THE Concorde will go down in history for being an icon of supersonic passenger travel – but it was actually beaten to the skies by a lesser-known jet created by the Russians.
The USSR’s Tupolev Tu-144 looked remarkably similar to its Concorde competitor, when it was unveiled at the Paris Air Show in 1971, earning it the nickname of “Concordski”.
Compared to its Anglo-French counterpart, it was dubbed by its makers as “quieter and cleaner”, and with the Soviet’s aerospace success at the time, commanded initial respect.
During that year, the Soviets had achieved the first probe-landing on Mars and it was unsurprising they would attempt to take on the West in the supersonic passenger travel industry.
The Tupolev Tu-144 beat Concorde to the skies, making its maiden voyage on December 31, 1968 – two months before its competitor.
Soviet aviation expert and engineering professor at Buffalo State University, Ilya Grinberg, said to CNN: “Expectations were high. The entire USSR was extremely proud of the Tu-144, and the Soviet people had no doubt that it was better than Concorde. And it was so pretty!
“The design of the Tupolev was not a result of espionage. Although they look alike, they are rather different planes with many different aspects. External similarities are based on functional criteria and required parameters. But it is certainly possible that familiarity with the outlines of Concorde could have influenced some conceptual decisions.”
Compared to the Concorde, Tupolev Tu-144 was slightly larger and faster, and had winglets located behind the cockpit which improved handling.
But despite its impressive start, tragedy struck mid-flight during the 1973 Paris Air Show.
The jet crashed, killing all six crew on board, leading Concordski being considered one of civil aviation’s biggest failures.
Eight people on the ground also lost their lives, with debris crashing into the village of Goussainville.
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Some conspiracy theories claim that the Soviet jet crashed to avoid hitting a french Mirage fighter that was trying to take images of it.
However Ilya has refuted the claims, and said: “The Mirage had nothing to do with that crash. It was just speculation to divert attention from the real cause, which was drastic manoeuvring of the Tu-144 that exceeded allowable stress limits.”
Following the devastating crash, the Tu-144 dream never fully recovered.
The Soviet programme was delayed for four years after the crash, giving time for the Concorde to start service first.
Tu-144 joined just behind in 1977 when it welcomed on board its first passengers.
The launch was not a resounding success, with conditions being cramped, uncomfortably noisy and the jet prone to breakdowns.
In total 55 return flights took place on Tu-144 jets, with many suffering in-flight chaos from alarms that wouldn’t turn off to engine failure.
Tragedy struck again on May 23, 1978, when another crash took place near Moscow.
The jet was forced to do an emergency landing and two flight engineers lost their lives, prompting a ban on passenger flights.
The 17 Tu-144 jets, some of them prototypes, were retired quietly a few years after, and the programme finally closed in 1984.
The last Tu-144 flight took place in 1999, thanks to a NASA-funded research programme, and the jet used had been flown just 27 times.
On April 10 2003 Air France and British Airways announced they would be retiring their fleets of Concorde aircraft.
Both carriers blamed low passenger numbers and rising maintenance costs for the fleets’ retirement.
Passenger numbers took a hit after a Concorde aircraft crashed just minutes after taking off from a Paris airport, in July 2000.
All 109 people on board and four on the ground were killed after the plane ran over a piece of titanium during take off, which burst the tyre and caused the fuel tank to ignite.
Numbers fell again following the 9/11 atrocities in 2001, which had an immediate impact on the number of people choosing to fly.
NASA has unveiled a new supersonic jet it hopes will travel between London and New York in three hours.
The QueSST jet, dubbed the new, quieter Concorde, could begin test flights as early as 2021.