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The story of the world’s first supersonic civilian aircraft: powerful but destitute

The world’s first supersonic civilian transport aircraft was not the famous Concorde from the Anglo-French alliance but a Soviet model created to demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet Union. then with the world.

It was December 1968, and a truly groundbreaking model was preparing to make its maiden flight.

It is shaped like a giant white arrow, a futuristic 1960s design. This plane is so well-designed that it can fly at the speeds people have. thought it was too fast for a passenger: the speed of a rifle bullet.

Even the nose of the plane is special: it has a pinnacle shape, and can slide down to provide a better view for the pilots when entering the runway. This design makes it look like a giant bird is about to land.

All of these descriptions sound like the famous Concorde, a plane capable of crossing the Atlantic for more than three hours. But no, on the fuselage is the symbol of the Soviet Union. It was the Tupolev Tu-144, the Concorde from the Soviet Union, and the first civilian transport aircraft to exceed the speed of sound twice.

The first flight of the Tu-144 took place about three months before Concorde. But the plane that the Western media called it “Concordski” never again fulfilled its mission to counterbalance Concorde. The cause was attributed in part to design errors, but also from a catastrophe that occurred at the 1973 Paris Air Show, right in front of the press around the world.

Like so many technological achievements during the Cold War era, the story behind the Tu-144 is also filled with political color.

In 1960, the leader of the Soviet Union at that time, Nikita Khrushschev learned about a new aircraft project jointly carried out by Britain and France to “revive” the aircraft industry. That passenger plane – the Concorde – was designed to fly at supersonic speeds, reducing travel time from Europe to the US to just a few hours. Two years later, a formal British-French agreement was signed to begin the design and production process. At the same time, supersonic projects from US firms such as Boeing and Lockheed are also on the way.

Early Soviet aviation designers used the triangular wing on fighter models such as the MiG-21

The Soviets then realized they did not have much time left. As said Jock Lowe, former Concorde pilot as well as flight operations manager for British Airway: “Concorde and Tu-144’s confrontation was marked by international relations of that period. We have a space race and the first human race to the Moon at about the same time. The main concern at the time was, which plane is faster is considered more successful. “. With fighters such as the MiG-21 or the F-104 already capable of double the speed of sound, supersonic passenger transport also seems feasible, albeit challenging.

Mr. David Kaminski-Morrow of the aviation news site Flight Global commented: “The early successes in the Soviet space race strengthened confidence in the technocratic era, and made leaders believe they could compete with Western projects.”. The Soviet Union soon surprised the West in the 1950s with the Tupolev Tu-104, their first airliner. In his Cold War book on the Tu-144, Howard Moon argues that the Tu-104 was the key to paving the way for further Soviet aerospace endeavors.

The story of the world s first supersonic civilian aircraft powerful but destitute | History

The first Soviet passenger plane, the Tu-104, completely surprised the West

During the 1950s, rapid industrialization led Soviet planners to demand even more impressive projects. “Adding to the laurels of the Soviet military aviation and space program, it has proven itself to leaders who are fascinated by the achievements of state-of-the-art industries. The tension between the economic and technical reality of the Soviet Union and the high expectations of the elite explained a lot about the following complex developments in history.

Project Tu-144 was then something that had to be successful at all costs. And in the 1960s, when the Soviet technical resources were poured into the space race, the project was negligible, according to Kaminski-Morrow. “The space race weakened the Tu-144 program because it shifted the focus towards long-range missiles away from hypersonic bomber projects, thus turning the Tu-144 project back on. into an independent civilian aircraft program. This goes against the experience of building Soviet aircraft and led developers to design from the beginning a complex supersonic aircraft that also had to satisfy both the comfort and the experience. practical – needs that they rarely need to consider. “

The story of the world s first supersonic civilian aircraft powerful but destitute | History

The Tu-144 program consumes enormous amounts of resources, in the midst of a time when the Soviet Union is focusing on the space race

Some problems soon appeared with the Tu-144. It was a project 10 to 15 years ahead of the capabilities of the Soviet aviation industry. The two main components that the Tu-144 struggled with were the brakes and engine control.

