Flight of the Konkordski: The Rest of the Story

Last week, my spy novel writing partner, Holmes, began telling us about the Flight of the Konkordski, the Russian TU-144 jet that was the Soviet version of the French/British Concorde. Part One told the apparent events at the 1973 Paris Air Show when the TU-144 exploded, killing its crew and eight French citizens. Part Two discussed the brilliant Russian engineer behind the TU-144, Andrei Tupolev. Today, Holmes tells us the rest of the story.

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By Jay Holmes

With the United States out of the SST competition due to costs and increased political resistance, the French/British team felt confident that they would be able to corner the market for SST aircraft for at least ten years. The French and British were vaguely aware that the USSR was developing an SST, but they were certain that the USSR was two to three years behind the Concorde development project.

In 1963, a British delegation led by UK Aviation Minister Julian Avery visited the USSR and was given a very limited tour of Russia’s aviation industry. One of the things the Soviets showed them was a model of the future TU-144. Avery and his team decided that the model looked like an all out copy of what was then the early version of the Concorde design.

When Avery returned to the UK, he immediately warned the French and British that they obviously had been penetrated by spies. This begs a question. Why would the warning even be required? Would the French and British not have assumed that the Concorde project was a target for the Soviets?

Soviet KGB agent Sergei Pavlov was ostensibly the head of the Aeroflot’s French operations, but he was, in fact, in charge of Soviet espionage for aviation in France. The French Intelligence Service placed Pavlov under more extensive and skillful surveillance.

Before long, Pavlov was observed collecting tire samples from a French airport employee. The French and British decided that, rather than arrest Pavlov, they would turn or “double” his French contact and feed him bad information. The degree to which the planted bad information affected the Tu-144 project can probably be accurately estimated by the British and French intelligence services, but if they have done so they are not yet talking publicly about it. In 1965, the French arrested and deported Pavlov, taking from him a complete copy of the blue prints for the Concorde landing gear.

While the obvious assumption is that the USSR spied on the Concorde in order to copy the design work, their actual goals were a bit more complex. Tupolev was under enormous pressure from the Soviet government to move quickly and to conduct a successful test flight before the Concorde did. The Tupolev firm had become famous for being able to put up a working aircraft for testing and early production, and then later refining out the problems that had been missed or ignored in development.

To Western engineers, this might seem like a risky strategy, but Andrei and Alexi Tupolev lived in a different world. The political climate in the USSR in the late 1960s was marked by much of the same urgency and desperation that had defined the USSR during World War Two. For Tupolev, beating the Concorde was more important than refining the best design. The Tu-144 needed to be flown as soon as possible, and the design could be finished later for a production run.

In the summer of 1968, the Soviets received intelligence that the Concorde would undergo its first test flight in early 1969. The Tupolev design team went into overdrive. Engineers and technicians slept at the assembly area and worked with little sleep. In December of 1968, the TU-144 flew a successful test flight. The Soviets had been able to fly the first Mach 2 airliner in history.

The Kremlin was overjoyed. Andrei Tupolev and the lead engineer, his son, Alexi, had achieved a great dream. Andrei’s expertise at redesigning hastily produced aircraft would undoubtedly help get the Tupolev “fixed” prior to production, but in the meantime they had struck a blow for the reputation of the USSR. When a few months later the Concorde made its first test flight, some of the publicity value had been lost to the TU-144s earlier flight, but the test pilots had a more “finished” product.

By the time of the 1973 Paris Air Show, the British and French likely felt more than the usual Cold War hostility to the TU-144 project. If the Soviet espionage showed in the general design of the Tupolev-144, the British and French anger about the aircraft was just as obvious.

The Concorde team was warned that a Mirage III would be in the air, waiting to intercept the TU-144 to photograph the deployed canards in flight. Naturally, the TU-144 crew was not told of the Mirage III.

The Tu-144 had its exhibition time cut in half at the last moment. Now, the TU-144 team would be flying a suddenly shortened flight plan with a control system that had been modified the night before.

