Supersonic passenger travel had been on the mind of man for some time, particularly once jet-propulsion became a reality during the 1940s and 1950s. During the period that followed, two major programs emerged that produced viable supersonic passenger-hauling candidates - one proving more successful than the other. In Europe, this became the Anglo-French Aerospatiale/BAC "Concorde" (detailed elsewhere on this site) of which twenty aircraft were eventually built (six for non-commercial purposes). In the Soviet Union, the competing design became the oft-forgotten Tupolev Tu-144, given the NATO nickname of "Charger" and also known as the "Concordski" in some circles.
Compared with the Concorde, the Tu-144 was first-to-fly and the larger and faster of the two designs. It was something of an aerospace marvel for its time before the wheels fell off of the Soviet program. However, this sort of haste-in-engineering came at a steep price: the Tu-144 had a troubled, sometimes lethal, service life which encompassed just sixteen total aircraft. It flew from 1977 until 1983 and its record was marred by high-profile crashes, budget restrictions, low market need, maintenance and reliability issues. Just 102 commercial flights were completed for this then-advanced aircraft which went on to end its days as nothing more than a high-speed cargo hauler. Just 55 flights involved commercial passenger service that covered a short six month term.
The Cold War period was a technology race as much as an arms one and supersonic passenger travel was just one topic on the agenda for both sides. Sud Aviation (later Aerospatiale) of France and BAC (later BAe) of Britain combined to develop the European solution (a Boeing-led initiative was eventually cancelled by the U.S. government in 1971). This aircraft, with its underslung turbojet engine nacelles, delta-winged planform and pointed nosecone first-flew on March 2nd, 1969 - itt was a technological marvel all its own and the pride of European aero-industry for some time.
In the Soviet Union, work was begun on a similar aircraft with design headed by Alexei Tupolev's Tupelov OKB. The aircraft was constructed by Voronezh Aircraft Production Association (Voronezh, Russia) and exhibited a very similar outward appearance - perhaps driven by the aerodynamic/technological limitations in high-speed flight requiring such a finely-pointed instrument with few protrusions. Preliminary work was on the drawing boards as soon as the early-1960s and furthered through an official commitment in July of 1963. Some five flyable aircraft were commissioned for in this early phase and expected by the middle of the decade.
A full-scale prototype was completed using a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 "Fishbed" supersonic fighter to test out various systems and sub-systems in-flight. Against the Concorde, the Tu-144 had a slightly different wing mainplane planform and was the less technologically advanced of the two despite the obvious outward similarities. Extendable canards were also installed on the Tu-144 for improved controlling, particularly at low speeds and altitudes - this feature the Concorde lacked. Additionally, the internal systems - from navigation to the engines - were completely Soviet in its design and workmanship. The Tu-144 carried a braking parachute to retard its runway reach when landing and featured the same Concorde-like, down-dropping nosecone to provide better ground-running visibility for the pilots.
For propulsion, the Kuznetsov NK-144 turbofan engine was selected to power the new aircraft. This product offered the required thrust/power output for the large plane and was readily available for the project. The major drawback of this installation was its fuel-thirsty nature which restricted range to about 1,600 miles (the Concorde could fly out to 4,500 miles in comparison) and it required afterburners to reach its supersonic cruise flight envelope (the Concorde did not).
The afterburner capability of the engine allowed for the needed take-off and cruising capability and four would power the aircraft in flight. The engines would be slung under the wings as in the Concorde and feature automatic variable ramps / flaps to control airflow to the engines.
The initial Tu-144 form was the Tu-144 prototype and this recorded its first flight near Moscow on December 31st, 1968. The European Concorde was second in the skies as it completed its first flight on March 2nd, 1969. However, the Concorde entered service first in January of 1976 with the Tu-144 trailing in November of 1977. It went supersonic for the first time on June 5th, 1969 (beating the Concorde by four months) and marked the first commercial aircraft to exceed Mach 2 on May 26th, 1970. The Tu-144 was flown for the first time in public at the 1971 Paris Air Show and production of twenty units spanned from 1965 until 1979.
Development was heavily delayed by the crash of a Tu-144 during an unauthorized display deviation at Paris Air Show in 1973 that killed the entire flight crew of six as well as eight bystanders on the ground (while destroying some fifteen French homes in the process). The crash was a nightmare for the Soviets as much as it was an embarrassment on the world stage. It appears that the aircraft was pushed too far (and perhaps its engines had flamed out) and fell apart (its wings broke off) while in a dive during the exhibition despite Soviet / Russian claims to the contrary - this involving the Tu-144 pilots trying to avoid a French Mirage fighter that was attempting to photograph the supersonic traveler. The Tu-144 program seemingly never recovered from this tragic event.
The prototype was followed by a single, and then nine total, pre-series Tu-144S aircraft. The mark was outfitted with 4 x NK-144A series engine. The Tu-144D mark switched to the new Kolesov RD-36-51 turbojet which increased operational ranges and there were plans of increasing this even further in a future engine revision. The final Tu-144D airframe was never completed at the time of the program's cancellation.
The Tu-144D carried a crew of three with seating for 140 passengers in a two-class arrangement. The structure had an overall length of 215.5 feet with a wingspan of 95 feet and a height of 41 feet. Empty weight reached 218,500lb against an MTOW of 456,000lb and power was from 4 x Kolesov RD-36-51 turbojet engine of 44,122lb thrust each. Maximum speed reached Mach 2.15 and cruising was done near Mach 2.0. Range was out to 4,000 miles and its service ceiling was 65,600 feet. Rate-of-climb was listed at 9,840 feet-per-minute.
The Tu-144S was the model that entered formal commercial service on December 26th, 1975 but this was used to haul cargo and mail from Moscow to Alma-Ata (now Almaty, Kazakhstan) for a time. Passenger service finally began on November 1st, 1977. On May 23rd, 1978, a pre-series Tu-144D crash landed after an onboard fire began while on delivery just outside of Moscow and killed two of its engineering crew in the ensuing action. By this time, Soviet officials held waning interest in the technological nightmare that had become their prized Tu-144.
The writing for the program was on the wall and Soviet authorities officially cancelled it on July 1st, 1983. The type would remain in service solely in the research role but its passenger- and cargo-hauling days were over. Beginning in 1985, it served the Soviet space program related to the "Buran" space shuttle and one Tu-144D was modified for the research role during the mid-1980s.
In an unprecedented agreement between two former foes, the United States and Russia agreed to use the Tu-144, in a modified Tu-144LL guise, for NASA's "High-Speed Research" (HSR) flight test program and this model carried more powerful NK-321 afterburning turbofan engines of 55,000lb thrust (each unit). It was the final Tu-144D to be built (this in 1981). The airframe was outfitted with data collection equipment and special instrument panels to undertake a series of high-speed-related tests spanning 1998 until 1999.
Beyond operating and repair costs, the Tu-144 suffered from a myriad of issues during its tumultuous service life: it was remembered as a loud aircraft for its passengers and was inherently limited in range. Its supersonic nature restricted it to a very remote route over Soviet territory and structural weaknesses were uncovered that showcased fatigue cracks beyond acceptable (and safe) limits. Couple all this with the rise in operating costs (particularly in fuel and oil) and the Tu-144 was a doomed aircraft rushed into service. An attempt to sell the design (as the Tu-144MR) to the Soviet military was made by Tupolev but even they stayed away.
The Tu-244 was a proposed successor to the Tu-144 that went nowhere. Meanwhile, the Concorde, with its own history of high-profile tragic crashes, recorded its last flight in 2003 but remained the true "winner" of the supersonic passenger travel race of the Cold War.