While the Concorde is often hailed as a triumph of modern engineering, the first supersonic transport to ever fly was actually Soviet-built. The Tupolev TU-144 flew even faster than the Concorde and it carried more passengers. What happened to this aircraft and why have so few heard about it?Getting the TU-144 built before the Concorde (and therefore proving Soviet superiority to the world) was allegedly a high priority for the Soviets.
The plane was developed under a tight schedule and relied on a few less advanced aviation technologies. The TU-144 suffered three known crashes, the most famous being at the 1973 Paris Air Show (there are conflicting theories on the cause of the 1973 crash). In regular passenger service, the TU-144 proved unreliable. Only one flight a week was permitted on a single route between Moscow and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
It is rumoured that Soviet leaders were nervous about the 144’s airworthiness and ordered it’s chief designer Alexei Tupolev to personally inspect every 144. Supersonic travel proved expensive and could only be offered as a ‘premium’ product in commercial airline travel. In west, the Concorde could be marketed as a luxury product to serve the wealthy and airfares could be sold at prices well beyond typical airfares.
In the communist Soviet Union, where egalitarian principles demanded that displays of wealth or class be subdued, the TU-144 airfare had to be set similar to the typical Soviet airfare. This meant that the 144 had to be operated at a loss for Aeroflot, and Aeroflot couldn’t wait to stop flying it.
The TU-144 was removed from regular passenger service less than a year after it began (although cargo service was offered for a couple more years). In the 1990’s, a modified version of Tu-144 was utilized by Tupolev, NASA, and other aerospace conglomerates as a research testbed for a second-generation supersonic jetliner.