At a reception the previous evening, Russian pilot Mikhail Koslov had made it clear that he intended to “push the envelope” the next day, and that he would out-fly the Concorde no matter what. At the last minute, Soviet copilot Valery Molchanov agreed to carry on board a French TV crew’s camera and film the cockpit during the exhibition flight. It seemed like a great opportunity to further the PR mission of the TU-144. The variables for creating an accident were quickly stacking high.

Here is what I suspect happened:

When the Mirage III came into position to photograph the canards of the TU-144, the pilot, Koslov, was either startled into an evasive maneuver, or, for purposes of an impressive show, simply pushed the envelope further than the airplane could go. Both possibilities are accepted by people who know much more about flight than I do. Both possibilities lead to the same result.

Pilot Mikhail Koslov, image from tu144sst.com

During the sudden maneuver, the air pressure to the engines suddenly dropped off, and some or all of the four engines stalled. The sudden change in velocity of the aircraft may have caused the heavy TV camera to strike the flight controls, complicating the pilots’ attempts to save the plane.

The pilot forced the TU-144 downward in order to gain airspeed with which to restart his engines. He only had four thousand feet of altitude with which to work, and after getting some or all of the engines running he attempted to pull out. The attempted abrupt climb exceeded the structural limits of the TU-144, and she broke up.

The explosion before hitting the ground was not unusual. The TU-144 was fueled with highly volatile JP-6 fuel. There would have been plenty of heat in the disintegrating wing root and the engine compartment to ignite the vapor that formed from the fuel being released into the fast moving air. Fuel + Oxygen Pressure + Heat = Fire. The more you have of any one of  these factors, the less you need of the other two factors. The oxygen pressure was high, and the fuel vapor was close to ideal so the ambient air temperature, itself, might have been enough to provide enough heat for ignition. No other bomb was needed.

The accident investigation report never mentioned the Mirage III. The black box flight data recorder was supposedly never recovered. This strikes my non-aviation mind as comical. Two aviation engineers agree with me that the accident in question should not have vaporized the black box.

The French and Soviets seemed to cooperate in a cover up. So what was covered up? The Soviets wanted the flight crew blamed. They were trying to sell a plane not a flight crew. The French government did not want to be blamed by its French political opponents or the French public for the eight dead French civilians. The French and the Soviets (with UK acquiescence) made a deal and jointly accepted the least uncomfortable explanation for the accident.

In the aftermath, many theories surrounding the Paris Air Show incident, the Tupolev Design, and the Mirage III’s impact on the accident have been interpreted differently by a variety of observers. It’s often easy to know someone’s political views by listening to their analysis of this and other events.

Claims have been made that the Mirage, or possibly even two Mirages, purposely flew in front of the TU-144’s intake, intentionally causing two of her engines to stall. As one of our readers has already pointed out, the French could have taken down the TU-144 without instigating a crash over a populated area. If they were going to purposely cause a crash for the TU-144, they likely would have done it while the plane was en route to Paris, and not at the Air Show.

Many Russians and Soviet sympathizers will quickly point out that the TU-144 was very different from the Concorde, and, therefore, was not a copy. It was, in fact, very different.

The TU-144 wing design was simpler than the Concorde’s on the original Tu-144, but it was changed on later models. The braking system on the TU-144 was primitive compared to the Concorde’s brakes. The hydraulic system in the TU-144 was completely unlike that of the Concorde. The Concorde used a very clever cooling system the Tu-144 did not have. The exterior noise level of the TU-144 was lower than the Concorde’s, but the noise in the passenger space was almost unbearable.

The Russians’ claim that the TU-144’s earlier first flight proves it is not a copy is nonsensical, but it’s the sort of thing that the average journalist or college freshman might believe. The TU-144 was not a copy of the Concorde, but the Tupolev design team benefitted from the Soviet espionage successes against the Concorde.

In 1977, four years after the TU-144 crash in Paris, Soviet agent Sergei Fabiew was arrested by the French intelligence services. He had been working without diplomatic cover, and the French convinced him to cooperate.

