An ageing garden ornament
There have been many great technological advancements signalling a change in mankind’s imagination and direction. The internet revolutionised the shopping industry allowing anyone with a computer to open a shop. The invention of the light bulb initiated the introduction of mass electrical connectivity, enabling a whole host of new electrical devices in the home. With air travel a global mainstream, the introduction of SST’s (supersonic transport aircraft) was hoped to be a similar catalyst.
It all began back in the 1960’s, during the peak of the Cold War. The British and French had announced the development of a delta-winged aircraft intended to travel over 1,200mph codenamed Concorde. In an act of retaliation, similar to that seen between the US and Russia to reach the moon, the Soviets took it as a matter of national pride that the USSR should make one as well.
The Tu-144 was developed in secret by the Tupolev design bureau, and took its first flight on December 31st, 1968, two months before the Anglo-French jet. Designs for both aircraft looked remarkably similar, with a set of pop-out canard wings on the nose defining the TU-144. Some espionage theory’s suggested the Anglo/French Concorde team knew the Soviets intended to steal the plans, and therefore put into circulation a set of dummy blueprints with deliberate design flaws.
There would seem to be some proof the Tu-144 had some significant design flaws, with a prototype famously crashing at the 1973 Paris Air Show, delaying further development. Major funding and technical setbacks allowed the Concorde to make its first commercial flight over a year before the Tu-144. Another prototype aircraft crashed during development, forcing the Tupolev design bureau to consign the aircraft for freight use only. Including the early 55 passenger flights, there were 102 scheduled flights before the cessation of commercial service.
In total, 16 aircraft were produced throughout the project. Most of the fleet was dissembled after the fall of the communist regime and sold for scrap. However, one example survived in pristine condition, and currently resides in Kazan, the capital city of the Tatarstan federation of Russia. Squeezed between some old military buildings, it stands as a reminder of the enormous effort garnered by the Cold War. It never achieved major success, and the same could be said of Concorde. Despite a long commercial career, it too now lives in museums around the world, standing as the last supersonic airliner ever to service the public. What should have been a revolution proved a dead-end, and it could be some time until we see truly fast air travel.