Vehicles | September 11, 2022 8:05 pm

Inside the Soviet Union’s Effort to Build a Supersonic Passenger Plane

The complex history of the "Concordski"

Inaugural commercial flights of the supersonic airliner Concorde on 21st January 1976, seven years after its maiden test flight.
Victor Crawshaw/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

At a time when the world feels increasingly interconnected, it’s not hard to see the appeal of air travel — especially in a manner that might involve getting around the world at significantly faster speeds than most frequent flyers are accustomed. It’s why there’s a renewed push to bring back supersonic commercial air travel, and why mentioning the Concorde brings up a certain fond nostalgia.

But the Concorde isn’t necessarily the only piece of air travel history that involves supersonic speeds. In a new article at Air Mail, Sam Kashner explored the Soviet Union’s attempts to come up with a supersonic jetliner of its own.

As Kashner tells it, this effort began during Khrushchev’s time in office, with the hopes that the Soviet Union would be the first nation to manufacture a supersonic airliner. When they fell behind, the government utilized a variety of methods to explore the industry, from reviewing industry publications to outright espionage. The question of how much of a role espionage played in the development of the Tu-144, or “Condordski,” is an open one.

On one hand, the two planes look very similar; on the other, Kashner talked to several experts who contended, essentially, that there’s really only one way to design a supersonic plane of that size, and that the similarities are inherent to the form.

In the end, the history of the Tu-144 took a tragic turn when, at its public debut, it crashed — killing the entire crew and several people on the ground. That, combined with the Concorde’s own financial and logistical issues, effectively ended the project. Time will tell if the next generation of supersonic passenger jets will have a more successful road ahead of it.