Fabiew was able to deliver cypher codes to the French that he should have destroyed long before his capture. He was obviously hedging his bets and had no desire to return to the USSR. The French were able to use the old cyphers, along with cryptology information from the Americans and the British, in order to decipher old messages from Moscow to Fabiew. It was clear that Fabiew’s claim of having provided the KGB with full sets of plans for the Concorde was not just boasting. He had gotten every bit of the Concorde at every step of the way. From who? How could the French not know at this point?

Occasionally, perhaps when the wine has flowed freely at lunch, a few French writers and journalists opine that the US government banned the Concorde from US skies out of jealousy for the Concorde, and, therefore, destroyed the future of the Concorde at its inception. No. The US aviation industry would have faced the same supersonic transport flight restrictions so they didn’t bother developing it. Furthermore, the French had originally planned a continental version of the SST, and it was the British who insisted on a transatlantic capable SST.

The Concorde went on to break the transatlantic speed record in 1999. That commercial flight record still stands. It was retired from service in 2003 after passenger demand dropped due to growing safety concerns, rapidly climbing maintenance costs, and escalating fuel costs all combined to make it unprofitable to operate.

The Tu-144? It was quickly relegated to cargo duty due to cabin noise, and inadequate cabin cooling problems and Aeroflot’s dislike for the plane’s safety and maintenance concerns.

On May 12, 2001, Alexei Tupolev died. The Konkordski, stolen or not, lives on. IN 1996 The US government funded a NASA project to operate the last TU-144 as a test bed for supersonic flight testing.

The espionage surrounding the Concorde was part of a much larger effort by both East and West to remain informed about their enemies’ flight capabilities. Those efforts stretched around the globe from hangars in Seattle to banks in Macao and Switzerland and points in between, and would require a voluminous book to describe en totem.

If it seems outrageous that the USSR spied on the Concorde project, we should remember that France, the UK, and the USA were all doing the same thing to the Soviets. The Soviet efforts against the Concorde were inconsequential compared to the spy ring they operated in Seattle and Portland against US aviation manufacturer, Boeing.

While the Concorde builders saw this as an earth shaking espionage case, as the Cold War went, this was really one of the cooler corners of that war. From the US perspective, this was a minor sideshow. To the Soviet politburo, it was important more for propaganda and commercial value than for flight development.

In late 2010, Russia quietly mentioned that it had, indeed, had the flight data recorder all along. They said that, according to the analysis of the data, it was clear that pilot error was the cause of the accident, and that, based on radar trace data from the incident, the Mirage was not in position to startle pilot Mikhail Koslov into taking evasive action.  According to the current Russian explanation, the Tupolev team made a series of decisions that were individually reasonable, but when combined, they left the pilots flying a hastily planned routine outside of previously tested parameters. According to the Russians, Koslov “pushed the envelope” too far for the prevailing conditions and exceeded the structural capabilities of the TU-144.

Half a century after getting funding for the TU-144, the Tupolev firm has sought funding from the Russian government for a liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen fueled Mach 6 bomber that will enter space for Mach 20+ flight speeds and carry an 8-ton payload. If it ever comes to the Paris Air Show, I’ll be sure to avoid Paris that week. I bet if old man Tupolev were still alive, he would be up late trying to figure that one out. We’ll see where it goes.

So tell me. Based on your best analysis, why did the Konkordski crash?


9 comments on “Flight of the Konkordski: The Rest of the Story

  1. Texanne says:

    What is it they say? It takes seven mistakes to create an accident? Or some such.

    It’s hard to wrap my 2011 mind around the protocols used in 1973, and the only info I have about this comes from your columns, but it looks like a classic case of Haste Makes Waste PLUS Pride Goeth Before a Fall.

    Those air shows are carefully choreographed, and the unexpected shortening of the program coupled with the modified control system could certainly have contributed to the accident.

    Add in the pilot’s attitude, and hey, viola! Paris, we have a problem.

    Hubs was a pilot and safety officer for the AF security system, back in the day, (and has spent the rest of his life designing avionics) and I got to hear about some very stupid air crashes, often but not always involving pilot bravado (or just flat running out of gas) in “pushing the envelope.” I wish he were here to give you his perspective first hand, but I come from a family of aircraft workers, so here goes.

