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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Spies. WGBH Video, Boston; 1998.