On June 3, 1973, Russia's supersonic rival to Concorde, the TU-144, crashed at the same airport the pilot of last week's accident was desperately hoping he might reach: Le Bourget. Pilot Mikhail Kozlov and his five crew died in the crash at an air show. Wreckage of the plane — which looked so like the British-French machine that it was dubbed Concordski — hit the village of Goussainville, killing eight.
The full report from a French-Soviet investigation was never disclosed. At the time, there were rumors of a botched espionage attempt by the French, mistakes by the crew, and mechanical failures.
The French eventually acknowledged that they had sent up a Mirage III jet to photograph the TU-144 in flight, without telling the Russians. The French also allegedly shortened the TU-144's demonstration flight at the last minute, and extended one by the Concorde.
The crew aboard the 144 were forced to improvise a landing and apparently tried to do so on the wrong runway. As they went around to make another attempt, they were on a collision course with the Mirage. Kozlov took evasive action, which supposedly caused stalls in some or all of the engines. He dropped the nose to restart, then overstressed the air frame trying to recover.
As with last week's accident, an expert pilot was watching as the TU-144 went down. Aerobatics legend Bob Hoover wrote in his autobiography, Forever Flying: "Throughout the first 10 days [of the show], there had been a fierce competition between the French Concorde and the Russian TU-144 ... I believed the Russian pilot was exceeding his flying capabilities ... At the reception the night before [the crash] ... he boasted that on Sunday he would outfly the Concorde. That day, the Concorde went first, and after the pilot performed a high-speed flyby, he pulled up steeply and climbed to approximately 10,000 [feet] before leveling off. When the TU-144 pilot performed the same maneuver he pulled the nose up so steeply l didn't believe he could possibly recover ... When the pilot stalled, the nose of the plane pitched over violently into a steep dive. As he attempted to pull out of the dive the airplane started breaking up."
The TU-144 made its maiden flight on Dec. 31, 1968 — two months before Concorde. It went into service in late 1969, carrying mail and freight, and first flew passengers in 1977.
The 1973 crash was followed by another TU-144 crash four years later en route to Moscow from Alma-Ata, and by a crash-landing at the Alma-Ata airport. The supersonic was withdrawn from service in 1985, but made an amazing comeback 11 years later. It was made airworthy again for a joint venture with the U.S. to research technology on a possible new High-Speed Civil Transport. Under the administration of NASA, and with the participation of U.S. firms such as Boeing and Rockwell, it became a flying laboratory, making 32 flights up to April 1999 at an airdrome near Moscow.
Now, the Tupolev bureau keep working on its successor, TU-244. They expect that the new supersonic could be airborne in 10 years — if any airline will buy it.