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Tupolev Tu-144

By Patrick Mondout

What's the old saying? "Industrial espionage is the sincerest form of flattery?" With the Americans hard at work creating the supersonic transport (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?

Not that the Soviet Union lacked either. The leader of the design bureau chosen for this task was none other than the legendary Andrei Nicholayvich Tupolev. And while Tupolev had both designed remarkable aircraft from scratch and had copied the Boeing B-29 on orders from Stalin, he was already at work on a supersonic bomber - the Tu-22 (the successor to the Tu-16). Still, Nikita Khruschev wasn't taking any chances.

Riding high on the success of Sputnik and other space achievements, 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.

When British Minister of Aviation Julian Amery and a team of industry experts visited Moscow in 1963, they saw the Il-62 for the first time. It appeared to be little more than a direct copy of the Vickers VC-10. But that was not their biggest surprise. They were also shown a model of the proposed Soviet SST and were astonished at its resemblance to the still-secret Concorde design. When Amery and his team returned to England, they alerted French officials to the possible presence of Soviet spies. It would be years before they caught them red-handed.

'65 Paris Airshow - Concordski

The Soviets displayed a prototype of their new SST at the prestigious Paris Air Show in June, 1965. This was the first time the Western press, which by now was quite familiar with the Concorde design, viewed the Tu-144. While being fed suspicions of espionage behind the scenes by French and British officials, the press began derisively calling the new aircraft Concordski (or Koncordski).

Whatcha Got in the Suitcase?

The French and British could whisper all they wanted to about espionage, but as yet they had no proof. Aeroflot's Chief in Paris was about to provide them with all they needed. Sergei Pavlov was officially head of the Soviet state-run airline Aeroflot. Unofficially, he was in charge of the KGB's efforts to steal the plans for Concorde. The French DST (intelligence agency) suspected as much and began monitoring his movements.

Pavlov was observed receiving Concorde tire scrapings from an airport employee. Having established his guilt, they decided not to arrest him but to use him instead. They fed him false intelligence including a bubblegum-like substance he was told was a formula for new tires for Concorde. You can just imagine the poor Soviet scientists asked to turn the material into tires!

When the French finally apprehended Pavlov in December of 1965, they found actual blueprints for Concorde's landing gear in his suitcase.

He was deported from France and was promoted to Deputy Minister of Civil Aviation back home for a job well done. But Pavlov was not the only Soviet spy working on Concorde. Enter Sergei Fabiew.

Fabiew went undetected for 15 years. He supplied the Soviets with thousands of documents. He might well have continued well into the Awesome80s, but a Soviet defector blew his cover and Fabiew was arrested in 1977.

Fabiew cooperated with French intelligence and even gave them his secret message cipher. The French had intercepted many of his messages but had been unable to decode them. With his code they were able reveal the extent of his activities: One of the messages to Fabiew congratulated him on scoring an entire set of blueprints for Concorde! 

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. 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 (they falsely believed they could outrun the charges of espionage by being first). The goal then became to fly the Tu-144 by the end of 1968. 

Yuri Kashtanov, an engineer for Tupolov later reported that he worked in 48 hour shifts in late 1968.

First Flight of an SST

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 Tupolev, 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 than the elder Tupolev. It was the crowning achievement in a life that began before the Wright Brothers even tinkered with bicycles.


Flanked by a MiG-21, the Tu-144 makes its first flight. 


Courtesy of Soviet Life


Soon there were statements from the Soviets about how the Tu-144 would enter service in early 1970 and about how they were hard at work on a second generation SST for the Awesome80s.

Soviet propagandists overplayed their hand, however. Not all was not well with the Tu-144. By taking shortcuts, they were able to put an inferior aircraft in the air first. (If you think that's a little harsh, take a look at the blocky, flat-winged circa-1968 Tu-144 and the first Concorde. The 1973 Tu-144 was a quite different and much improved aircraft but still could not perform to the standards of the 1969 Concorde. Being first in the air is a dubious achievement when contrasted with building a successful aircraft that joined the skies a mere three months later.) Most notably, the wings were far less stable at slower speeds which lead to some harrowing landings at higher speeds than the aircraft structurally was designed for; one aircraft was reportedly lost on such a hard and fast landing.

