The ‘original Concorde’: Soviet-made Tupolev Tu-144 was world’s first airliner to go supersonic

It was a tragedy which made headlines around the world and marked the beginning of the end for Concorde, the world’s most famous supersonic passenger airliner.

Air France Flight 4590 crashed during take-off on this day 21 years ago, killing all 109 people onboard. A little over three years later, the global Concorde fleet was retired.

But whilst the ultra-fast plane remains a global icon, its Russian-built competitor is far less well-known.

On December 31, 1968, three months before Concorde’s first test flight, the Tupolev Tu-144 – which was dubbed the ‘Konkordski’ due to its resemblance to its Western competitor – was unveiled by the Moscow-based Voronezh Aircraft Production Association.

Named after A.N. Tupolev, the Soviet engineer who designed it, the plane was wheeled out of a secret hangar and successfully completed a 38-minute trip at record-setting speeds.

At the start of the following June, the plane became the first passenger airliner to go faster than the speed of sound, beating the British-French Concorde by four months.

In May 1970, the airliner then became the world’s first commercial transport plane to exceed Mach 2, or 1522.41 miles per hour.

But it was also dogged by disaster – the most famous being when it fell out of the sky and burst into flames at the Paris Air Show on June 3, 1973, killing six crew members and eight people on the ground, including three children.

Its myriad design flaws also meant that it was so loud that passengers reported being unable to have a conversation whilst onboard.  

On December 31, 1968, three months before Concorde’s first test flight, the Tupolev Tu-144 – which was dubbed the ‘Konkordski’ due to its resemblance to its Western competitor’ – was unveiled by the Moscow-based Voronezh Aircraft Production Association. Above: The plane in Germany in 1971

Named after A.N. Tupolev, the Soviet engineer who designed it, the plane was wheeled out of a secret hangar and successfully completed a 38-minute trip at record-setting speeds

Named after A.N. Tupolev, the Soviet engineer who designed it, the plane was wheeled out of a secret hangar and successfully completed a 38-minute trip at record-setting speeds

The incident at the Paris Air Show set progress on the airliner back, meaning Concorde won the race to be the first to launch a passenger service in 1975.

Two years later – on November 1, 1977 – the Tupolev Tu-144 finally welcomed customers on an Aeroflot route between Moscow and Alma-Ata (now Almaty) in Kazakhstan.

The plane carried passengers at a speed of around 1,200mph and at an average height of 52,000ft.

However, the following year, the commercial service was stopped after another test flight crash and a string of failures.

The Tupolev Tu-144 continued to fly cargo routes until it was finally grounded in 1983. 

Like Concorde, it was prohibitively expensive to run the Tupolev Tu-144 and it was plagued by malfunctions.

Unlike its Western competitor, the plane was bigger, heavier and less technologically advanced. It was also loud and uncomfortable for passengers.

Concorde's Air France Flight 4590 (pictured) crashed during take-off on this day 21 years ago, killing all 109 people onboard. A little over three years later, the global Concorde fleet was retired. But whilst the ultra-fast plane remains a global icon, its Russian-built competitor is far less well-known

Concorde’s Air France Flight 4590 (pictured) crashed during take-off on this day 21 years ago, killing all 109 people onboard. A little over three years later, the global Concorde fleet was retired. But whilst the ultra-fast plane remains a global icon, its Russian-built competitor is far less well-known

Like Concorde, it was prohibitively expensive to run the Tupolev Tu-144 and it was plagued by malfunctions. Unlike its Western competitor, the plane was bigger, heavier and less technologically advanced. It was also loud and uncomfortable for passengers. Above: Its interior

Like Concorde, it was prohibitively expensive to run the Tupolev Tu-144 and it was plagued by malfunctions. Unlike its Western competitor, the plane was bigger, heavier and less technologically advanced. It was also loud and uncomfortable for passengers. Above: Its interior

Whilst the Tu-144 was larger and more powerful than Concorde, it was also 20 tonnes heavier, meaning its aerodynamic performance was not as good: Above: Air hostesses are seen smiling at a press event for the plane in 1969

Whilst the Tu-144 was larger and more powerful than Concorde, it was also 20 tonnes heavier, meaning its aerodynamic performance was not as good: Above: Air hostesses are seen smiling at a press event for the plane in 1969

Concorde had pioneered some cutting-edge technology – such as an electronic fly-by-wire control system and carbon-based brakes.

