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The day the Red Star fell to earth at Le Bourget

The doomed TU-144 on arrival at Le Bourget 1973: Public domain

There was a flying contest at Le Bourget north of Paris 40 years ago that was not about anything as predictable as those between today’s airliner makers.  It was between the dueling supersonic airliners, the Concorde, and the Soviet Union’s TU-144.

This was wasn’t Airbus v Boeing, but East versus West.  And the West won. The TU-144 crashed, already in pieces from structural failure, into the village of Goussainville, killing eight people on the ground and all six who were on board.

Not everyone will agree with the writer’s recollections or reports from that crash, but most of those who saw it most likely would agree, as would one person in particular, Sir George Edwards,  the head of Concorde partner the British Aircraft Corporation.

I was standing beside Edwards in the BAC Chalet when the pride of the USSR crashed to earth.  As an ABC News and Television reporter on assignment in Paris, I had my ‘giant’ ¼ inch tape Nagra recorder with me.

Edwards gave me a succinct summary of what we had just witnessed, then I disassembled the telephone on a nearby desk, jacked the Nagra into the mouthpiece with alligator clips, and played the unedited interview down the line to Aunty.

Concorde and the TU-144 were in an avowed contest to thrill the crowds and display superiority over each other.  Doing so at low altitude and speed would not have proven anything really from the point of view of  the world’s airlines, many of whom, including Qantas, had signed up for intentions to buy the supersonic Concorde, if it all worked out.

But that was what air shows have always done.  The goods are not just put on ground display, but often in a flying display, and in 1973 Concorde and the TU-144 were being flown for visual effect, in ways neither would ever be flown with paying passengers on board.

On 3 June, 1973,  Concorde took off first and immediately performed a series of graceful wing rolls followed by a steep but smooth climb in what was from memory several passes of the line of chalets and their viewing terraces or areas.

The TU-144 followed the routine, but lurched rather than rolled from side to side,  in an aggressive and clumsy looking display in which the afterburners were re-ignited at the start of the climb. (Memory says Concorde also fired them up at this point, but memory may be wrong. ).

There were two passes by Concorde, bracketing the visibly less stable turn in, wing waggle  and climb routine by the TU-144.  The BAC chalet was the place to be.

On its second pass the TU-144 was notably more aggressive in its handling than on the first.  It slammed from one side to the other, and then entered a breathtakingly steep climb, afterburners on.  Conversation stopped.  At the vertex of the parabola the TU-144 seemed to slow notably.  There was a hint of a shudder, and  on the starboard side, which was being presented to observers, there was a mist of brown that briefly appeared behind the engines on that side.

Reheat was off.  In a matter of seconds the TU-144 was falling, ever faster downwards. “He’s lost it” Edwards said.  Edwards, 1908-2003, was as qualified as anyone on earth to make such a call.  A few seconds after that everyone else was gasping their disbelief then dismay as the delta winged SST became notably faster in its downward trajectory.

Looking from behind, it was suddenly obvious that the nose had been raised into a flatter attitude than before. It was now well beyond the perimeter of Le Bourget. The TU-144  was being pancaked downwards. There were several quick eruptions of flame from the fuselage ahead of the leading edge of the delta wing, one much larger than the other,  almost instantly followed by a catastrophic break up of the first half of the airliner into large chunks and streams of debris.

Several seconds at most after that there were two large impact balls of flame and smoke on the horizon. A church steeple snapped and fell over.

Either just before or after this Concorde touched down at the opposite end of the field from the belching smoke from Goussainville.

The flying show public announcer announced whatever it was that then took off on the  flying program roster.  No mention was made of the twin plumes of smoke  on the horizon from the loser of the supersonic airliner show off show down.

Edwards outlined the sequence of events in a matter of fact delivery.  Reheat, steep climb, possible aerodynamic low speed instability, definite engine stall on starboard side, puff of unburnt fuel from attempt to restart it, steep descent, recovery effort, nose high, aerodynamic rupture, crash.

It was scoop time.

A quick call to the London bureau. ‘Concordski down’. Get me a TV crew.  Raw interview coming down the line next.  (Was able to work in with BBC crew that came running from further down the flight line. )  Quick exec decision taken to leave the impact zone to either BBC or RTF to keep hooking up to project leaders at Le Bourget.

