Tupolev Tu-144: Inside Russia's supersonic airliner

Bigger and faster than the Concorde, here's a look inside Russia's ill-fated supersonic airliner.

Geoffrey Morrison
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Russia's Concorde

The Russian-built Tupolev Tu-144 was the world's only other supersonic airliner besides the Anglo-French Concorde. It first flew on Dec. 31, 1968, beating the Concorde into the sky by two months. During the Cold War it was a notable achievement for the then-Soviet Union. 

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Concorde's cousin

With delta wings and a sleek fuselage, the similarities between the Tu-144 and the Concorde are quite evident.

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Interesting company

A closeup of the Tu-144's droop nose, with another Tu-144 behind with the nose retracted. Even more interesting is what's behind that: A Tu-95 Bear bomber. In the far distance is a trio of Il-76s.

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Like the Concorde, the droop nose improved visibility for the flight crew during landing and when the aircraft was on the ground.

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New life

The Tu-144LL flying laboratory outside its hanger at the Zhukovsky Air Development Center (now the Gromov Flight Research Institute) at the start of its new life as a research aircraft.

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The Tu-144LL takes off from Zhukovsky.

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The Tu-144LL just about to land.

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Fast landing

The modified Tu-144 touching down near Moscow in 1997, with its three drag parachutes that were required for landing.

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Taxiing after a test flight.

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Tu-144 brochure

An Aeroflot brochure about the Tu-144. Between 1977 and 1978, the Tu-144 made just 55 passenger flights.

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Page turner

Note the small seats.

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Tu-144 @ Sinsheim

A Tu-144 arrives at Germany's Technik Museum Sinsheim in 2001.

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Sinsheim Technik Museum

The only Tu-144 you can tour outside of Russia. It's the only place in the world you can see one next to a Concorde.

We toured both, and the rest of the museum. For that story, check out Civilian supersonic: Exploring Russia's Tu-144 and the Concorde at the Technik Museum Sinsheim.   

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Bigger cousin

The Tu-144 is a little chubbier and blockier than the Concorde.

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Not taking flight

Many of the aircraft at the museum are fully accessible, though they're mounted at an angle, which makes exploring them quite... interesting.

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Short service

Epically unreliable, the Tu-144 only carried passengers in the years between 1975 and 1978 -- and then rarely.

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To help offset the nose pitching down when the elevons were angled downward, the Tu-144 has small retractable canards located behind the cockpit. 

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Canard closeup

Under the canards and droop nose.

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The Kolesov RD-36-51 engines were beasts, capable of 45,000 pounds (246 kN) of thrust each. The Tu-144 could fly higher and faster (Mach 2.15 vs Mach 2.04) than the Concorde.

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Earlier Tu-144s used even more powerful, but far thirstier, Kuznetsov NK-144 engines, limiting range severely.

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Into the blue

The Tu-144 had plenty of faults -- it was difficult to handle, and noisy in the cabin during flight -- but given the limited resources and more rudimentary technology, it's impressive it worked at all.

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The Tu-144 wasn't flown to the museum; it arrived from Moscow via barge and truck.

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Now boarding

You enter and exit at the very rear of the aircraft. When in service, this was storage.

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Having been long been fascinated by this plane, getting to go inside was a big thrill for Geoff, who toured the museum for CNET. The angle was quite steep and it's hot inside, so it's quite a climb up to the cockpit.

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Windows 3.1

These are easily the smallest windows Geoff had ever seen on a passenger aircraft. Smaller even than those on the Concorde, which are already pretty small. A paperback book would cover them.

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The 144 was enough wider than the Concorde to have a three-two seating layout, accommodating up to 140 passengers (20 more than the Concorde). Most of the seats have been removed to make it easier for visitors to move around.

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Not that the Concorde seats are too impressive either, but these don't look like what you'd expect to find on a supersonic airliner.

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3 up front

Like most airliners of the era, it had a crew of three.

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The flight engineer station, with duplicate throttles.

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