The Concorde is truly a pioneer with leading technology, including its brakes. It was one of the first to have a carbon fiber brake system, with the ability to withstand the high temperatures generated during aircraft deceleration after landing (Concorde’s landing speed was around 296 km / h). But the Russians were not able to design the same system then.

The problem is more serious than the engine. The Concorde was the first civilian aircraft to have components in a system controlled entirely by a computer – it continuously changed the shape of the air inlets to ensure the engines were running at maximum efficiency. may.

The story of the world s first supersonic civilian aircraft powerful but destitute | History

The Concorde had many technologies that the Soviets could not match at the time

Not only that, but the Concorde also has an adjustable, albeit tiny, wing-controlled flight control system to reduce drag when moving at supersonic speeds. Computer-controlled aircraft wings were unheard of before Concorde, though they are now present on many civilian aircraft.

Knowing that the Concorde was slowly taking shape, the Soviet Union poured more and more resources into the Tu-144 project. And this has proven to work, as the Soviets are still struggling in the space race with the US, they can still manage to build this plane.

Compared to Concorde, the Tu-144 was much larger. It is 67 meters longer, 3.7 meters longer than its Anglo-French rival. It is designed to fly slightly more than Mach 2 (2,158 km / h) and each of its four engines can generate about 44,000 lb (195,721 N) thrust, more than 6,000 lb (26,689 N). ) than the Concorde engine.

But since the Tu-144 gets a little more powerful, it also needs more power to take off. The dry mass of the Tu-144 is approximately 100 tons, weighing more than 20 tons for the Concorde. Part of the reason for this difference is the large wheels: Concorde has 2 front wheels, and 2 sets of 4 wheels each under the wing, while the Tu-144 also has 2 front wheels but has 12 wheels. under the wings. It is thought that by using synthetic rubber, the Russian tire is more likely to fail, so there should be more wheels in case any tire fails.

However, while the Tu-144 and Concorde look extremely similar in appearance, there are many differences on the inside, with less sophisticated solutions offered by Russian engineers compared to Concorde. Mr. Lowe said: “The Tu-144 has a less aerodynamic design, very light, but things like that are very important. We observe it and know that when used, it cannot compete (with Concorde). “

The story of the world s first supersonic civilian aircraft powerful but destitute | History

The Tu-144 and Concorde looked extremely similar, especially in flight

However, the Soviet side was completely entitled to “brag” in operating the first supersonic civilian aircraft. The Tu-144 first took off in December 1968, and first flew at supersonic speed in June 1969. The Concorde first took off in March 1969 and flew at supersonic speed in October. that year. The Soviets might claim to have won a major diplomatic victory – but they also soon had headaches trying to put the 100-ton plane into practical use.

Western observers, with their side’s prejudice about the technological superiority, argued that the only way the Soviet Union could produce the Tu-144 was through industrial espionage. From there they called the Tu-144 “Concordski”, and considered it a copy of Concorde with primitive Soviet perfection. But according to Mr. Kaminski-Morrow, the truth is not so: “There is no doubt that the concept of the Tu-144 was influenced by the Concorde project: perhaps for example the lack of a horizontal stabilizer on the rear of the aircraft, a completely different detail from the design of the aircraft. Soviet flight earlier. But from other perspectives, for example the engine body shape, shows a complete difference. The Tu-144 also needs to be coarser to withstand the harsher operating conditions. Despite intelligence contributions in the development of the Tu-144, the Soviets were still able to develop their own to solve many of the technical problems in the project. The result is an aircraft that at first glance looks like Concorde but is significantly different in many finishing details. ”

In 1973, the Soviet side officially revealed the mystery of the Tu-144 to the West at the Paris Air Show. The Tupolev airline demonstrated the second of its commercial aircraft in the show, going head-to-head with a prototype Concorde (at this stage, the Western model has yet to enter production. commercial export). Tu-144 test pilot Mikhail Kozlov hinted at the Concorde team: “Just wait to see us fly away. You will see something. ”

On June 3, 1973, the Tu-144 took off during the exhibition. Pilot Kozlov seemed intent on going past Concorde’s somewhat reserved performance the day before. Then disaster happened. The Tu-144 took off, then immediately approached the runway as if about to land, with the nose of the aircraft and landing gear lowered. But the plane suddenly increased altitude with engines running at full capacity. A few seconds later, it flew past and then burst into the air, finally falling to a nearby village. All 6 crew members and 8 villagers died in the accident.

