Thursday, April 14, 2011

The supersonic Tupolev TU-144 “Concordski” disaster

             A result of the cold war's technology rivalry when the Soviet Union copied many things the west made including the Concorde and Space Shuttle. The Tupolev TU-144 was one of the Soviets least successful project. Built as a competitor to the Anglo-French Concorde from modified plans stolen from the French it was the first supersonic commercial aircraft beating Concorde by two months.

            In a story leaden with political intrigue, the French did their utmost to wrong-foot the Russians at the Paris Airshow of 1973, including halving the time alloted to them for the demonstration flight of the Tupolev TU-144, otherwise known as “Concordski” over here in the west.

             A name derived in no small part from the fact that the designs for the Tupolev were taken directly from French designs of the real Concorde, as well as the striking similarities between the two aeroplanes.

            Matters worsened when the: “French sent up a Mirage III jet to photograph the TU-144 in flight, but did not tell the Russians.” And it is here that our story of death, destruction and rather a lot of finger-pointing begins.

          Since the two aircraft were in such ridiculously close proximity to each other while in the air, problems were bound to arise. And as the Tupolev and the Mirage both realized that they were on a collision course, the crew of the Tupolev took evasive action, but: “the plane stalled and then when they tried to recover from the stall they overstressed the air frame causing the plane to break-up and crash,…”

            It is speculated that the pilot of the Tupolev pushed the aircraft too hard, which is a reasonable assumption since the whole thing snapped in two. The resulting tangle of airframe, engines and fuselage was hurled into the ground in a searing fireball, obliterating the six people aboard the Tupolev and slaughtering eight people on the ground.

            In total, sixty more people were injured and fifteen houses were utterly destroyed in the carnage and mayhem that ensued this deliciously flame-fueled aeronautical armageddon.

          The civilian duties of the Tupolev TU-144 were forever left like those lives touched by those survivors and relatives of those injured and killed at the Paris Airshow of 1973 - shattered and broken into innumerable shards, never to be a reassembled.
         The sad and miserable moral of this story is that one man’s technology is another man’s poison. Had the Russians stood more closely by one of their own proverbs “keep friends close and enemies closer”, they might have spotted the devil in the details they were stealing from the British and the French engineers…

         The TU-144 flew again in the mid-1990s, when Boeing and  NASA partnered with Tupolev to test supersonic flight. using a heavily modified TU-144D was renamed TU-144LL and set up as a flying test laboratory for future supersonic development. Developed for NASA's High-Speed Civil Transport program it made 32 flights up to 1999 near Moscow. Since then Boeing has shelved plans for a supersonic plane deciding to continue improvements on their 777 series jets. NASA's part in the project has also stopped as their hopes for large scale use of supersonic aircraft had proven too costly.


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