the same Moscow to Alma-Ata route. Mechanical problems plagued the new aircraft and prevented the aircraft from maintaining even its modest one flight per week schedule. On May 23, 1978, the first Tu-144D produced experienced a mechanical failure and crash landed. A week later (June 1, 1978), the 102nd and last passenger flight took place. Despite this, production of the Tu-144 continued through 1984. A total of 17 Tu-144's were manufactured, including a prototype and five D models. Reverse Industrial Espionage What's good for the goose... In 1993, the Americans - led by Boeing and NASA - decided to take advantage of the thawing of the Cold War and created a program to learn what they could from the design of the Tu-144. A June '93 agreement signed by Al Gore and Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin created the project which was jointly funded by NASA's High Speed Research (HSR) program and Boeing. What was in it for the Russians? Russian pride at showing the Americans something they were unable to produce was certainly a factor but the American's hard currency was the primary motivator. A Tu-144 that had been in storage for years was obtained and modified by the Tupolev Aircraft Design Bureau in 1996 creating what NASA called the Tu-144LL Flying Laboratory. It was hoped the knowledge gained from the flights would benefit NASA & Boeing's in their efforts to "develop the technology that may enable design of an efficient, environmentally friendly second-generation supersonic transport in this country." This program involved eight experiments - six aboard the aircraft and two ground test engine experiments. Between November 1996 and February 1998 the Tu-144LL flew 19 research flights. The follow-on Tu-144LL program encompassed about eight flights, focusing on extensions of five experiments from the first project and two new experiments to measure fuel system temperatures and to define in-flight wing deflections. You can learn more about this program from NASA. Inside the Tu-144 The Tu-144 required a crew of three and could carry 140 passengers (98 with two classes of service) 3,500 miles (6,500 kilometers) at a top speed of 1555 mph (Mach 2.35). Its wingspan was 94 feet (28.8 meters), its length was 215 feet (65.7 meters) and it carried four Kuznetsov NK-144 afterburning turbofan engines to a maximum altitude of 59,000 feet (18,000 meters). (Editors note: I sure wish us American's would get with the 21st century and drop the English system of measurements as the English themselves did long ago and join Planet Earth in using the metric system!) Without passengers and cargo, the Tu-144 weighed in at 187,395 pounds (85,000 kilograms). The Tu-144 is constructed mostly of VAD-23, a light aluminum alloy, with integrally stiffened panels. Titanium and stainless steel were used for the leading edges, elevons, rudder and under-surface of the rear fuselage. Where To See One Now About the only place we know of where you can actually see one is on the roof of the Auto & Technik Museum in Sinsheim, Germany. Check out cool photos here: http://www.technik-museum.de/tupolev/tu_bilder.html The Future Though the Tu-144 is history, there are Russian plans to develop a successor. The Tu-244, as it is proposed, will carry 300 passengers to distances approaching 10,000km by using a special cryogenic (frozen) fuel.