The Soviets went back to the drawing board and radically re-engineered the Tu-144.

They were ready in early 1973 to show off their new marvel to the world. This new design featured an innovative feature called canards, which were two smaller wings immediately behind the cockpit. These canards provided more lift for takeoff and more stability at landing and were retracted during flight (it should be pointed out that Concorde did not need such "innovations" as it didn't have such stability problems at slow speeds). 

'73 Paris Airshow - Tragedy

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 biennual Paris Airshow. 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 pilot Mikhail Kozlov's 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.

Kozlov, however, was not aware a French Mirage was right above secretly filming them. In a panicked attempt to miss the French aircraft, Kozlov attempted a minus 1G maneuver. The Tu-144 engines lost thrust and stalled. Kozlov had to go into steep dive to regain control and he had only 4000 feet to do it. When attempting to pull it out of the dive, the aerodynamic forces on the wings broke up the aircraft.

All six aboard the Tu-144 were killed as were eight French citizens on the ground.

The Mirage photographs - which have yet to be made public - were given to the Soviets. They also received radar data showing how close the Mirage was. As the Soviets desperately wanted a report that did not find fault with the Tu-144 and the French didn't want to implicate their spies in the deaths of French civilians, 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 for the Soviets not implicating the French spies, the French would not claim in their abbreviated report (little more than a press release) there was anything mechanically wrong with the Soviet aircraft.

According to the brief press release, "Even though the inquiry established that there was no real risk of collision between the two aircraft, the Soviet pilot was likely to have been surprised." Essentially the report blamed the pilot.

PBS produced a Nova episode a few years ago entitled Supersonic Spies. In it, they attempted to interview Jean Forestier, President of the Commission of Enquiry which investigated the crash. He acknowledged that Concorde was warned about the presence of the French Mirage fighter jet. When asked if the Tu-144 crew had been given the same information, he said said only "No." and quickly ended the interview. This important bit of information was omitted in his report.

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.


NASA tested the Tu-144 during the 1990s.

Image courtesy of NASA.

Commercial Success? Nyet!

The engines, which were actually quieter than on Concorde (from the outside), but their placement and the aircraft's design made for a very loud passenger area - much louder than Concorde.

It was so loud that it was put into service delivering not passengers, but mail between Moscow and Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan on December 26, 1975. The expensive twice weekly flights were cut back to once a week in June 1976 and cancelled altogether by in December of 1977.

Aeroflot thought so little of the aircraft that it didn't even mention it in its five year plan for 1976-1980. However, it was not the airline executives decision and Aeroflot reluctantly put the Tu-144 into passenger service on November 1, 1977 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 killing two engineers. A week later (June 1, 1978), the 102nd and last passenger flight took place. Aeroflot officials had had enough and refused to fly the inefficient and dangerous aircraft.

Despite the fact that no airline here on planet Earth would fly them, production of the Tu-144 continued through 1984. A total of 17 Tu-144's were manufactured, including a prototype and five D models.

Americans Want Another Shot - With Russia's Help!

While the aircraft was a commercial failure, the Americans - who never completed their aircraft - felt they could learn from Soviets. 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 themselves 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." 

The 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. As it became clear that no airlines were interested in an American HST in the foreseeable future, the project was quietly cancelled in 1999.

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.

The Future

Though the Tu-144 is history, there are Russian plans to develop a successor. The Tu-244, as it is proposed, would carry 300 passengers to distances approaching 10,000km by using a special cryogenic (frozen) fuel.


Image courtesy NASA/Dryden

Berliner, Don. The Paris Air Show. Motorbooks International, 2000.
Endres, Gunter. Concorde. Motorbooks International, 2001.
Moon, Howard. Soviet SST: The Technopolitics of the Tupolev-144. Orion, New York; 1989.
PBS/NOVA. Supersonic Spies. WGBH Video, Boston; 1998.