Russians not talking.  Same people who had refused earlier requests to go flying on the jet. They were sitting with their backs to a locked door into their area. By contrast, Airbus Industrie had been more than willing to let me on board their A300 demonstrator with cameras, with  Bernard Ziegler, Airbus test pilot and head of engineering,  and US presidential hopeful Senator Barry Goldwater,  at the controls,  but that was another happier story from my first Le Bourget.

Like the French media,  who had been onto the ‘flying contest’ between the supersonics for days,  the ABC story was about a fly-off that had ended for whatever reason in a crash.

The special BBC ‘hit’ team that charged through the door quite some hours later from London  was aghast at the angle taken, perhaps because it implied Concorde had been somehow responsible for the TU-144′s misfortune.

Which was never implied or framed in such a manner.  The  local media approach to the situation, and that of various qualified aerospace authorities, including Edwards,  was that the TU-144 had been flown outside of its capabilities, and that the consequences through handling issues at top of climb, with or without the additional challenge of a related engine stall, came together to bring it tragically undone.

This account of the crash in Wikipedia accords with this view.

Although the quality of the video isn’t great there is an historic YouTube of a story on Planete  which captured Concorde starting its routine as the TU-144 that crashed is moving into position for takeoff. To view it you need to first visit this page on a TU-144 site then locate it under the title Concorde and TU-144 Paris Air Show.

There are two screen captures from this below.

Concorde in distance under the nose of the TU-144: Planete

One of the astonishing things about the 1973 crash was that no television footage of the entire sequence of the  crash has ever been found searching accessible video libraries. It was witnessed by tens of thousands of spectators but not apparently, recorded in full by the camera crews present.

None of them were following the TU-144 from reheat and climb to the first signs of difficulty that stopped the small talk in the BAC Chalet. It was an event that took only seconds to play out.  The various reports that are discoverable start either just before or immediately after the fuselage ruptures under the excessive forces of a drastic recovery pull up by the crew.

One of them is shown below.

YouTube Preview Image

Much has been made in subsequent years of claims that a French Air Force Mirage, which distantly followed the TU-144 on its second ill-fated pass  ‘surprised’ the pilots.

The Mirage was trailing the SST  on its starboard side from where it could have, as speculated, been observing the deployment of the retractable canard winglets mounted behind the cockpit, and some other control surfaces as well.

But in that position it seems to have been in the blind spot of the second test pilot, who may however have learned of its presence by radio.  It was a  long a way away, and certainly not a factor in the engines afterburners being relit and the jet initiating a steep climb from which for a combination of factors it was unable to recover.

The merits of an observation mission seem questionable.  The ‘west’ knew what the canards did, and what their dimensions were to the last millimeter well before the jet arrived in Paris, where spooks had limitless opportunities to walk under and around the jet and take all sorts of photos of it.

The Russian jet was flown by test pilots, meaning they wouldn’t be surprised by anything,  and at the time the Mirage comes into frame, the TU-144 is committed to a course of action that proved fatal. There is no time nor reason for the second pilot to glance over his right shoulder.

This year there will of course be flying contests at Le Bourget.  Sane ones. Not flypasts of 787s pulling Gs followed by the surprises appearance of an A350 pulling Gs.  There won’t be, indeed never has been, dueling fly pasts by 777s and A330s or A380s.

The only surprises will be the statistical analyses which will as always, be masterpieces of emphasis, arithmetic, and exquisitely selective data starting points  that ought be reviewed by forensic accountants rather than aviation journalists.

May all those present enjoy the spectacles, in the air, or in Powerpoint.

The technicalities of reporting  in 1973.

Voice inserts, as the ABC then called them, were almost instantaneous, while TV, shot on 16 mm film, and then developed and sound synched, took about three days to get to air in Australia. Which  would be around two days after the headlines on a newspaper reporting the same incident had gone to fish wrappers.

Satellite crosses cost something like $US 70,000 for a few minutes. No “take two” allowed, ever.  There weren’t many satellites either, they had to be booked in advance, and 20-70 grand was the sort of money that in those days bought a line of three or more inner Sydney harbour view cottages that these days go far millions of dollars apiece.

