Tupolev 144—Communist Concorde

That Soviet industrial espionage targeting the British-French Concorde supersonic airliner played a part in the design and development of the Tupolev 144 is beyond dispute: not only was some of the cloak and dagger work uncovered at the time, the British and French governments deliberately fed disinformation back through detected spies to delay and misdirect the Soviet project. The resemblance between the two planes is evident—see the 2023-04-05 post here, “Tu-144 and Concorde Side by Side”, for a detailed comparison.

There were substantial differences as well. Although the Tu-144 used nominally more modern turbofan engines, their less refined design, combined with the plane’s less complicated wing and inlet geometry, meant they could not sustain supersonic flight without constant use of the afterburner, which dramatically decreased fuel economy and range while increasing noise, both in the cabin and on the ground. (The Concorde could “supercruise”—it only used the afterburner when taking off and to punch through the high drag regime when accelerating through Mach 1.)

Only sixteen flight-worthy Tu-144 airframes were built, and the fleet performed only 55 revenue passenger flights between 1977-11-01 and 1978-06-01, after which it was retired. Counting cargo-only flights, Tu-144s made only 103 scheduled flights. The highly-visible 1973 Paris Air Show Tu-144 crash highlighted the crudeness of the design and prompted design changes which further delayed introduction.

After its retirement from commercial service, the remaining Tu-144s were used for research purposes including, after the fall of the Soviet Union, under contract for NASA. The last flight was in 1999.


I ran into trouble lobbying for R. T. Jones to get funding for the mach 1.4 OFW – great fuel economy as well as capital utilization. The scramjet folks at Ames were dismissive — probably because they were pissed off at me for trying to over-ride their local authority with an earmark for supersonic wind tunnel testing of the OFW. Even though the OFW would have a much higher capital utilization rate than the 747, the scramjet folks claimed they could do even better. Of course, I was also working with Truax to get funding for the suborbital version of the BDB at the time. Truax was claiming he could beat the scramjet folks’ capital utilization rate by an even bigger margin if he could get refueling and reflight times down.

Jones eventually gave up promoting OFW in what I can only think of as despair – claiming that the best investment of capital would be to make the 747 bigger and more comfortable for long flights.

PS: There is a related lifting body concept in an abandoned 2016 patent application. I have no idea if it is any good but at first glance it appears to address one of the biggest problems with the flying wing approach, which was that you’d need a wider runway in order to scale the interior adequate for passengers.


I remember watching a video about the Concorde where they said they knew the Russian were spying and they knew that, for example, they were very interested in tire compound (they had seen Russian agents scraping tire tracks on the runway). So they created a tire compound that was close to the real thing but completely unusable and laid a bunch of that down on the runway to slow the Russian down even a little bit.