Tupolev Tu-144 at a Glance
Engines4 Kuznetsov NK-144 turbofans
Cruising SpeedMach 1.6, Mach 2.0 with afterburners
Span88ft 7in
Length215ft 6.5in
Height42ft 4in
Final Production1984
Specifications refer to production Tu-144


Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about the Tupolev Tu-144? Were you a member of the flight crew on one? Have you any interesting stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"According to legend, complimentary earplugs were given to passengers to help deal with the noise. Apparently the noise was generated by the massive air conditioning system used to keep the airframe cool during supersonic cruise.
Astronaut Frank Borman wrote in his book "Countdown" that he had lunch under the wing of the TU-144 with Mr. Tupolev during a visit to the USSR in the late sixties. Lucky man!"

--D Richard

"I went to the Auto & Technik Museum in Sinsheim, Germany, and saw the Tu-144. I saw the Konkordski from the road, and without really thinking about it thought it was a Concorde. Imagine my suprise when I entered the pland and saw the Cyrillic lettering on all the panels. It was a magical experience for my children to see such an interesting plane. It is by no means the only reason to go to the museum, though. The collection of classic American, German, and military vehicles is astonishing."

--Clayton Bronnee

"We meet a Russian guy in 1990 who knew where the Tu-144s were mothballed, and we suggested a package express service (like Fed-Ex and DHL) from U.S. West Coast cities to Tokyo. We were going to do a business plan for this, but the planes don't have the fuel range to fly across the Pacific without stopping in Alaska, which defeats the purpose of the business.
BTW, there are two Buran space shuttles in hangers over in Russia. I believe that they are available for sale/rent for any space launch provider who has the hard currency."


"If I remember correctly from a documentary I saw the French Mirage was trying to get operational footage of the movable cunnards at the front of the TU-144. Those "goofy" wings in fact make the plane far easier to control and provide superior manouverability. The West in 1973 had yet to succeed in building a plane with moveable cunnards that could withstand the stresses. Even now I don't believe they make one. [Editor's note: Actually, one thing the Tu-144 never had was superior manouverability. As such, the Concorde didn't need the canards as it, unlike the Tu-144, did not have stability of flight problems at low speeds. Why develop a solution to a problem you do not have?]"


"A freind of a relative flew on TU144 in late 1977 in what I beleive was the fourth passenger carrying flight. Flew faster than Concorde but very hot and loud. Air conditionig it seems was not really up to the job. There was a strange small of aviation fuel. Apparently the engines sounded great, completely awsome and he has never heard anything like it since from the inside of a passenger plane, the passengers thought they were going to go into space. Still has some memoribilia from the flight. I have been told the trip went very well and was very smooth. He took some pictures but unfortunately had the film confiscated, all that remains is memories of what could have been a great plane... Wish I was there."

--Aaron Varisil

"With regard to the use of canards on the Tu-144, my understanding is that firstly they enable control over the optimum angle of attack for takeoff which, if you think about it, would involve "up" elevator on Concorde. This literally adds tonnes of downforce when the idea is to go up. [Editor's note: It was the original Tu-144 and not Concorde that had problems on takeoff and landing.]

Secondly, canards allow a more controlled approach and flare, with the ability to use the flaperons to enhance lift, induce drag and shed speed. [Editor's note: Only when contrasted to the previous Tu-144 and shedding speed is hardly ideal on takeoff to go back to your first point.]

Comments about low speed handling qualities (vis-a-vis Concorde), do seem slightly contradictory when discussing aircraft of this nature. Canards, although in need of further refinement in the case of the Tu-144, seem a logical solution to the problem of reconciling such diverse requirements. Surely optimisation towards the intended flight regime is preferable? [Editor's note: Surely you recognize the need to land the aircraft? As fast as these aircraft go, they eventually have to land (and takeoff for that matter). Thus, such performance is highly relevant to a discussion of these aircraft (indeed it was the crash of a Tu-144 prototype on landing that lead to the development of the canards). The remarkable Concorde design that emerged in 1969 didn't have to be dramatically redesigned to address such problems as it was already aerodynamically optimized for its flight profile. It certainly didn't suffer performance-wise from its canard-less design, did it?]

