The Tu-144 programme was started only in 1963, when the Soviet Government had told Tupolev that, although the equivalent Aerospatiale/ British Aerospace Concorde programme had started earlier, the Soviet aircraft should be the first to be flown - and it was.

To speed things up, the design team led by Alexei Tupolev, son of the founder of the bureau, was allowed to draw over 1,000 specialists from other aviation programmes. Mikoyan also fitted a new wing shaped like that of the Tu-144 to a MiG-21, to test aerodynamic qualities.

The prototype was completed at Tupolev's design workshop in Moscow in mid-1968. As was usual with Tupolev prototypes, it was then disassembled and taken by road to the then-secret research airport at Zhukovsky, then re-assembled. This took until October, when ground and engine tests began. The aircraft was ready to fly by mid-December, but bad weather delayed its first flight until 31 December.

During testing, changes were made to the wing (in sweep, anhedral, chord and area) while canards were added just aft of the cockpit to improve lift at low speeds.

The specifications calling for the ability to carry 120 passengers at Mach 2.35 were met, but the Tu-144's range proved to be only about 3,500km instead of the specified more-than-6,500km (3,500nm), however, because of the Kuznetsov NK-144's higher-than-expected fuel consumption. This would mean that, on the route from Moscow to Khabarovsk, an intermediate landing would be needed losing the time savings, which justified the programme.

Even worse was the loss of the second production aircraft at the 1973 Paris Air Show. While no report was ever issued on the accident, Tupolev sources maintain that it was caused by the crew taking emergency action to avoid hitting a French air force Dassault Mirage whose crew was taking photographs.

To solve the engine problem, the Soviet Union ordered the Kolesov design bureau to develop the new Kuznetsov RD-36-51A engine for the long-distanceTu-144D, which was flown in November 1974.

Although Aeroflot was losing its enthusiasm for the aircraft, crew training began in late 1974, and Moscow-Alma Ata cargo and mail services began in December 1975. Certification was eventually awarded on 1 November, 1977 and, using the short-range NK-144 engines, the ministry of aviation production began services on the Moscow-Alma Ata route. Over the next seven months, 50 return services were flown and 3,200 passengers were carried. In May 1978 the first production Tu-144D suffered an electrical fire and was destroyed during an emergency landing.

Although Tupolev engineers believed that the cause of the fire was simple to rectify and eliminate, political support for the Tu-144 was ended by the accident.

Two aircraft were kept in service for research-work purposes on a range of programmes, including investigating ozone-layer problems, until November 1990. By then, the 16 completed Tu-144s had been flown just 4,110h in 2,556 flights.

Source: Flight International