When the Concorde was under development in France, their major rival was a Soviet-built plane called the TU-144. It was essentially a slightly better imitation of the Concorde — and was arguably Andrei Tupolev’s finest design acheivement. These supersonic rivals contended for glory and for the world market for supersonic passenger flight until the TU-144 suffered a humiliat- ing crash at the Paris Airshow in 1973.
As you’d predict the planes were the center of a great deal of contrevorsy and espionage. One of the reveleations of this NOVA documentary is that the TU-144 crash may have been the result of a near collision with a French Mirage that allegedly was sent up to photograph Konkordski for later perusal by French designers.
The footage of the crash is pretty amazing: The plane flies in low, pitches straight up, climbs to about 4000 feet, and then pitches flat in less than a second — it then descends in a stall to about 1500 feet and disintegrates due to overstressing of the airframe.
NOVA #2503: Supersonic Spies Broadcast Transcript PBS Air date: January 27, 1998
JOHN FARLEY: Because there was no cloud, he could go up and up and up, and, I don’t know, three and a half, four thousand feet. This thing was just going up, looking at it as we were, you know, going away from us like this. And then suddenly, it just very abruptly leveled off. I mean, really violently. And it did something that you never see big airplanes do, really violently change their pitch attitude. And both Andy and I went, “Ooooh!” You got this vision of this aircraft coming down. And it has to do with the angle, the speed, and the distance remaining when you think, ‘That’s not right.’ And I said to Andy, “He’s lost it.” And at that point, with the aircraft still fairly well up, probably — I don’t know — 1,500 feet or a bit less, it started to break up and had clearly been overstressed.
NARRATOR: Six Soviet crew members and eight French citizens died. One little boy playing in front of his home was decapitated by a piece of flying debris. Two other children were also killed. Sixty people were seriously injured and fifteen houses totally destroyed.
HOWARD MOON: They did not come clean. To this day, there has not been a full explanation of what really happened, at least from government sources. It is my view that the Soviets and the French authorities cut a deal.
NARRATOR: One year after the accident, the French and Soviet governments issued a short statement concluding it was impossible to determine the cause of the crash. To this day, neither government has released a full report. Among other mysteries, the TU-144’s black box had apparently been destroyed.
JOHN FARLEY: I’ve never heard of a black box being destroyed. You have an aircraft that has broken up in the sky. And it’s just like throwing things out from a thousand feet up. They just fall down. It’s not like the aircraft plunging in one piece at 400 miles an hour, straight into the ground. You could believe that recorders and so on get badly damaged in the bottom of the crater.
NARRATOR: Nearly 25 years after the event, what caused the TU-144 to crash is only now being revealed. Minutes before Concorde and the TU-144 were scheduled to fly, a French Army Mirage jet took off. A surprising departure, since at international airshows, competing pilots expect to have the skies to themselves. Regulations state that a five-mile column of airspace must be kept free for their display. Concorde’s crew was warned that the Mirage would be flying. Jean Forestier, French accident investigator, was asked if the same courtesy had been extended to the Russian crew.
JEAN FORESTIER: No.
NARRATOR: Why not?
JEAN FORESTIER: Right. Listen. We’re moving away from the subject. If this is the case, we will go round and round impossible issues. As far as I’m concerned, it’s very clear. The conversation is going in such a way. It’s quite clear. Right. It’s over.
NARRATOR: Jean Forestier’s revelation that the Soviet crew was not warned of the Mirage was excluded from the government statement. There is speculation that the French neglected to admit this breach of regulations because the Mirage was on a clandestine mission to photograph the TU-144 in flight. In particular, the French wanted detailed film of the canards, the insect wings behind the cockpit. Flying at a height of approximately 4,000 feet in and out of the clouds, the Mirage tracked the TU-144 through its routine. As the Soviet plane climbed on a trajectory which would cross the Mirage’s flight path, the pilot, Koslov, was not aware that the French jet was flying directly above him.
YURII KASHTANOV: At the moment when the pilots saw the Mirage which was flying at roughly the same height as the TU-144, they couldn’t tell whether it was coming towards them or moving away.
NARRATOR: To avoid colliding with the Mirage, Koslov was forced to pitch the plane violently downwards, causing gravitational forces of minus 1G, known in pilot’s jargon as a bunt.