I have models of both aircraft in a similar scale, and they really are distinctive in may ways. The Tupolev is like an overgrown fighter jet, where the Concorde, while aesthetically stylish, looks like an aerodynamic compromise. [Editor's note: You should compare the original canard-less Tu-144 with your "overgrown fighter jet." The influence of Concorde is obvious in the all-important wings; they were flat in the first design and became more "aesthetically stylish" as the Soviets addressed their stability of flight troubles. That should make it obvious that both sides saw the need to make such aesthetically pleasing "compromises" - although one did without crashing a prototype to prove it.]"


"I worked for BAe Systems in Rochester about 25 years ago and was fortunate enough to visit BAe Warton (Lancs). While I was there, I met a guy who worked on (or was close to) the Concorde Project. He said that the offical line was they knew the Russians were spying and so deliberately left out some "fake" plans of the Concorde with weakened wing spars. Privately he thought that after the actual "real" plans were stolen, BAe Engineers later discovered/decided that the wings weren't strong enough and beefed them up. Nice story, you decide!"


"Yes, admittedly, the early 144design was a crib of Concorde. But the truth is that the poor engine efficiency and lack of range were again not primnary design factors for Tupolev - the NK144 engines were hardly different from the ones used un supersonic bombers, unlike the Olympus. Hence, the TU144LL - re-engined, faster, bigger, and if the engine efficiency is sorted, with a potentially greater range than Concorde. And they are all low hours aircraft.

All it needs is the will!


"Hi from France,
Canard is a french word that means duck, don't ask me why, and must be written with french writing, or translated, but never cunnard, or connard (it's insulting), or anything else. Agreed with the redactor, the Concorde had an intermediate design for the wings which where average at low speed, average at high speed, and secure enough that NO Concorde crashed by itself (the only one is because he rolled on a part from a DC10, which made tire and then fuel tank explode).

First T144 was better at SS speed, and dangerous at landing and take-off. The Frenchies where very good at designing delta-wings (look the Mirages and the Rafale) and the English where very good at designing engines (the ones on the Concorde derivate from the ones on the SS bomber Vulcan). By the way, Concorde don't have canards because he doesn't need it, but he has "moustaches" (I forgot english translation), like Mirage 2000 though."


"The Russian report of the Paris 1973 crash was recently declassified and includes a full decoding of the black box and some photos taken from on board the French Mirage fighter.

The crash was not caused by pilot actions to avoid the Mirage fighter, but was due to last-minute wiring changes made by the ground engineers prior to the second day of demonstration.

The changes were intended to override inbuilt restrictions of the auto-stabilisation computers, so that TU-144 could perform a tighter and more impressive flying routine (compared to Concorde at the same air show).

Unfotunately, a side effect of the wiring changes meant that the auto-stabilisation failed when the canards were withdrawn at the top of steep climb. The resulting pitch of the aircraft led to the downward dive, not pilot error.

[Editor's note: The Russian and French reports are both discredited for reasons already explained.]"

"I think that if it wasnt for the french the Tu-144 would have made a success! I can never forgive the french! Although yes ok there was espjonage the point is that the russians beat the french and english in performance! [Editor's note: The Concorde did not compete with Aeroflot and yet the national airline of the Soviet Union bailed on the Tu-144. How is that the fault of the French? As for performance, that was certainly not the case with regards to efficiency. Obviously the English and French could have made a faster aircraft that guzzled as much fuel and was as noisy as their Soviet counterpart, but what would have been the point of that?]"


"In Samara, Russia I saw a TU-144 among other old Russian aircrafts. It sits in a yard at a small airfield. "




Image courtesy of NASA/Dryden FRC

Model: Tu-144

Manufacturer: Tupolev

Country: Soviet Union

First Flight: December 31, 1968

First Passenger Flight: November 1, 1977

Launch Customer: Aeroflot

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