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Tu-144 - World's First Supersonic Transport Aircraft

There are two versions of this story. Most people in the west probably believe that the Concorde - a symbol of technical excellence and beauty - was the first civil supersonic plane to fly; a great European victory over the never-to-be-completed Boeing 2707 and a true world-beater in civil aviation.

The second version proves most people wrong. Two months before the Concorde's maiden flight, another symbol of technical excellence, beauty and, moreover, socialist superiority thundered down the runway of Zhukovsky Airfield, Russia, swung itself into the air and thus began supersonic civil transport aviation on 31 December, 1968.

Whereas the second version is essentially correct, certain remarks have to be made. The truth is deeply buried under vast layers of both capitalist and communist propaganda, and even today the reports regarding the history of the Tupolev Tu-144 are often biased by the author's ideological background. The Tu-144 is either depicted as a hopeless piece of junk or a flawless product of Soviet engineering, both of which are - of course - incorrect.

Tu-144 v Concorde - A Cold War Race

After the tremendous success of the Soviet space programme, Nikita Khrushchev wanted to enter another competition - the struggle for the first supersonic transport (SST). But this project was not only a mere quest for political prestige; it would also provide the world's largest country with a new means of public transport. Soviet airliner Aeroflot calculated that regular air travel reduced travelling time by 24.9 hours for each journey compared to rail travel: the use of SSTs would increase this number to 36 hours.

At that time, many obstacles needed to be overcome in order to enable civil supersonic aviation. Military craft existed that were able to break the sound barrier, but a civil airplane for over a hundred passengers was a whole new dimension. Such an aircraft would need new engines, twice as powerful as for 'normal' planes, and its structure should be able to withstand the forces of supersonic flight.

Unfortunately, the competitors did not wait for the Soviets to enter the ring, so when the Council of Ministers ordered the beginning of the Soviet SST programme on 16 July, 1963, they were - technologically speaking - far behind. In order to catch up on the Concorde project, the Soviets did not only rely on feverish research but also on espionage. For example, the Tu-144 concept used Western-style Delta wings as opposed to swept-back wings which were de facto standard in civil aviation.

The Soviet spies managed to transfer details of Concorde's airframe and later an entire set of blueprints of the prototype. On the other hand, French intelligence uncovered several spies and fed them with incorrect information. The director of the Aeroflot bureau in Paris, S Pavlov, for example, was ordered to collect information on the Concorde's tyres. Due to the intervention of French intelligence, he unknowingly sent completely useless data back to the Soviet Union.

In the end, the Soviets managed to beat their Western competitors, but because of the pressure to deliver the world's first SST in a hurry, Tupolev's design was far from perfect. Although - superficially looked upon - Tu-144 was nothing but a mere copy of the Concorde1, there were quite a few striking differences. Tupolev's wing was optimised for supersonic travel but lacked low-speed ability, as opposed to the Concorde's design. Another Tupolev shortcoming was that the engines were not able to hold a cruising speed of Mach 2.285 without continuous afterburning2, which severely reduced its range because of high fuel consumption. While working on the Tu-144S, however, these shortcomings were taken care of.

But the Soviet SST prototype also had some advantages, namely passenger capacity: it provided seating for 126 passengers, as opposed to the Concorde's 100. It had also a higher cruising speed of Mach 2.285 versus Concorde's Mach 2.02.

In summary, one may call the Tu-144 'inspired' by the Concorde project and Tupolev would not have been able to beat his western rivals without the Soviet espionage apparatus. However, the Tu-144 incorporates some distinct and unique features - especially when it comes to later models like Tu-144S and Tu-144D - which extends its importance for aviation history beyond being a simple Concorde lookalike.

The Paris Airshow 1973 And Other Catastrophes

On 3 June, 1973, at the Paris Airshow, the first direct confrontation between the two existing SSTs took place. After Concorde's demonstration, Tu-144S 77102 was eager to present its qualities. Some French officials did their best to obstruct the Soviet demonstration, eg, pilot M Kozlov was told mere seconds before take-off that his presentation time had been halved. There was also an attempt at industrial espionage, this time carried out by the French: right before Concorde's take-off, a French Mirage aircraft started its unscheduled flight, a fact only the crew of the European SST was informed about. Why? Because the Mirage's mission was to take in-flight photographs of the Tu-144, especially of the canard wings.3

As a result, when 77102 was in the air, none of its crew were aware of the Mirage flying directly above them until the crucial moment the two aircraft nearly collided. Kozlov, in an attempt to avoid the Mirage, had to perform a radical manoeuvre downwards, which led to engine failure for aerodynamic reasons.

In order to start the engines again, Kozlov started a steep dive, but had only 1500m to get them working and put the plane out of dive. When he finally tried to rise again, the plane suffered from a structural failure. The resulting crash killed the six people aboard the aircraft and eight people on the ground. Sixty people were injured and fifteen houses destroyed.