There are several theories surrounding the cause of the Tu-144 crash. Some claim that the pilot over-navigated at low speeds, causing the aircraft to lose thrust; some claim that the cloudy skies have confused the crew. Another theory is that at the last minute, the Tu-144 had to abruptly divert to avoid an approaching French fighter to capture the Tupolev’s front nose.

The story of the world s first supersonic civilian aircraft powerful but destitute | History

The Tu-144 was able to make a strong impression at the 1973 Paris Air Show, but it crashed instead.

The crash was just a trickle with problems still going on with the most advanced aircraft from Tupolev, and the Soviet national airline, Aeroflot, began to show concern about bringing it in. commercial service. Tupolev had to solve a multitude of problems before the Tu-144 was put into service. Even then, her flights in 1975 were just for … mail instead of passenger. It was not until 1977 that the world’s first supersonic commercial aircraft was put into service.

The Soviets at that time could not find a reasonable solution to reduce noise inside the passenger compartment. Both the engine and the air-conditioning system that take the air from the air inlet into the engine make a huge noise. The air-conditioning system is very important, because the compartment becomes dangerously hot because of the heat generated by friction with the air from the aircraft’s shell.

The Concorde uses the same fuel as the radiator, so it doesn’t need the same powerful air-conditioning system as the Tu-144, and this reduces noise to an acceptable level. The obvious difference between the Tu-144 and Concorde is described by Moon in the paragraph about the first Tu-144 flight with a foreign observer: “The cabin has many drawbacks: some of the ceiling pads don’t match, the service tray is jammed, and the window coverings go down even though they aren’t pulled. The seating arrangement of 5 people per row is somewhat cramped. Not all toilets work. These drawbacks are common with newer models, but a more serious problem remains. The speaker system on the plane plays music, but few people can hear it. The strongest impression of the Tu-144 is its noise, not its speed. The combination of air friction, the large air-conditioning system and the giant motors creates ‘a roar that can be heard in Queen’s songs’ – The New York Times describes it. Passengers have complained about the hissing of wind that has made communication impossible, forcing them to communicate with others by pass-by.

Tupolev managed to put the Tu-144 into service, but this seems to show that the plane presents problems beyond its value – a project heavily politically driven has consumed resources. giant Soviet Union. In 1977, Tupolev tried to buy some engine management computers to be used on Concorde, but the British refused at the time, fearing that the Soviets would use them in bombers. .

The story of the world s first supersonic civilian aircraft powerful but destitute | History

The Tu-144 was one of the last aircraft to use a parachute for deceleration

What was once the technological pride of the Soviet Union has suddenly become a political “hot potato”. Aeroflot did not mention the Tu-144 in their five-year plan for the period 1976 – 1982. After a modified Tu-144 crashed during a test flight before handing over in June 1978. , Aeroflot has put an end to the “career” of this aircraft line. Tu-144 only operates 102 commercial flights, with 55 of which are carrying people. Concordeas served for a period of up to 25 years, with thousands of flights being made and becoming one of the most iconic designs of the 20th century.

Production of the Tu-144 officially ended in 1982. Some of the remaining 14 Tu-144 aircraft had a new, albeit short-lived mission: to be used for crew training for the project. Buran shuttle of the Soviet Union. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the remaining Tu-144s were mostly dusted, some of them in storage at the Soviet aircraft test base in Zhukovsky near Moscow.

The last chapter:

That was probably the end of the story of the Tu-144s. But not so.