    That flight envelope is defined for a good reason: to keep the plane from coming apart or to keep it from suddenly impacting the ground. Pilots in combat sometimes have to push, but this was different. There really is no excuse for the decisions made by the manufacturer to change the control system at the last minute, effectively turning this air show performance into a test flight, and the pilot to push the envelope on a plane with a recently modified control system, OVER A POPULATED AREA, at low altitude. Son of a beachcomber deserved to die. The rest of the victims were just horribly unlucky to be in his proximity.

    The French government bears guilt, too–for changing the rules governing the program at the last minute. That was purely a money-based decision, and it stank of disregard for safety and fair play.

    • J H says:

      I think you are right Texanne. All of the players in the SST contest were under enormous pressure to win the market. It seems that, in response to the pressure, the Paris Air Show director, the Tupolev engineers, the pilot, and the French military each broke their own safety rules.

  2. The French may bear some guilt, but I’d say the pressure from Moscow on everyone involved was the primary ingredient in this disaster. Thanks for a great series, Holmes.

  3. Texanne says:

    There’s no way–as far as I can see–to say which element provided the final straw. The pilot is the ultimate boss on any flight, so he usually gets credit for the crash.

    But here’s the deal with regard to the French government. If you keep your word, do the right thing, maintain honesty and dependability, then for sure YOU will NOT be the guilty party. Nobody in this scenario played it straight and level.

    And they pulled these stunts over a POPULATED AREA.

  4. Interesting stuff again, Holmes. I’m sure Russian spying at the time was directed more at the propaganda value of flying an SST first than creating a copy or better design. The lead times in building mean that if they were heading to the same target flight date there is no way they could have used Concorde intel to create their own design, they would have lagged the Concorde design by a year or two. They must have created their design around the same engineering principles that led to to the Concorde design, hence the similarity in appearance.

    The pressure on the Tupolevs and the pilot must have been similar to the White Star Lines on the Titanic, the glory outshone the risks (in some people’s view).

    From looking at grainy video on YouTube (esp http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpPaaP1IIe8, watch around 2:50s) it seems the aircraft broke up starting with the left hand wing (perhaps from impact by the canard?). The aircraft then broke apart spectacularly, probably an indication it’s airframe was under excessive stress. None of the videos I’ve seen (on YouTube, I’ll admit) show the Mirage. Unless the Mirage stayed in the field of view of the Konkordski for some time, it seems unlikely the Russian pilot would have continued a maneuver that eventually stalled the engines, it was a big aircraft, it didn’t really change direction quickly. The Mirage crossing the path of the Konkordski would have been gone in a few moments.

    For my vote I’d settle on the accident being caused by pride. the USSR, the pilot and the last minute engineering changes all led the pilot out of the flyable envelope for the aircraft. The French (and British?) compounded the problem by
    changing the flight plan at the last moment.

    I bet “old man Tupolev” would have been grinning from ear to ear while he worked on a mach 6 aircraft. In fact, I bet there’s a lot of US engineers who’d do the same grinning to work on such a project!


    • J H says:

      Hi Nigel. Your analysis makes sense to me..

      “I bet there’s a lot of US engineers who’d do the same grinning to work on such a project!”

      About two years ago the US released general information concerning a mach 6+ drone.

      In 1986 the US FY87 budget carelessly included a $455,000,000. line item for “Aurora” described only as “black aircraft research”. Normally such projects are disguised more completely in the annual budget after agreement with congressional committees. Frequent reports in California USA and in the northern UK of sonic booms and contrails that appear to be generated by a pulse engine may indicate operation of whatever aircraft replaced the SR-71.

      The Mach 3.2 SR-71 was in full operation in 1966 and if I am not mistaken the US waited over a decade before accurately describing the capabilities of the SR-71. Whatever project Aurora is turning out we may not be told about it for a while. I suspect that there are in fact grinning engineers in Canada, the UK, and the USA right now.

  5. […] interesting re-telling of the Flight of the Konkordski. When the Russian TU-144 jet exploded during the Paris Air Show, killing its crew and eight French […]

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