The Soviet Union’s flawed rival to Concorde
The world's first supersonic airliner was not the Anglo-French Concorde but a Soviet design intended to show the world the superiority of the USSR.
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It is December 1968, and a truly ground-breaking airliner is about to take its first flight.
It resembles a giant white dart, as futuristic an object as anything humanity has made in the 1960s. The aircraft is super streamlined to be able to fly at the speed of a rifle bullet – once thought too fast for a passenger-carrying aircraft.
The distinctive, needle-nosed front of the aircraft looks like the business end of something rocket-powered from a Flash Gordon serial; when the aircraft approaches the runway, the whole nose is designed to slide down, giving the pilots a better view of the ground. The effect makes the aircraft look like a giant bird about to land.
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It sounds like a description of the Anglo-French Concorde, the plane that will cross the Atlantic in little more than three hours – but it's not. The spaceship-styled jet sports the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union on its giant tailfin. It is the Tupolev Tu-144, the communist Concorde, and the first passenger aircraft to fly more than twice the speed of sound.
Its first flight comes three months before Concorde takes to the air. But the Tu-144 – dubbed 'Concordski' by Western observers for its similarities to its luxurious rival – never quite becomes a household name.
It is partly down to design failure – but also because of a high-profile disaster at the 1973 Paris Air Show, a tragedy that took place in front of the world's press.
Like many of the great technological feats during the Cold War, politics is at the heart of the Tu-144's story.
In 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushschev was made aware of a new aircraft project being investigated by Britain and France to help revitalise their aircraft industries. That passenger aircraft – Concorde – was designed to fly at supersonic speeds, cutting the time it would take to fly from Europe to the US to just a few hours. Two years later, the British and French signed an official deal to begin design and manufacture. Around the same time, supersonic transport (SST) projects from planemakers Boeing and Lockheed were also given the go ahead.