In the 1990s, NASA began a multi-billion dollar project to create the next generation of supersonic transport, known as the HSR program – High Speed ​​Research. ). Boeing and Lockheed started building designs like Concorde, projects that were canceled for a variety of reasons, including fuel costs as well as problems with noise. Now, almost 30 years later, NASA hopes to continue from what this project left behind.

One of the members of this program is NASA test pilot – Mr. Rob Rivers. He was the only person to ever sit in the cockpit of a Concorde and a Tu-144. He shared: “I was a pilot of the HSR program at the time, working with Boeing and a number of other partners. It was a huge project – a $ 4 billion project from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. When I was on the program, a British Airways pilot went to Langley to talk to us about the plane. Concorde and high-speed flight. I thought it would be great if I could fly the Concorde, and I convinced the program leader the merits of it. “

“So in 1997, I flew to JFK Airport and sat in the helper of a Concorde and flew with it. I sat there with my stopwatches, a notebook as well as a tape measure and wrote down everything I could about a transatlantic flight in a supersonic plane. “. Mr. Rivers then flew several Concorde simulated flights in Bristol, England, and then returned to America in the cockpit of another Concorde.

Because the United States never built a supersonic civilian plane – this plan in the 20th century failed – NASA needed help from elsewhere to make test flights. There is one big problem, according to Rivers: “Neither British Airways nor Air France had a spare Concorde we could use for our experiments.”

The Soviet Union had collapsed a few years earlier. Russia is in a terrible position, with its economy in freefall. Rivers said: “President Bill Clinton and the Russians discussed a huge project with their aviation industry that would prevent their engineers from going to places like Iran.”. And what the Russians had at times was a line of supersonic civilian aircraft – even though it was a plane with a history of ups and downs, and no longer flew.

The story of the world s first supersonic civilian aircraft powerful but destitute | History

The Tu-144 gives NASA the opportunity to study the design of the hypersonic aircraft of the future

“An agreement was signed in 1993 to lease a Tu-144 to do some complicated experiments.”Mr. Rivers said. To make such an agreement in Russia at that time was not easy. The Tupolev Tu-144 must be hired by a British company, IBP Aerospace, a contracting company that can act as an intermediary. Mr. Rivers continued: “And things are like this: NASA has to pay Boeing to pay the IBP to pay Tupolev. There were tacit payments for fuel in dollars – which was still illegal in Russia at the time, but at the same time the only currency that many manufacturers would accept.

“The Tupolev we received only had 83 flight hours and has stopped flying since 1990. In 1993 it was lying cold in storage, but like a phoenix it flew up again.”. The Tu-144 leased by NASA is equipped with more modern and stable engines, as well as a new set of equipment, including a special “data channel”, which can store any data when the Experiments were carried out during flight.

The first flights, however, were catastrophes in terms of data collection. The data channel captured impossible flight attributes. Russian pilots, flying the plane on behalf of Tupolev cannot be interviewed by NASA. Mr. Rivers said: “The pilot interviews are not written into the contracts. And Tupolev has such financial problems that they only pay the pilot for the things specified in the contract. If you fly a flight, they pay you for the flight. ”. So it was decided, NASA would have to send its pilots to test the Tupolev.

The story of the world s first supersonic civilian aircraft powerful but destitute | History

NASA’s program brought the Tu-144 back into the sky in the late 1990s

Mr. Rivers was assigned to the assignment, and he was scheduled to travel to Russia in September 1998. A few weeks prior to the assignment, he took a few days off with some friends. He said: “I go salmon fishing in Wyoming. And I fell quite painfully while walking – I broke my shin and I suffered a fragment from my shin bone, and my ankle bone was also chipped. I told the doctor in Wyoming ‘I have to go to Russia in two weeks, you have to cure me ‘. And he said: ‘No way, I’ll have to sit still for the next six to eight months.’. But then the doctor relented, and put a metal rod inside Rivers so he could make the trip.

NASA did not want Rivers to go to Russia with his status. He said: “They feel it will be bad when a NASA pilot shows up on crutches.”. But it was too late to find a replacement.