Later, both Soviet and French governments blamed the pilot for the terrible accident. The truth was masked on behalf of both sides; France did not want the public to know about the involvement of their Mirage in the death of eight French citizens and the Soviet Union tried to sustain the notion of technical superiority of their plane, with no mechanical failures allowed.

Needless to say, this event damaged the reputation of the Tu-144 thoroughly. Nevertheless, development continued, and 77144 was presented at the 1975 Paris Airshow. On 26 December, 1975, regular cargo flights between Moscow and Alma Ata began with 77106. Passenger services began on 1 November, 1977 with Tu-144S 77109, although Tu-144D with an extended range would also have been available.

The mortal blow came when 77111, a Tu-144D, crashed on 23 May, 1978, after a minor problem within the fuel system. Although this was during a test flight and not during regular service4, the one and only supersonic Aeroflot passenger service, Moscow - Alma Ata, ceased to exist after 55 flights because of this incident.

The problems encountered by the Tu-144 were similar to the obstacles Concorde had to deal with. Supersonic aviation was a total commercial nightmare. British Airways and Air France at least were able to put an adequate price tag on their service; by contrast, Aeroflot charged 167 Rubles for a flight, which - compared to their 'normal' fares of 110 - 130 Rubles - seems quite inadequate. So in a socialist economic system, supersonic aviation was even less lucrative, and Aeroflot was more than pleased to finally get rid of its Tu-144 fleet.

Most of the 17 Tu-144 were scrapped: only a few were kept airworthy to conduct atmospherical research and Buran5 pilot training until the mid-1980s. Plans to adapt the Tu-144 as a naval interceptor or strategic bomber were not pursued further.

The Second Rise: Tu-144LL

In 1994, then Vice President A Gore and Prime Minister V Chernomyrdin signed a contract which allowed NASA to use a modified Tu-144D as part of their high-speed research programme. The ultimate goal was to produce a next-generation SST, which, while carrying three times the passenger payload of both Concorde and Tu-144, and being able to cover twice the range, should only demand a fare 20% higher than that for subsonic aircraft journeys.

Therefore, the Tu-144LL6 was born. A truly international collaboration, since Boeing, Tupolev and others were actively involved in the project. It is quite ironic that the former pride of Soviet engineering helped to revive the legacy of America's supersonic dreams.

A total of six flight experiments was conducted at Zhukovsky airfield, forming the first phase from 1996 - 1998. During the second phase, up to 1999, Tu-144LL flew an additional four flights.

The experiments focussed mainly on subsonic and supersonic handling of the aircraft, internal and external noise levels, aerodynamics and engine performance. The results, together with previous test flights by Tupolev between 1979 and 1993, led to the creation of the Tu-244 project, with characteristics similar to those of the NASA programme.

After the termination of the test flights, the Tupolev was put up for auction on eBay for $10million, only to be removed a few days later due to legal problems.

Currently, the Tu-144LL is offered for sale by the American company Tejavia.

Tu-144's Evolution Steps

All Tu-144 versions share the same ASCC reporting name7, 'Charger.'

Tu-144 (1968)

The task of building the Soviet SST was assigned to OKB8-156 (Tupolev) under the leadership of chief designer Popov and chief engineer Kashtanov. Parts of the project were outsourced: OKB-155 (MiG, Mikoyan i Gurevich) built two MiG-21 testbeds with scaled Tu-144-like wings, Kuznetsov was responsible for the engines, and the original wings were manufactured by Antonov.

The wing was a double-delta design, nearly horizontal with modest downwards camber. It was made of aluminium alloy, reinforced with titanium or steel at strategic points.

The engine (NK-144) was derived from the reliable NK-6 and NK-8 series and was able to produce a thrust of 17,490 kg. Two nacelles, holding two engines each, were positioned near the centre of the aircraft in order to guarantee the longest possible air intakes.

The prototype was also fitted with a brake parachute and four ejection seats for the crew. As stated above, the maiden flight took place on 31 December, 1968, with a crew consisting of pilot E Yelyan, co-pilot M Kozlov, test director V Benderov and engineer Yu Selivertsov. Mach 1 was exceeded on 5 June, 1969 (Concorde achieved this on 1 October, 1969) and Mach 2 on 26 May, 1970 (Concorde reached this on 4 November, 1970). Later in 1970, Mach 2.4 was reached.

Technical Data

Wing span27 m
Length58.5 m
Wing area469.8 m2
Weight (when empty)79 tonnes
Fuel capacity87,500 litres
Cruising speed2,430 km/h (Mach 2.285)
Cruise fuel burn26 kg/km
Rangeca. 2,500 km
Number of passenger seats 126
Registration number68001

Tu-144S (1971 - 77)

Although the prototype had managed to beat its European competitor, certain shortcomings in the original design demanded an improvement. Its rather poor aerodynamics led to a total reconstruction of the wing, adding more camber and increasing its span and area. Also the famous 'canards' (retractable wings with a span of 6.1m) were mounted behind the cockpit in order to improve lift at low speeds.

