Flight of the Konkordski – Explosion of the TU-144

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.

Image by NASA, public domain

Image by NASA, public domain

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.

Any questions?


16 comments on “Flight of the Konkordski – Explosion of the TU-144

  1. Gene Lempp says:

    Well, I can’t imagine that any noble western power would be involved in sabotage. Yeah. Great post, Holmes, looking forward to the next installment. I’m sure you’re saving some incredible revelations for us.


  2. educlaytion says:

    Fascinating story Holmes. I hadn’t heard anything about this disaster. I’m not surprised that the Soviets put unrealistic expectations on the flight after so much tedious work to prepare the plane. But if it just self-destructed, I’m wondering if something was planted on board?

    • J Holmes says:

      Hello Clay, There was a problem with an unscheduled on board item but likely not what you would suspect. It was not a bomb.

  3. EllieAnn says:

    It’s sad that Andrei died so close to this day–my imagination goes wild with the mysteries in this story.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Ellie,

      I think that Papa Tupolev would make a great subject for a historical novel. Our series doesn’t begin to do justice to this brilliant engineer’s career.

  4. Suspecting that the foolishness of last-minute changes led to the disaster, but waiting for your revelations.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi David, I’ll outline the positions ans involvement of the French/British “team”, The USA and the USSR and you get to be Chief of your own Tupolev incident team team lead and make the final assessment.

      My aviation experience is limited to being a well traveled piece of cargo and I never worked on anything related to this incident so your just as likely as I am to come up with the right conclusion.

  5. Texanne says:

    The French did NOT blow up that plane over a Paris neighborhood. There would have been many other chances to do so, if they had needed to. They didn’t.

    Russians are great at engineering gigantic earth-bound machines, but flight just seems to leave them scratching their heads. Russian stress-guessers don’t seem to realize that thrust has to overcome gravity and that gravity is tightly related to weight. Ah, well. This plane is a perfect example of what happens when the government dictates to engineers. They go to all the trouble to steal technology, then they have to sit around the politburo office and mess with it.

    We have examples right in this country, too, but our politicians are not quite as monolithic as the Russian government. For this reason, if a program gets through our government’s set of chutes and ladders, it will create a craft that flies without flying apart. The price and schedule will be horrible, mostly because of the chutes and ladders, but the plane will fly.

    Thanks for reminding us of the silliness of mach2 commercial flight, Holmes.

    • J Holmes says:

      “The French did NOT blow up that plane over a Paris neighborhood. There would have been many other chances to do so”

      Hi Texanne. You nailed a critical piece of evidence. Against that point is the fact that a Tu-144 crashing away from the worlds second largest event that aircraft purchase decision makers attend would certainly have had less impact.

      We’ve got more intel. to deliver to you before you make your assessment.

  6. Interesting story, Holmes. Could definitely serve as a base for a mystery novel 🙂

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Angela, I think you are right. I lack the aviation perspective to do that but an aviation engineer, or test pilot might be able to produce a great novel about the entire Tupolev history.

  7. Nigel Blackwell says:

    Hi Holmes.

    Interesting. I remember this crash being on the news when I grew up. Everyone though the Tu-144 was a copy. There may be some of that to it, but engineering problems often have a mainstream answer that different groups gravitate to.

    In the few grainy videos I’ve seen on the web it’s hard to tell what happens. The steep climb was a surprise and if the engineers modified the flight controls at the last moment they could have allowed the pilot to get to the stage of stalling the aircraft or killing an (both?) engines. But if the canard broke free it could have done damage in the same way as the Concorde crash in 2000. By similar engineering they would both have used the vulnerable wings for fuel.

    Concorde (and even the Tu-144) were masterpieces of engineering. There are few aircraft even today that can achieve Mach 2, and it did it every day with 100 people on board. Like the Apollo program, it was brought about with intellect, hard work and slide rules!


  8. J Holmes says:

    “engineering problems often have a mainstream answer that different groups gravitate to.”

    When reading an intelligence analysis we must all keep in mind that the analyst brings certain perspectives to the question at hand. You immediately hit on the engineering perspective. Texanne hit on the question of motivation. David and you both focused on the last minute changes. Clay put it in a historical context of what the USSR was at the time.

    All may be right or none may be. Your responses demonstrate the value of having analysis of important items done by more than one person or team.

    One of the greatest risks in intelligence is being too certain about the answers we arrive at. A 5,000 page mix of uncertain ideas can not be presented to the President or the Pentagon each morning but presenters should always make clear their degree of certainty or uncertainty.

    Another aircraft incident case that demonstrates the value of remaining open minded is the Korean Airlines flight 007 incident. I’ll deal with that very fascinating case at some future date.

  9. […] Flight of the Konkordski – Russia’s TU-144 and the deep mystery/conspiracy surrounding the disaster. Post by Holmes. […]

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