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Friday May 18 7:49 PM ET

Soviet SST Wings Its Way to Internet

By Chris Stetkiewicz

SEATTLE (Reuters) – For sale: Soviet-built supersonic Tu-144 jetliner. Top speed 1,650 mph, seats 135. Low miles. Price $10 million or best offer.

The plane is nearly 20 years old, but was fully refurbished for high-speed flight testing by NASA four years ago and would make a stunning executive jet or, more realistically, a spectacular flying billboard for corporate advertisers.

“It could go to a person who likes to own the fastest car or it could be used by a cola company who wants a marketing effort with global reach,” said Randall Stephens, a Texas aviation expert working with Russian jet maker Tupolev to sell the jet.

Nicknamed “Concordsky” because it closely resembled the Concorde built simultaneously by Britain and France in the late 1960s, the Soviet jet holds 35 more passengers and flies about 5 percent faster than its cousin.

But the Tu-144 was too noisy and inefficient for even the Soviet airline Aeroflot (AFLT.RTS) and deadly crashes at the Paris air show in 1972 and again in 1977 sealed its doom. Only a handful were ever produced.

Yet NASA found the price was right to lease a Tu-144 for over 300 hours of flight testing, three times what it had flown previously, and replaced its four old out-of-production engines with powerplants borrowed from a Tu-160 supersonic bomber.

Boeing, which announced plans for a near-sonic speed jet earlier this year, participated in the flight tests and probably got some good ideas along the way, experts said.

With the upgrades and flight testing costing about $35 million, the $10 million Tu-144 asking price is a steal, said Paul Duffy, an Irish aviation consultant.

“For $10 million you could probably buy a 12-year-old Boeing (NYSE:BA – news) 737,” Duffy said. “But this (Tu-144) is very special. If you can make any use of it you are getting a real bargain.”

EBAY GETS COLD FEET

Stephens posted the jet for sale on Internet auction house Ebay Inc. (NasdaqNM:EBAY – news) and got at least one tentative bid. But after a week Ebay grew concerned over U.S. laws banning imports of big Soviet jets and withdrew the item to make legal checks.

Ebay would earn $125,000 if the jet sold for $10 million, nearly 10 times the next most expensive Ebay sales — a Kentucky resort and a famous baseball card, a spokesman said.

Undaunted, Stephens has posted the Tu-144 for sale on his own Web site, (http://www.tejavia.com), and says he and Tupolev can provide maintenance and spare parts and operate the airplane for prospective customers.

For Stephens, the commercial project also represents his faith in the people and technology of the failed Soviet empire and his desire to forge closer ties between the onetime Cold War enemies by marketing other Russian planes.

“I believe in capitalism and I believe in the possibility of us working together. I find people over there feel the same way,” Stephens said. “Russians are a tenacious, long-suffering people and the people on the street actually like us.”

The cost of operating the Tu-144 could prove prohibitive, experts say. The Concorde, undergoing a make-over after crashing for the first time near Paris last summer, is more efficient than the Tu-144. But airlines still charge thousands of dollars for a one-way transatlantic trip at twice the speed of sound.

“A blimp or a Boeing 727 would be much cheaper and present fewer regulatory worries as a flying billboard,” said Richard Aboulafia at Virginia aviation consultancy Teal Group. “The Tupolev 144 has baggage, including the most spectacular disaster at an air show in recent memory.”

Recent reports suggest French fighter jets, equipped with cameras to snap photos of the Concorde competitor, actually caused the Tu-144 crash by swooping too close, forcing the Soviet jet into a steep climb well outside its design limits.

But regardless of the cause, the jet’s lousy track record could be its own worst enemy. “It’s a piece of junk,” said Colorado aviation consultant Mike Boyd. “You don’t want be seen in it or around it.”

NOSTALGIA OR REAL VALUE?

Western manufacturers like Boeing have sifted through the rubble of the Communist Soviet economy to find inexpensive technology and engineering talent and put them to work researching or operating commercial projects.

Boeing officials privately marvel at the advanced Russian jet designs that rivaled Western ones on smaller budgets. But public perception of Iron Curtain engineering could hardly be worse with memories of the nuclear reactor explosion at Chernobyl and the sinking of Russia’s Kursk nuclear submarine last year still fresh in many people’s minds.

And just this month Russian space officials reportedly got $20 million from Dennis Tito to make him the world’s first space tourist, subsidizing their share of the International Space Station, but angering their NASA counterparts.

Ever optimistic, Stephens insists the Tu-144 will fly once more, a tribute to the human obsession with superfast flight.

“Even 30 years later, people still stop and stare open-mouthed when the Concorde takes off,” Stephens said. “This is going to be a great advertising medium.”

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