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While talks of supersonic air travel immediately conjure up images of the iconic Concorde, it wasn’t actually the first supersonic passenger jet to fly. In fact, the Russian-built Tupolev Tu-144 completed its first supersonic flight four months before Concorde did.
The Tu-144 flew at an average altitude of 52,000 feet with an average cruising speed of Mach 1.6, or 1,200 mph. If you’ve never heard of this fast-as-lightning plane before, it’s because the Tu-144 had a difficult career. As a CNN retrospective on the jet noted, the jet “would soon turn into one of civil aviation’s biggest failures.”
The plane, which eventually earned the nickname “Concordski” because of its resemblance to Concorde, began passenger service in 1977. But it was permanently grounded barely six months later when a plane crashed during a delivery flight. Only 16 were ever built, and the 14 that survived eventually were relegated to cargo flights only. Even then, the plane proved to be incredibly unreliable. The Tu-144 only completed 102 flights (55 passenger flights and the rest cargo, by the BBC’s countBBC) and during that time it suffered 226 failures, 80 of them during flight, according to aviationcv.com.
While Tupolev was able to score a huge win for Russia by beating the rest of the world to commercial supersonic travel, the Tu-144 was plagued by problems from the beginning. The program suffered a huge setback in 1973 when the first production version of the plane crashed at the Paris Air Show.
Under instructions to outperform Concorde at all costs, the Tu-144 pilots departed from their approved flight plan and entered a very steep climb before making a downward maneuver, notes a CNET account of the plane’s history. When the plane crashed into the ground, it destroyed 15 houses, killing all six crew on board and eight more on the ground. The second crash in 1978 was due to a ruptured fuel line that caused the right wing to catch fire, and ultimately spelled the end of the Tu-144 program.
Now, 20 years after the last Tu-144 flight was completed, Russia has its eyes set on supersonic once again. State sponsored Russian news organization RT is reporting that beginning in 2022, Russia’s United Aviation Corporation will begin designing a new supersonic passenger jet. Denis Manturov, head of the Russian Ministry of Industry, said that the flight simulator showing off the new plane’s abilities will be completed within three years.
Russia is not alone in its quest to bring supersonic passenger jets back to the skies. A number of American companies including Aerion, Boom Supersonic and Spike Aerospace are actively working on developing supersonic passenger jets. They’ll have many obstacles to overcome before these planes can enter service, including assuaging the fears of people who remember the Concorde and Tupolev crashes and dealing with the explosion-like sound created when a plane crosses the sound barrier.
Featured image: aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
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