Its advanced systems meant its wings also slightly changed shape during flight to reduce drag.

By contrast, whilst the Tu-144 was larger and more powerful than Concorde, it was also 20 tonnes heavier, meaning its aerodynamic performance was not as good.

At the 1973 Paris Air Show, the Tu-144’s pilots were seeking to wow the spectators as they competed with Concorde, which was also on display.

After Concorde had taken off and put on a dazzling display, the Tu-144 took off and made an initial 360-degree turn, which was successful.

But when it levelled off and began descending towards the ground, the plane could not withstand the stress it came under and it began to break up.

The plane then crashed in a nearby village, killing everyone onboard as well as eight French civilians on the ground.

The plane was dogged by disasters ¿ the most famous being when it fell out of the sky and burst into flames at the Paris Air Show on June 3, 1973, killing six crew members and eight people on the ground, including three children. Above: The aftermath of the crash

The plane was dogged by disasters – the most famous being when it fell out of the sky and burst into flames at the Paris Air Show on June 3, 1973, killing six crew members and eight people on the ground, including three children. Above: The aftermath of the crash 

After Concorde had taken off and put on a dazzling display, the Tu-144 took off and made an initial 360-degree turn, which was successful. But when it levelled off and began descending towards the ground, the plane could not withstand the stress it came under and it began to break up. The plane then crashed in a nearby village, killing everyone onboard as well as eight French civilians on the ground

After Concorde had taken off and put on a dazzling display, the Tu-144 took off and made an initial 360-degree turn, which was successful. But when it levelled off and began descending towards the ground, the plane could not withstand the stress it came under and it began to break up. The plane then crashed in a nearby village, killing everyone onboard as well as eight French civilians on the ground

The Tu-144 is seen in France in 1973. On November 1, 1977 - the Tupolev Tu-144 finally welcomed customers on an Aeroflot route between Moscow and Alma-Ata (now Almaty) in Kazakhstan

The Tu-144 is seen in France in 1973. On November 1, 1977 – the Tupolev Tu-144 finally welcomed customers on an Aeroflot route between Moscow and Alma-Ata (now Almaty) in Kazakhstan

From left to right: The Tupolev Tu-144's test pilot Mikha Kozlov, the engine's commander Edouard Elian, the chief engineer A.A. Tupolev, the academician A.N. Tupolev and engineers Vladimir Benderov and Yuri Seliverstov

From left to right: The Tupolev Tu-144’s test pilot Mikha Kozlov, the engine’s commander Edouard Elian, the chief engineer A.A. Tupolev, the academician A.N. Tupolev and engineers Vladimir Benderov and Yuri Seliverstov 

Whilst some put the crash down to pilot error, some Russian observers claimed that a Mirage fighter aircraft which was also being exhibited had caused the pilot to swerve and lose control.

Regardless of the exact reason for the crash, the disaster shook the world’s faith in the Russian plane.

It was not until 1977 that passengers started to fly on the Tu-144 – a year after Concorde began doing so.

However, passengers said that they were unable to even have a conversation onboard because the noise from the aircraft was so loud.

Part of the noise stemmed from the vast air conditioning units, which were necessary to prevent passengers from overheating.

Tu-144 continued to fly cargo routes until it was finally grounded in 1983. Above: Observers look at the plane during a press event

Tu-144 continued to fly cargo routes until it was finally grounded in 1983. Above: Observers look at the plane during a press event

Soviet aircraft Tupolev Tu-144 is seen, 12 December 1968, during its maiden flight. It was built under the direction of engineer Alexei Tupolev

Soviet aircraft Tupolev Tu-144 is seen, 12 December 1968, during its maiden flight. It was built under the direction of engineer Alexei Tupolev

People who travelled on the Tu-144 also complained that the seating was too cramped and that the toilets did not work.

The final straw for the plane came in 1978, when a modified variant crashed on a pre-delivery flight to operator Aeroflot.

