By Jay Holmes
On a spring day in Paris on June 3, 1973, over 200,000 spectators at the Paris Air Show watched the new British/French Concorde Supersonic Transport perform a fly by followed by a fast, steep climb. A new age of Mach 2. passenger flights was supposedly dawning in the skies above Paris.
Among the spectators was an anxious Russian. While watching the Concorde, Alexi Tupolev waited for the pass of one of the most important aircraft in Soviet history. The loud roar of the approaching Tupolev-144 (“TU-144”), dubbed the “Konkordski” by Western media pundits, must have been a comfort to him.
The TU-144 represented more than an aircraft for the Soviet Union. Over a decade of research, politics, espionage, and counter espionage had gone into the design and test work that produced the TU-144. The Paris air show was a chance for the Tupolev design team to bring an advanced commercial airliner to Western markets and lay the groundwork for sales to the West.
Those sales would bring desperately needed Western currency to the Soviet state banking system. The very acceptance of the TU-144 by Western markets and media would represent a coming of age for Soviet industry in the ruthless open markets of the West. The influx of foreign currencies and the boost to reputation of the Soviets’ technical prowess were both desperately needed by Moscow.
For the great Russian engineer, Andrei Tupolev, and his son Alexi, the TU-144 was the product of years of long hours at the factory, pushing forward an ambitious project that must have been near and dear to both of their hearts. Unfortunately, Andrei Tupolev died a few months before the Paris Air Show.
Andrei and Alexi had to know that, without cash sales to airlines outside of the USSR, no amount of great design work could push the Soviet SST project further into the future. They would be out of funding. The Kremlin would not be willing to fund the massive project simply for the small numbers of planes that Aeroflot could purchase. Only Andrei’s reputation as a genius engineer and a loyal hero of the Soviet Union had convinced Soviet leaders to risk the immense investment in the development of the TU-144 transport.
The TU-144, piloted by Mikhail Koslov and Valery Molchanov, flew the routine pass by the airshow crowd and proceeded to begin a maneuver that had been designed to outdo the performance of the Concorde. In the final hours prior to the airshow flight, Soviet engineers had made last minute modifications to the flight control systems to allow the TU-144 to make an impressive turning climb. This last minute equipment modification indicates that the Soviets knew hours in advance what maneuvers its competitor, the Concorde, would make.
Although they expected a minimum five-mile air space to be maintained empty for their flight, Koslov and Molchanov were not alone in the air over Paris that day. Besides the other four members of the aircrew, they shared the air space with a French Mirage fighter. The Mirage had been tasked with flying close above the TU-144 to obtain mid-air photos of its forward canard wings.
After making an impressive starboard turn, the TU-144 appeared to be on approach for landing when it suddenly started into the steep climb. The plane canted, and apparently one of the canard wings was unable to handle the force. It detached. Some theorized that the detached canard wing punctured a wing tank.
From camera footage of the disaster, we clearly see that the TU-144 burst into flames before crashing into the ground. But how did the possible stall, or even the loss of a canard wing, cause the explosion?
Along with the six-man aircrew, eight more people on the ground died. The fireball was about the size you would expect for a downed aircraft, but the shock wave reached further. Before the story ends—and in 2011 it hasn’t quite ended yet—the shock waves reached London, Moscow, Washington D.C., Seattle and lots of back alleys at points in between.
The French Military was responsible for the accident investigation, and, at least outwardly, they maintained a cooperative stance with the Soviet Union. They even entertained requests to quickly fly some of the wreckage to the USSR.
At first, the French government claimed that there had been no Mirage fighter near the TU-144. I can hardly imagine that none of the 200,000+ spectators at the show happened to notice the Mirage (or possibly pair of Mirages) flying by the TU-144.
So why did such an important plane on such an important day, flown by some of the Soviet Union’s very best air crewmen self destruct? What happened?
Several answers have been offered. As my very wise father would say, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
In the next post, before deciding where to sit, we would do well to consider a bit of history that led the Concorde, Andrei, and Alexi Tupolev, their TU-144, and that Mirage to Paris on that spring day.