Tupolev Tu-144 (NATO reporting name: Charger) was a
supersonic airliner constructed under management of the Soviet Tupolev design
bureau headed by Alexei Tupolev (19252001).
Western media nicknamed the plane Concordski (sometimes Konkordski),
sounding like a Russian surname yet still very close to Concorde, to which
Tu-144 was visually similar. A prototype first flew on December 31, 1968 near
Moscow, two months before the Concorde. The Tu-144 first broke the sound barrier
on June 5, 1969, and on July 15, 1969, it became the first commercial transport
to exceed Mach 2.
At the Paris Air Show on June 3, 1973, the development program suffered a
severe blow when the first Tu-144S production aircraft reg 77102 crashed. While
in the air it undertook a violent downwards manoeuvre. Trying to pull out of the
subsequent dive, the plane broke up and crashed, destroying 15 houses and
killing all six on board and eight on the ground. The causes of this incident
remain controversial today. A popular theory is that the Tu-144 was forced to
avoid a French Mirage chase plane.
Recent information released from archives shows that the black box was
actually recovered to Russia and decoded. The cause of this accident is now
thought to be due to changes made by the ground engineering team to the
auto-stabilisation input controls prior to the second day of display flights.
These changes were intended to allow Tu-144 to outperform Concorde in the
display circuit. Unfortunately, the changes also inadvertently connected some
factory-test wiring which resulted in an excessive rate of climb, leading to the
stall and subsequent crash.
The Tu-144S went into service on December 26, 1975, flying mail and freight
between Moscow and Alma-Ata in preparation for passenger services, which
commenced in November 1977 and ran a semi-scheduled service until the first
Tu-144D experienced an in-flight failure during a pre-delivery test flight, and
crash-landed with crew fatalities on May 23, 1978. The Aeroflot flight on June
1, 1978 would be the Tu-144's 55th and last scheduled passenger service.
A scheduled Aeroflot freight-only service recommenced using the new
production variant Tu-144D aircraft on 23 June 1979, including longer routes
from Moscow to Khabarovsk made possible by the more efficient RD-36-51 engines
used in the Tu-144D version. Including the 55 passenger flights, there were 102
scheduled Aeroflot flights before retirement of commercial services.
It is known that Aeroflot still continued to fly the Tu-144D after the
official end of service, with some additional non-scheduled flights through the
1980s. One last report showed that it was used on a flight from the Crimea to
Kiev in 1987.
A total of 16 airworthy Tu-144s were built: the prototype Tu-144 reg 68001, a
pre-production Tu-144S reg 77101, nine production Tu-144S reg 77102110, and
five Tu-144D reg 77111115. There was also at least one ground-test airframe
constructed for static testing in parallel with the prototype 68001 development.
The Tu-144S model had NK-144 turbofan engines, whereas the later Tu-144D model
featured more powerful RD-36-51 engines with better fuel efficiency
(particularly during supercruise, not requiring afterburner) and longer range.
Although its last commercial passenger flight was in 1978, production of the
Tu-144 would not cease until six years later, in 1984 when construction of the
partially complete Tu-144D reg 77116 airframe was stopped. During the 1980s, the
last two production aircraft to fly were used for airborne laboratory testing,
including research into ozone depletion at high altitudes. These two aircraft
remain at the Tupolev production plant in Zhukovski, reg 77114 and 77115.
In 1990, Tupolev approached NASA and offered a Tu-144 as a test bed for its
High Speed Commercial Research program, intended to design a second-generation
supersonic jetliner. In 1995, Tu-144D reg 77114 built in 1981 (but with only 82
hours, 40 minutes total flight time) was taken out of storage and after
extensive modification at a total cost of $350 million was designated the
Tu-144LL. It made a total of 27 flights in 1996 and 1997. In 1999, the project
The Tu-144LL was reportedly sold in June 2001 for $11 million via online
auction, but the plane did not sell after all Tejavia reported in September
2003 that the deal was not signed. The replacement Kuznetsov NK-321 engines
(from the Tupolev Tu-160 bomber) are military items. The Russian government
would not allow them to be exported.
It should be noted that the original Tu-144 and Tu-144S equipped with the
NK-144 turbofan engines could not cruise at Mach 2 without the afterburner on. A
cruising speed of Mach 1.6 was possible. For the last research flights, the
Testbed 144LL reg 77114 and the last remaining Tu-144D reg 77115 were under
restriction to not exceed Mach 1.
The only Tu-144 on display outside the former Soviet Union was acquired by
the Auto & technikmuseum Sinsheim in Germany, where it was shipped not flown
in 2001. The NK-321 jet engines were removed prior to export.
- Power source: 4 Kuznetsov NK-144 turbofans of 196 kN afterburning thrust
- Maximum cruising speed: 2,500 km/h (Mach 2.35)(NOTE: Faster than Concorde!)
- Operational ceiling: 18,000 m
- Range with maximum payload: 6,500 km
- Empty weight: 85,000 kg
- Maximum take-off weight: 180,000 kg
- Span: 28.80 m
- Length: 65.50 m
- Crew: 3
- Passengers: 120
- Wing area: 438 mē