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Futures past: The Tupolev Tu-144

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The Russian clone of the Concorde, the Tupolev Tu-144, had a brief, but spectacular lifespan. It came to an abrupt end when the plane crashed during an air show in Paris, killing 14 people. It is an example of a forgotten technology, built for a future that never came. Like the French-British Concorde, the Tupolev Tu-144 is no longer around, and today, it is no longer possible for ordinary consumers to experience a supersonic flight across continents.

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EMILIE LINDEBURG

Research Assistant

Posted Jul 30, 2019 in Transport & Mobility Article from Scenario 03:2018

During the Cold War, competition was fierce between East and West, and it went on in several areas. The race between the US and the Soviet Union to be the first in space is probably the best known example, but the combatants also competed within the atmosphere to take to the skies and, not least, reach their destinations first. To do that, they had to move faster than the speed of sound. The Western initiative came from England and France in the form of the supersonic passenger jet, the Concorde, which was developed from 1962 – and soon afterwards, the Soviet counterpart appeared under the name of Tupolev Tu-144.

The planes were a grand step for the aviation industry, and indeed, the Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144 were not the only supersonic projects to take off during this period. Boeing and Lockheed had their projects, too; supersonic transport was the future, and in the West, it was hoped that a plane would be able to cover the distance between the United States and Europe in just a few hours. Even today, that sounds quite appealing.

Even though the Russians initiated their project slightly later than England and France, the Tupolev Tu-144 made its maiden flight in December 1968. This was a very important milestone that put the Soviets in a leading position, ahead of the West. They kept up this standard as the Tu-144, in June 1969, broke through the sound barrier at 343 m/s. It definitely looked as if the race for supersonic planes would be won by the Soviet Union.

The plane was demonstrated at several airshows so the rest of the world could marvel at the Soviet triumph. However, the public noted that the Tu-144 looked remarkably like the Concorde – to such an extent that the West was buzzing with rumours of espionage, and the plane became popularly known as the ‘Concordski’. Still, the Tu-144 was larger and equipped with small distinctive wings just behind the cockpit. Also, the nose of the plane was lowered when it was in the air to allow the pilot a better view. Espionage or not, the Tu-144 was, on the whole, a beautiful landmark, and a cause of pride in the Soviet Union.

However, the glory did not last. In 1973, Paris witnessed the fatal crash of the Tu-144 in what should have been another international display of the plane’s superiority and power. The Concorde had just been demonstrated when the Tu-144 took off. Once airborne, the pilot suddenly dived – for still unknown reasons – the wings were ripped off, and the plane crashed into a hotel where eight people were killed in addition to the six men on board. This would subsequently cause considerable problems for the Tu-144 whose troubled birth as a passenger airliner was influenced by the events. Not surprisingly, boarding the plane did not feel entirely safe, even if certain adjustments were made. The exclusive plane fell terribly short of the expectations of high-speed luxury, with its almost insufferable noise from the engines, unstable alarm systems, toilets out of order, and frequent delays. In a 2015 British account of the history of supersonic planes, the writer Jonathan Glancey notes that, moreover, the comfort aboard was quite unacceptable. It was, he writes, as if no one had really considered that the plane would actually carry passengers one fine day. There weren’t that many fine days, either; all in all, the Tu144 only made 55 return flights.

It is true that the British-French Concorde remained in service until 2003, but since then, supersonic air transport has not quite been on the agenda. It begs the question why that is the case. The original idea was a rapid and exclusive service for a well-off clientele. Being able to save time was a particular advantage if you had a meeting far away, and too few hours in the day for an urgent assignment. Today, you wouldn’t hesitate to conduct the meeting as a video conference instead of going halfway around the world. So, you may be tempted to think that the same market simply wouldn’t exist today. On the other hand, NASA has invested USD 248 million in the X-Plane which could become the renaissance of the supersonic passenger plane. Its construction commences in 2019 and is expected to be finished in 2021.

This time the plane is meant to appeal to a wider consumer segment. Moreover, the sound level should not cause tinnitus in the passengers. Efforts are also made to reduce the fuel consumption considerably, which must be said to be a step in the right direction for the much-criticised aviation industry. One may hope that we’ve learned a little from the past, the noise level will be tolerable, and the seats comfortable.

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