May 09, 2007

Supersonic Flight

Supersonic Flight

The Concorde is not the world's only supersonic commercial jet travel effort. On December 3, 1968, the Soviet TU-144 made its first flight. This was three months prior to the first flight of the Franco-British Concorde.

Unlike the Concorde, the TU-144 did not enjoy aviation success. On June 3, 1973, a Tupolev crashed while taking part in the Paris Air Show at the Le Bourget airport. The pilot lost control during a steep climb and the canard (stabilizing wing) tore and put a hole in a fuel tank which was housed in the plane's wing. The plane turned into a fireball, crashing in Goussainville, just four miles from the July 25, 2000, crash of the Concorde. The six Soviet crewmen perished, along with eight people on the ground. All totaled, 60 people were injured and 15 houses were utterly destroyed. Officially, the cause of the mishap was never determined.

The future of the TU-144 as a commercial aircraft came to an abrupt end. In 1975, the Soviet Union was using the plane for cargo flights between Moscow and Almaty, Kazakstan. For a brief time, passengers were added to this 1,800 mile run (1977), but the entire program was scrapped in 1985. A total of 17 Tupolevs were made by the Soviets.

NASA and Russia joined together, in 1996, to begin testing the possibility of using a TU-144 as a flying laboratory. Known as the TU-144LL, the craft is part of NASA's High-Speed Research Program (HSCT) whose goal is to develope the TU-144 for future passenger travel. Boeing contracted to use a TU-144D for the experiments. Also involved in the project are McDonnell Douglas, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney.

The experimental flights ended in February, 1998, with seven follow-up flights which concluded in April, 1999, just one month after the 30th anniversary of the Concorde.

The original goal was to create a supersonic passenger craft that could carry 250-300 passengers; Concorde carries 100; and make the flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo in only 4.5 hours. The plan was to make the ticket price on this transport only 20 percent more than slower, commercial airliners. Three things have always caused problems for supersonic flight; cost, noise and pollution.

Due to mounting costs, Boeing pulled out of the TU-144LL program in 1999. NASA tabled the program, as a result, and channeled the funds into the ISS. Nevertheless, NASA and the HSCT gained much from this venture in the form of research data. Special metallic materials designed for the new supersonic craft are being tested for space use. These materials are reported to be able to tolerate temperatures of 350 degrees for up to 20 years of flight. The TU-144LL program also developed cleaner burning engines which are being tested for conventional airliners. A computer which regulates and adjusts the airflow around the plane's wings and body is being considered for use with Boeing's supersonic fighter jet technology.

It's anyone's guess when or if the TU-144LL program will be resumed. Regardless, Russia's contributions to supersonic air and space flight have been invaluable.

Aircraft designer, Alexei Tupolev, died in Moscow on Saturday, May 12, 2001. During the Soviet era, Tupolev supervised the design, construction and testing of the Tu-144 supersonic jet (1963 - 1968) and the Tu-2000, the Soviet version of a space shuttle Buran (1988). Alexei was the son of Soviet aircraft pioneer Andrei Tupolev, who died in 1972. Andrei developed over 100 military and civilian aircrafts including the Antonov-25 and the Tu-104, the Soviet Union's first passenger jet. Father and son worked side by side on the Tu-144.

Other Tupolev aircraft:
TU-95 Bear | TU-126 Moses | TU-160 Blackjack |
TU-22 Blinder | TU-22M Backfire | TU-16 Badger |
TU-128 Fiddler | TU-2000 | TU-160 |
TU-154 Passenger
| TU-134 Passenger

Photographic image courtesy of NASA.

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