Aviation History: A Cold War Supersonic Rivalry

On Oct. 14th, 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier in the Bell X-1, a distinctive yellow rocket plane. Two years later, Britain launched the first ever jet-airliner, the de Havilland DH106 Comet. By the late 1950s, jet travel had begun to overtake piston-driven aircraft. The piston fighters that fought voraciously against the Axis Powers in the 1940s were left in the dust by their supersonic, jet-powered successors. Naturally, these advancements inspired the anticipation of supersonic passenger flight, which had yet to be achieved. In 1956, England once again took a great leap of faith when it instituted the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee. They have previously been embarrassed by the tragic and catastrophic accidents with the Comet, but were determined to launch the world’s next industry-disrupting airliner. Thus, the beginning of one of the Cold War’s great races for superiority had begun. 

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Britain’s great aerospace companies conceived potential designs, most of them never leaving the engineering journal. However, British Aircraft Corporation and their designs proved fruitful. Sud Aviation, later Aerospatiale, had been working on a visually similar design and had also run into the obstacle of extraordinary costs. In November of 1962, the British and the French governments came together to design a supersonic airliner, as costs were too high for Britain and France to go alone. The fusion of British and French innovation became known as “Concorde.” Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union  caught wind of this innovation being developed. The following year, the Soviets announced their response to Concorde— the Tupolev TU-144. 

After years of development, the western Concorde and the Soviet Tupolev TU-144 went from drawings to wind tunnel models, and eventually fully-functioning aircraft. They became the first and only supersonic airliners to date. When the Tupolev TU-144 was debuted to the West, it was compared to Concorde due to its uncanny likeness. Western press even went as far as dubbing the Soviet counterpart as “Concordski!” Both aircraft utilized the “droop-snoot” mechanism, which allowed their noses to lower and improve pilot visibility during critical phases of flight (takeoff and landing). Another example of commonality between the two was their ogival delta wings. The ogival shape was best suited to both aircraft for their supersonic performance. However, the overall countenances of the two is where their similarities end. 

Concorde was designed to cruise at Mach 2 without constant use of its afterburners. Primarily, the afterburners were used on takeoff and during the push through the transonic flight envelope. Unfortunately, the Russian Kuznetsov engines were not as advanced as the Rolls Royce Olympus 593 engines used by Concorde, and the TU-144’s range was severely shortened by its constant use of afterburner to sustain supersonic flight. Moreover, the Tupolev TU-144 had frequent engine surges due to its average intakes. This problem was less common on Concorde, which had an advanced variable geometry intake to cope with supersonic flight. The 

computerized intakes reduced the airflow speeds from supersonic to subsonic within a matter of seconds. According to Awadh Kapoor, an aerospace consultant and engineer, the reduced airflow velocity was more manageable for the engine compressors. 

Though flimsy in design, the TU-144 endured many inflight failures that compromised its safety. On the prototype’s return from the 1971 Paris Airshow, a large crack was discovered in Warsaw, Poland. Up to 226 failures have been recorded on the aircraft, eighty of which were inflight. In 1973, safety matters came to a head when a production model crashed at the Paris Airshow due to maneuvers beyond its structural capabilities. According to British Concorde test pilot Brian Trubshaw in the Paris Airshow disaster documentary “Secret History,” Concorde would have survived the same maneuvers without such catastrophic results due to its structurally superior design. British Airways announced the discovery of hairline cracks in the wings of their Concordes in the mid-1990s, albeit the fact they posed no safety threat. Minor cracks such as those discovered on Concorde are common on other airliners, and are monitored closely regardless of the level of risk they pose. 

Beyond the design nuances of the two supersonic airliners, both had extremely differing passenger experiences. Concorde fares ranged anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 USD, and passengers received some of the finest champagnes in the world. The cabin was comparable to first-class. On the other hand, the TU-144 was standard coach with only 18 first-class seats. On its first revenue flight, passengers only paid $110 USD to go supersonic. Passengers passed notes to one another due to unbearable cabin noise, while Concorde was considerably quiet and smooth to the surprise of many. Concorde carried on for twenty-seven years in service, while the service life of the TU-144 was inconsistent and primarily mail-based with fewer than sixty passenger flights. The TU-144 briefly returned to service for a handful of flights between 1997 and 1999, as it was a flying laboratory for one of NASA’s supersonic research programs. 

Concorde and the Tupolev TU-144 were of their own caliber— having been the world’s only of their kind. Today, both Concorde and the Tupolev TU-144 offer a window to the Cold War, an era of optimism and aggressive competition. In a melancholic fashion, the aircraft remain rooted to the ground, no longer exceeding the sound barrier with note-passers or champagne-sippers. Despite their retirement, they continue to inspire future generations of supersonic transport and aeronautical innovation.

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