Mr. Rivers grimaced during the long flight to Moscow, and was picked up at the airport in a van by Alexander Pukhov, the design director of Tupolev, who has been working on the Tu-144 project since the 1960s. First, he was eventually taken to see Tupolev’s surgeon. There, Pukhov – a difficult man – made a deal with Rivers.

He said: “Pukhov said to me:‘ As long as you don’t need crutches in front of the press, and don’t go on crutches when you walk to the plane, you can fly. ‘ My leg hurts me, but I don’t want to miss my flight at all costs. This is possibly the biggest hallmark of my test pilot career. I will become one of the two Westerners who ever controlled it. ”

Mr. Rivers and fellow pilot Gordon Fullerton, along with NASA engineers Bruce Jackson and Tim Cox – were arranged in an old KGB nursing facility near Zhukovsky, which used to be a Soviet air base to test the equipment. Aircraft design and prototypes. Rivers recalls: “When I first saw the plane – how tall it was on the ground – I was amazed.”. He kept his word not to walk to his first flight on crutches, but it hurt his ankles. “I spent many hours practicing walking with a cane. Tôi đã không thể làm được điều đó nếu không được Bruce Jackson bạn tôi giúp đỡ. Phải dồn áp lực lên mắt cá chân tôi đau khủng khiếp.” Ông kể tiếp: “Ở buổi tiệc trước chuyến bay đầu tiên của mình, tôi đã ném cặp nạng xuống. Tôi đi bộ ra về phía Giáo sư Pukhov với chiếc gậy của mình, và Pukhov phá lên cười. Mọi người xung quanh cũng bắt đầu chúc mừng, cảm giác lúc đó như trong một bộ phim vậy.”.

The story of the world s first supersonic civilian aircraft powerful but destitute | History

Tu-144 không tinh vi như Concorde, nhưng lại mạnh hơn

Ông Rivers và ông Fullerton (người đã qua đời năm 2013) điều khiển chiếc Tu-144 trong một chuỗi các chuyến bay kéo dài tới cuối năm 1998. Và ông Rivers đã chính thức trở thành người duy nhất trên thế giới đã từng điều khiển cả chiếc Tu-144 và đối thủ phương Tây của nó – chiếc Concorde. Ông nói mình đã không thể làm được điều này nếu không có sự trợ giúp tự tổ bay Nga, phi công Serge Boresov, điều hướng viên Viktor Pedos và kỹ thuật viên chuyến bay Anatoli Kriulin, những người có kinh nghiệm giúp những chuyến bay thành công.

Các chuyến bay của NASA chính thức là điểm cuối cùng trong sự nghiệp hàng không của Tu-144. Dù có được hoàn thiện hơn với sự trợ giúp từ phương Tây, việc bay nó là quá đắt và thiếu ổn định để phục vụ vận tải dân sự. Những chiếc “Concordski” còn lại giờ đây nằm trong nhà chứa máy bay hoặc những viện bảo tàng. Một chiếc đang được trưng bày tại một bảo tàng kỹ thuật tại Đức, ngay bên cạnh là một bản mẫu của chiếc Concorde.

Khép lại câu chuyện về chiếc Tu-144, ông Rivers nhận xét: “Chiếc Concorde có phần tinh vi hơn. Những cũng có nhiều biểu hiện của kỹ thuật phực tạp trên chiếc Tu-144. Chúng không giống nhau. Chiếc Tu-144 có thể chở nhiều hành khách hơn, bay nhanh hơn và cao hơn. Tupolev đã thực sự tạo ra một chiếc máy bay mà chỉ có một chiếc máy bay nữa trong lịch sử làm được. Chiếc Concorde thì như một con ngựa Kentucky thuần chủng – có phần mong manh hơn nhưng lại rất nhanh. Chiếc Tu-144 thì giống như ngựa Clydesdale, một giống ngựa lớn với sức mạnh đáng kinh ngạc nhưng lại không hiệu quả bằng.”

[ Æsir Tales ]
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