The Tupolev 144 (NATO codename 'Charger') is a magnificent looking airliner that pushed Soviet technology to the brink and beyond it. The race to create supersonic passenger airliners was one that faced a range of almost insurmountable problems and in the USSR this led to the continued production of an aircraft that would never have gotten as far as it did if it were made in the West. The Tu-144 was certainly not a success and it wouldn't be out of step to label it a disaster, but the resulting aircraft was without a doubt one of the most impressive civil types ever built.
The 1960s was a time to dream and the dream of supersonic passenger airliners being the mainstream was one that would abruptly stall in the face of economic and environmental common-sense. Of course the Soviet Union wasn't about to succumb to either of those and in the context of the Cold War programmes like the Tu-144 were as much about prestige and propaganda as reality.
The Soviet 'business case' for the Tu-144 is enlightening. As the world's largest country the huge distances and primitive infrastructure meant that air travel could save huge amounts of time. In 1962/63 Aeroflot already had calculated that it saved nearly 25 hours per journey compared to surface travel and forecast a Mach 2 SST would increase that saving to 36 hours. Of course in the command economy of the Soviet Union air travel wasn't the remit of businessmen and tourists. The passengers would mostly be important people - doctors, scientists, engineers and of course army officers and Communist party officials. When the timesavings were costed against how much these people were costed at the sums made sense for an incredible 75 SSTs.
This is all the more incredible because in this context the SST was primarily a domestic people-mover not for use on international segments. The question of the sonic booms all these SSTs would create was completely ignored.
Tupolev was awarded the contract in 1964 and impressively the first flight of the Tu-144 was made on December 31, 1968 comfortably ahead of the Concorde. Mach 1 was reached on June 5, 1969 and Mach 2 on May 26, 1970 but in reality this aircraft, registered 68001, bore almost no commonality with what would become the Tu-144 proper. Certainly it was in no way a passenger transport. It was more like a technology demonstrator.
Below: The Tu-144 prototype bore only a passing resemblance to the Tu-144S that would follow. Only a single example of this aircraft was ever made.
The Tu-144S that reappeared in 1973 bore only a passing resemblance to the initial prototype. It had a new wing, redesigned and lengthened fuselage, new engine nacelles, repositioned engines, completely new undercarriage and most obviously retractable high-lift foreplanes just behind the flight deck. It was basically a totally new aircraft.
Below: The production Tu-144S looked vaguely similar to the prototype but was basically a new aircraft.
Disastrously for both Soviet prestige and the programme aircraft 77102 famously crashed at the Paris airshow on June 3, 1973. Despite this the flight testing continued with route proving being undertaken from May 1974. By this point it would have made sense to have cancelled the entire programme. The concept of SSTs had been widely debunked and even Concorde was not much more than a vanity project. At least however Concorde was a viable airliner. The Tu-144 was far from this. It wasn't regarded as safe, was massively unreliable and suffered from fatigue cracking that threatened structural failure.
Below: The first pre-production Tu-144 was CCCP-77101 featuring all the updates of the Tu-144S. The aircraft never flew with Aeroflot. For its service history see: http://www.tu144sst.com/fleet/01-1.html
Plus of course the programme was staggeringly expensive and had severe knock-on impacts on other Tupolev projects, especially the far more useful Tu-154. None of this stopped service entry from taking place on December 26, 1975 albeit initially only in the form of cargo flights between Moscow and Alma Ata. The 2,026 miles (3,260 km) could be covered in under 2 hours.
By the time cargo flights began several aircraft had been fitted out with passenger interiors arranged for 140 in four cabins: 11 first class 2+1, 30 mid cabin 2+3, 75 rear cabin 2+3 and 24 at the back 2+2. Incredibly the cabin was so noisy that two passengers sitting two seats apart couldn't hear each other even when shouting. This was due to large air conditioning units used to keep the aircraft cool at supersonic speeds where friction heats up the airframe.
Below: Ready your earplugs!!! The interior of the Tu-144 was very noisy.
Passenger proving flights began between Moscow and Khabarovsk in late February 1977 but real passenger service didn't start until November 1, 1977 flying between Moscow and Alma Ata. This was a weekly service and five of the next six flights were cancelled. The aircraft was so unreliable that Alexi Tupolev himself and two vice-ministers of aviation had to be present before every flight to personally check the aircraft over.
Below: This aircraft was displayed at the 1975 Paris Airshow but also never actually flew with Aeroflot. For her service history see: http://www.tu144sst.com/fleet/02-2.html
Only two aircraft were ever used for passenger services and only 3,194 passengers were ever carried (an average of 58 per flight - far below capacity). In the end 102 passenger flights were undertaken before passenger services were cancelled on June 1, 1978. During this period the aircraft suffered 226 failures, 80 of them inflight. The final nail in the coffin seems to have been the crash of an updated Tu-144D on May 23rd but clearly the aircraft was not fit for purpose and had no sensible role to perform even if it was.
This was not the end of the Tu-144's story however it never flew paying passengers again. This is only a very minor description of the history of the type. The political, intelligence, technical aspects and later history of the design are outside the scope of this short blog article. The tu144SST website is a great resource for further exploration online of the aircraft. Although truly spectacular and a real achievement for the Soviet state the Tu-144 can't be seen as anything but a glorious failure and one that should have never been pushed as far as it was. It nevertheless stands as a tribute and symbol of the Soviet state for both good and bad.
Tupolev Tu-144 Charger. Airplane No 120. Orbis
October 2003 Zacharias, S. Tupolev Tu-144: Winner of a Lost Battle. Airliner World.
Nov/Dec 2004. Mellberg, W. Tu-144: The World's First SST. Airliners No 90
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: