On June 3, 1973, a Soviet supersonic TU-144 airliner crashed during a demonstration flight at the Paris Air Show. The plane’s top designer Aleksey Tupolev (son of the legendary Soviet aircraft designer and creator of the TU-144, Andrey Tupolev) watched from his seat at the air show as his fathers’ invention, during landing, went up in flames and plunged to the ground. Smashing everything crossing its path, the gigantic plane crashed and exploded, killing the entire flight crew of six and also eight more on the ground.
Building and design work on the TU-144 began in the 1960s, practically the same time as the Anglo-French government treaty started their Concorde project. In the end, the Soviet supersonic plane closely resembled the Concorde, with the same triangular wings and drooping nose. But most specialists say the similarities were normal, since both planes were fixed-wing aircraft built to carry passengers at twice the speed of sound and therefore similar solutions were found by both designers.
When the Soviet TU-144 prototype first flew in December 1968, it became the world’s first supersonic passenger jet (it preceded the Concorde flight by two months). The enormous interest taken by the world for the record-breaking jet was to be fulfilled at the prestigious Paris Air Show in June 1973, where it would first be displayed to the Western press at the Le Bourget airfield, along with its Anglo-French rival.
The flight conditions were perfect for the presentation, a beautiful sunny morning did not forebode a disaster, or so it seemed. At first everything went according to plan; the roar of the four engines and a powerful run impressed the spectators as it made its take off. The audience with their heads up looking to the sky applauded as they watched the jet make breathtaking 360 degree turns and other maneuvers in the air. The plane gave a top performance and prepared for landing. At that moment, disaster struck.
An official investigation lasted more than a year, but the true cause of this disaster could not be determined and remains controversial to this day. However, according to most experts, the disaster was caused by a French Mirage fighter that appeared in the flight zone (it was later discovered to have been secretly taking pictures of the airliner) which forced the pilot to perform a dangerous downwards maneuver in a desperate attempt to avoid a collision. Trying to pull out of the subsequent dive, the plane broke up and caught fire; a few seconds later, it headed straight for the ground.
This disaster did not prevent the TU-144 from beginning commercial flights. A modified version of the plane went into service in 1975, but its career was short lived. It was withdrawn from any further flights after another crash that killed two of the seven crew members in June 1978. Apart from that, another factor that stopped the production of the TU-144 was its small commercial potential, as it was expensive to operate and there were few in the Soviet Union who could afford fast international travel. The Concorde remained the only supersonic contender left, but eventually an air disaster in July 2000, killing 113 people, put a stop to its commercial operation as well. By horrible accident, it hit the ground just a few kilometers from the spot where the TU-144 was wrecked in 1973.