Moments after the Concorde had swept past the tens of thousands of spectators gathered for the 1973 Paris Air Show finale, the similarly delta-winged and needle-nosed Tu-144 roared low over Le Bourget airfield. Suddenly the Soviet plane made a steep climb, then the nose dropped, the left wing broke off, flames flashed, and the rest of the aircraft fell in pieces onto the town of Goussainville, killing 15 residents as well as the plane’s six crew members.
The crash and the ultimate failure of the Soviet Union’s supersonic passenger jet program may have marred the legacy of Andrei Tupolev, the person most closely associated with the Tu-144, but they did not diminish his accomplishments. As one of the world’s most prolific and influential aircraft designers, he personified the icons and innovators theme of Robb Report’s January issue. During his half century with the Soviet aviation industry, which began in the early 1920s and continued until his death at age 84 in 1972, six months before the Tu-144 crash, he and his team at the Tupolev bureau designed more than 100 long-range passenger jets and military bombers. Including the supersonic jet—for which his son, Aleksei, served as chief designer—35 Tupolev designs went into production, and a number of early models established distance and speed records. In the 1920s, Tupolev was building all-metal aircraft when other planes were made mostly of wood and their wings were covered by fabric.
Associates described the bald and bespectacled Tupolev as demanding, witty, at times temperamental and rude, and frequently foulmouthed. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of aircraft and a distaste for bureaucracy; he preferred that decisions be made quickly, as a young Brooklyn couple discovered one evening in 1959. During a dinner party for the Soviet Union’s deputy premier at a Manhattan restaurant, Tupolev wandered into an adjacent room where an engagement party was being held. He asked the couple through an interpreter if they knew when they were going to marry. When they said no, he implored them to set a date that instant. The bride-to-be whispered in her fiancé’s ear, and then he turned to Tupolev and said, “It’s next June 14.” Tupolev smiled proudly and said that he would send the wedding announcement to TASS, the Soviet news agency.
Although he was reluctant to do so, Tupolev proved himself as capable of re-creating planes as he was at creating them, when, in 1944, three U.S. B-29 bombers made emergency landings in Vladivostok. Stalin had the planes impounded and ordered Tupolev to use them as a blueprint for a long-range Soviet bomber. Tupolev’s Tu-4, which went into production within a year, was an almost-exact replica of the B-29. Tupolev initially resisted Stalin’s order, believing that his own bomber design was superior to the B-29. However, he was not in a position to protest, for he had only recently been released from prison.
Tupolev was arrested in 1937, during the Stalin purge, and dubiously charged with being a longtime agent for the French intelligence service. Incarcerated near Moscow with hundreds of other aviation specialists, he continued to design planes until gaining his freedom in 1943.
The author of the new coffee-table book Concorde (Zenith Press, 2006) suggests that Tupolev’s work with the B-29s was not the first time he cribbed another’s plans. Frédéric Beniada claims that the Soviets stole the original Concorde design from the French—an ironic accusation considering the charges that landed Tupolev in prison. The similarity in appearances between the Concorde and the Tu-144 prompted immediate accusations of plagiarism. Indeed, after the plane made its maiden flight on New Year’s Eve, 1968, two months before the Concorde flew, it was dubbed the Concordski.
After the Paris crash, more than four years passed before Tu-144s began carrying passengers—on weekly flights between Moscow and the Kazakhstan city of Almaty that were never more than half full. Six months later, after a test-run crash that killed two crew members, the Soviets, citing inefficiencies, permanently grounded the Tu-144 fleet. “In terms of investment and return,” opined one Western airline official, “the Tu-144 may well rank as the biggest single failure in the whole history of aviation.”
The Tu-144 was a failure, surmises Concorde author Beniada, because of its circumstances, not its design. “What,” he posits rhetorically, “it may be asked—apart from a demonstration of technological achievement—was the value of a supersonic jetliner to a communist country like the USSR which, officially at least, did not boast wealthy citizens hankering to be whisked at high speed to the four corners of the globe?”
In light of the advent of capitalism in Russia, the Tupolev supersonic transport, in addition to demonstrating technological achievement, also may have showed how an innovation can be too far ahead of its time.