The fuselage was extended by 6.3m in order to house more passenger seats. As a consequence, the landing gear and engines were totally redesigned to accommodate the longer fuselage.

77101-77103 and 77144 were fitted with Kuznetsov NK-144F engines. These provided slightly more thrust and were able to use thermally stable fuel. 77105-77110 were equipped with Kolesov RD-36-51A turbojet engines, which did not need continuous afterburning like the Kuznetsov turbofan engines9. Thus, a completely new aircraft was born, but the designation remained the same.

Technical Data

Wing span28 m
Length65.7 m
Wing area503 m2
Weight (when empty)85.15 tonnes
Fuel capacity118,750 litres
Cruising speed2,000-2,350 km/h (Mach 1.88-2.21)
Cruise fuel burn26 kg/km (NK-144F)
11.2 kg/km (RD-36-51A)
Range3,080 km
Number of passenger seats 140
Registration numbers77101-77103, 77144, 77105-77110
Three unregistered test specimens produced

Tu-144S 77106 is on display at the Monino Muzej Voenno-Vozdushnykh Sil.

Tu-144D (1974 - 84)

Again, aerodynamics were refined, resulting in a larger airframe. Fuel capacity was increased and so the range was nearly doubled. Passenger and freight capacity were also maximised.

Technical Data

Wing span28.8 m
Length67.5 m
Wing area506.9 m2
Weight (when empty)86.9 tonnes
Cruising speed2,124 km/h (Mach 2.0)
Cruise fuel burn11.2 kg/km
Range6,000-6,500 km
Number of passenger seats 155
Registration numbers77111-77116

Nowadays, Tu-144D 77112 is on display at the Technikmuseum Sinsheim.

Tu-144DA (1976)

It was planned to equip a modified Tu-144 airframe with Project-61 engines, which would provide a thrust of 22,950 kg, but this project was never carried out.

Technical Data

Wing spanLarger than Tu-144D
LengthLonger than Tu-144D
Wing area544 m2
Cruising speed2,124-2,348 km/h (Mach 2.0-2.2)
Range7,500 km
Number of passenger seats 160

Tu-144LL (1996)

77114, built in 1981, was fitted with four Kuznetsov NK-321 engines, derived from strategic bomber aircraft Tu-16010.

Basically, the Tu-144D airframe remained unchanged; besides the new engines, only research equipment was installed to create Tu-144LL.

Technical Data

Wing span28.8 m
Length67.5 m
Wing area469.8 m2
Weight (when empty)506.9 tonnes
Cruising speed2,490 km/h (Mach 2.3)
Range6,500 km
Registration number77114

Tu-244 (project only)

A second-generation SST, which has, as stated above, characteristics similar to the NASA project with a passenger capacity of nearly 300 people and an extended range.

Technical Data

Wing span54.47 m
Length88.7 m
Wing area1200 m2
Cruising speed2,180 km/h (Mach 2.05)
Range9,300 km
Number of passenger seats 300 (one-class) or 20 first class,
108 business class and 108 tourist class


Gunston, Bill: Tupolev Aircraft Since 1922. Putnam Aeronautical Books, London: 1995, 254 pages.
NASA Dryden Fact Sheets - Tu-144LL
Transcript of the NOVA documentation "Supersonic Spies"

1 Due to this fact it was nicknamed 'Konkordski' by the western press.
2 'The principle behind an afterburner being simply to pump raw fuel into the engine's exhaust, where it is ignited, thus greatly increasing the engine's thrust.' Source: Britain's First Supersonic Aeroplane
3 Please read the description of Tu-144S below for details.
4 In fact the Tu-144D never flew a single passenger flight.
5 The Soviet Space Shuttle
6 LL stands for (Sverkhzvukovaya) Letayushchaya Laboratoriya - (Supersonic) Flying Laboratory.
7 The Air Standards Co-ordinating Committee (ASCC) maintained a list of reporting names for Soviet aircraft, whose real names often were unknown.
8 Opytno Konstruktorskoye Byuro (Experimental Construction Bureau)
9 For a general introduction, please read the entry on Jet Engines.
10 Besides Tu-95, Tu-160 is the backbone of Russia's strategic nuclear forces. ASCC reporting name 'Blackjack'.

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Entry Data
Entry ID: A2818640 (Edited)

Edited by:
Mikeo the gregarious

Date: 07   September   2004

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Referenced Guide Entries
Jet Engines
Concorde - the Passenger Plane to European Unification
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Vostok 1 - The First Manned Space Flight
Britain's First Supersonic Aeroplane

Related BBC Pages
The Sky at Night

Referenced Sites
Monino Muzej Voenno-Vozdushnykh Sil
Technikmuseum Sinsheim
NASA Dryden Fact Sheets - Tu-144LL
Transcript of the NOVA documentation "Supersonic Spies"

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