The Tupolev TU-144 has been widely known by many names since it first flew back in 1968. One of only two supersonic transport aircraft to see commercial service, the 144 was also known as the Charger by NATO and more colloquially as ‘Corncordski’ by members of the western press who used the resemblance to British Airways’ and Air France’s Concorde as an opportunity for some cheap sub editing.
Although not as successful as it’s Western European Counterpart, the TU 144 had a major impact on the world of aviation in the ten years that it remained in active service.
The history of the Tupolev 144 mirrored that of Concorde’s in many ways and it was felt in some quarters that Soviet espionage had uncovered designs for their supersonic rival. In turn, the battle for both aircraft to become airborne became similar to that of the Space Race that ran almost concurrently.
As for the 144, the original design was publicly unveiled in 1962 and by the end of the decade the aircraft had scored a number of notable ‘firsts’. With the prototype taking its maiden flight on 31st December 1968, it became the first supersonic commercial aircraft to successfully take to the skies. Within twelve months it had broken the sound barrier and became the first commercial plane to exceed Mach II.
Development and setbacks
Although early flights had been successful, the TU 144 was still some way from being introduced as a regular member of the Soviet Union’s commercial fleet. That particular stage of the aircraft’s development was delayed further after a high profile crash at the Paris Air Show in 1973.
The TU-144S involved in the tragedy was in the air when it suddenly began to plummet. As the pilot attempted to pull out of the dive the aircraft came apart, killing all six crew along with eight more on the ground.
The reasons for the accident were complex and initially the Soviets blamed the existence of a French Mirage chaser plane. The black box suggested otherwise but there are firm beliefs that the Mirage was present at the time of the accident.
The TU-144s entered mail and freight service on Boxing Day 1975 with commercial passenger flights commencing just under a year later. Sadly, it was a brief appearance and just over six months later, the Tupolev 144 was grounded in June 1978, one week after another fatal crash that killed two crew members. The aircraft had been blighted by technical problems from the start and the May 1978 incident was to spell the end for this most spectacular feat of aeronautical engineering.
Cancellation and later use
Aeroflot freight services continued for a time but the TU-144 programme was finally cancelled by government decree in 1983. The aircraft that remained were initially used for flight training and as flying laboratories.
The last two remaining TU 144s remain mothballed as plans continue to put them on permanent display. There has been a report that one will be commissioned to carry the Olympic Flame as part of the celebrations for the 2014 Winter Olympics but even the chances for this temporary reappearance seem remote to say the least.