Copyright© 1999, Douglas Alberg.   Photographed July, 1999
Tu-144S Supersonic Airliner
The Tu-144 Charger made its first flight on Dec. 31, 1968, two months before the Concorde. It first broke the sound barrier on a test flight in June, 1969. The original aircraft is shown below.
There were three model designations ("Tu-144", "Tu-144S" and "Tu-144D"), though each aircraft incorporated improvements over its predecessors. Modifications include the addition of a retractable canard, a lengthened fuselage, a modified wing, a redesigned engine box (the original aircraft had one large box - later models had two separate engine housings), and new engines. Some models used parachutes instead of thrust reversers to slow the aircraft after landing.
The first production version, designated the "Tu-144S", had a three person flight crew and carried 140 passengers. CCCP-77102, the third Tu-144 and second "C" model, crashed in a controversial accident during a flying display at the Paris air show on June 9, 1973. This aircraft is shown below. Note that it has canards and separate engine boxes.
The Tu-144S went into service on December 26, 1975 carrying mail and freight in order to test the aircraft under commercial operating conditions. The Monino museum's aircraft participated in this testing.
The aircraft first flew with commercial passengers on November 1, 1977 on a route between Moscow and Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan. Aeroflot, the only Russian airline at the time, was the operator.
The first Tu-144's were powered by four Kuznetsov NK-144's with afterburners and a maximum thrust of 17,500kg. It has been said that supersonic speed could only be maintained with the afterburners on, leading to extremely high fuel consumption. The later Tu-144D model, which first flew in 1978, had more powerful Kolesov RD-36-51A engines with 20,000kg thrust providing greater range for the aircraft. Five "D" models were completed.
On May, 23, 1978 the first Tu-144D experienced an in-flight failure and crash landed with fatalities. The last commercial Tu-144 flight took place on June 1, 1978 after just 102 passenger flights due largely to this incident.
Production of the aircraft continued until 1984, indicating that there was the intention of either returning the Tu-144 to commercial service or of developing it for other uses. No further commercial flights were carried out, however.
In 1995, CCCP-77114, A Tu-144D built in 1981, was taken out of storage and modified to become a test aircraft as part of NASA's High Speed Research program. It had last flown on February 28, 1990 and had only 82 hours, 40 minutes of flight time, 17 of these at supersonic speed. The aircraft was extensively modified, including the installation of 22,940kg thrust NK-321 engines originally produced for the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack bomber, installation of an emergency crew escape system, new avionics, new engine boxes and extensive test equipment. The refitted aircraft is called the Tu-144LL. The "LL" stands for "Letnoye Laboratoriya" or "airborne laboratory". Tupolev performed all modifications.
The Tu-144LL flew many flights between 1996 and 1998 and had a total airframe time of 443 hours, 28 minutes at the end of the NASA program. It is possible that additional flights will take place in the future, but for now the planned experiments have been completed and the aircraft remains hangered at the Tupolev facility at Zhukovsky. For more information about the Tu-144LL, click here.
Tupolev claims to have an active program to develop the next generation of supersonic commercial aircraft - the Tu-244. Because funds are in short supply and no other country has found supersonic aircraft to be financially viable, it is doubtful that this will lead to a new aircraft.
The Monino museum's aircraft was the seventh aircraft produced out of a total of seventeen. For information on each aircraft, visit this link.
The American public television show Nova had a very interesting feature on the race to develop supersonic transports. The transcript of the show can be found here.