When Aeroflot decided to pull the plug on the plane in 1982, the Tu-144 had carried out just 102 commercial flights – only 55 of which had passengers onboard. 

By comparison, Concorde flew more than 50,000 flights with British Airways alone. 

By the end of the 1980s, all the Tu-144s had been mothballed, after a brief period in which some where used to train crew for planned Soviet space shuttle flights.  

Overall, 16 Tu-144s were built, compared to 20 Concordes.  

A history of Concorde and how a crash contributed to its demise 

Concorde changed the game of long distance travel by reaching extreme speeds and using a drooping nose for takeoff. 

The planes were one of the most advanced aircraft ever to fly passengers around the world with just 20 built over a 15-year period.  

But on this day 21 years ago, Concorde’s Air France Flight 4590 en route from Paris to New York crashed shortly after take-off due to an engine fire, killing all 109 people onboard as well as four people on the ground. 

The crash marked the beginning of the end for Concorde, the world’s most famous supersonic passenger airliner. A little over three years after the tragedy, the global Concorde fleet was retired. 

The Concorde fleets of British Airways and Air France were grounded pending an inquiry and although transatlantic flights resumed from London and Paris following a safety upgrade in November 2001 it wasn’t to last.

In April 2003 it is announced that Concorde would be taken out of service due to a sharp dip in passenger numbers amid global economic problems and the aftermath of September 11.

The last Concorde touched down in October 2003 after a special flight from London Heathrow to Airbus UK’s Filton airfield in Bristol.

Now the 17 remaining Concorde jets which once hosted celebrities and royalty are dotted about the world in museums or storage. 

Among Concorde’s most distinctive features was its pointed nose, which drooped downwards during take-off to allow for better pilot visibility.

Its triangular ‘delta’ wings were also instantly recognisable and offered stability and efficiency.

Innovations born with Concorde advanced aeronautics, including the weight-saving aluminium for the body and the first ever use of electronic controls to replace manual ones.

According to BAE Systems, the estimated final overall cost of developing the Concorde was around 1.6 billion dollars.

Its inaugural scheduled passenger flights were on January 21, 1976: the Paris-Rio route operated by Air France and London-Bahrain by British Airways. 

Jock Lowe, who was the longest serving Concorde pilot, said flying the aircraft was ‘like driving a sports car compared with a normal car’.

He continued: ‘The most exhilarating part was the power you had on take-off. The acceleration was really quite special.’

Concorde quickly established itself as the way to travel for the discerning tycoon and Hollywood star.

Its fine wines and five-star cuisine assured it a large, well-heeled fan base, with regular passengers including the likes of Joan Collins, Sir Paul McCartney and Diana, Princess of Wales.

But shorter travel times came at a price: a return London-New York ticket in 2003 cost around £8,300 pounds ($11,960).    

A TIMELINE OF CONCORDE – THE SUPERSONIC AIRLINER 

November 1956: A UK committee featuring representatives from aircraft and engine manufacturers as well as government officials is established to analyse the feasibility of a supersonic airliner.

November 1962: A draft treaty is signed by the UK and France to commit to jointly building a supersonic airliner.

March 1969: A Concorde prototype flies for the first time, from Toulouse in the south of France.

January 1976: British Airways and Air France launch commercial Concorde flights.

January 1980: British Airways takes delivery of its seventh and final Concorde.

July 1985: Singer Phil Collins performs at Live Aid concerts in the UK and US on the same day by flying on Concorde.

February 1996: The fastest transatlantic crossing by an airliner is recorded by Concorde on a New York to London flight which took just two hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

July 2000: An Air France Concorde en route from Paris to New York crashes shortly after take-off due to an engine fire, killing all 109 people on board as well as four people on the ground. The Concorde fleets of British Airways and Air France are grounded pending an inquiry.

November 2001: Transatlantic Concorde flights resume from London and Paris following a safety upgrade.

April 2003: It is announced that Concorde will be taken out of service due to a sharp dip in passenger numbers amid global economic problems and the aftermath of September 11.

October 2003: Concorde touches down for the final time after a special flight from London Heathrow to Airbus UK’s Filton airfield in Bristol.

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