But we did eventually use a satellite, for about 30 seconds,  to top and tail to camera a voice over done against footage of the crash. Which came after much scripting to and fro by telex (look it up) and recording it to the exact second using a datel line, which was a large number of telephone lines simultaneously tasked with conveying speech at passably broadcast quality within the capabilities of 70s communications technology.

It was anything but straightforward, but unlike today, reporters always had time to review what they knew, and think before speaking.

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  • 1
    Charles Alpren
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Wow. What a fabulous post, thank you. I remember learning at school that the failure of the TU-144 was due to industrial espionage, and an example of the West’s supremacy in the Cold War. It’s good to know this may not have been the case, as it always struck me as in incredibly bad tase to rejoice at such a thing. God I miss Concorde.

  • 2
    fractious
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    A doco (in Russian – you have to fiddle with the buttons to get English subtitles) about the Tu-144 here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=BBhLZcNKM9M

    Being a good English schoolboy at the time of course I wanted “our” team to win, but even then I was fascinated by the Tu-144, partly perhaps because it was a product of the Soviet bloc and thus had all sorts of cloak-and-dagger nonsense attached to it, including epically grainy “secret” film footage. Back then I didn’t know the difference but even now it looks somehow clunky compared with Concorde, though I don’t doubt the technical expertise of those who designed and built it.

    I wasn’t aware till I read your post Ben that you were such a high flier (pun intended) for Aunty. I’m sure you’ve got some rather saucy stories from those times that you can’t talk about…

  • 3
    fractious
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Double post (the first is in moderation) – though I would never wish the tragic ending the Tu-144 suffered on any modern airliner at a display, to my mind a lot of the excitement of the 70s and the iconic planes it created has gone, replaced by rather too much PR spin and too little spectacle. Yes of course I’m biased and probably blinkered, but then I was spoiled as a teenager – the skies were full of things like F4 Phantoms, EE Lightnings, BAe Harriers, HS Nimrods (hugely uprated Comets bristling with AWACS gear), Boeing 707s, 727s and the amazing (back then) 747, Vickers VC-10s (I can still remember the noise a BOAC VC-10 made as it took off over SW London), BEA HS Tridents and so on. So that’s my excuse for being a little underwhelmed by (yet) another twin-engined wide-body (I have a job telling one from another most days).

  • 4
    comet
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for that interesting story, Ben. I hope it somehow becomes archived on the internet for future generations to read such an informed eyewitness account of that dreadful day.

    Did the ‘West’ really win?

    The West’s supersonic plane eventually met the same fate taking off from the same city, crashing back to earth in a giant fireball. Although I understand that both the TU-144 and the Concorde flew for some time after their respective crashes, but it was those crashes that really sealed their fate.

  • 5
    Richard de Crespigny
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article Ben.

    It’s worth remembering that the Concorde was the first commercial FBW aircraft.

    The SST industry would be much different today (it might have even survived) had the TU-144 not crashed forty years ago.

    Commercial-military-national competition (and pride) would have flourished amoungst the Anglo-French, American and Russian SST manufacturers and perhaps an economical SST airliner might have emerged after many iterations that would still be flying today.

  • 6
    wordfactory
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    You should write at least one of these longer “reads” every week. There is much knowledge in your long experience that never gets written down. It’s a nice contrast to your crusades.

  • 7
    discus
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic post Ben. Thank you. Those SST’s must have been a bitch to tow without bending them. The nose overhang over the tug is astonishing.I’m with fractious. The 60s and 70s saw some amazing aircraft. Most of which you tell apart quite easily at a glance.

  • 8
    pieter
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant read, thanks a lot. With your personal memories and experience you should do what Richard did: write a book.

    I’ve been lucky enough to fly in a Concorde once. Just before descent into JFK the captain announced: “Let me just take you up to 60.000 ft, so that you’ve been there”.

    Both the TU-144 and a retired AF Concorde are on display next to each other in Sinsheim, Germany. They can even be seen from the A6 motorway going past.

  • 9
    Peter Lovett
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    I have read an account of this crash that puts, at least some of the blame, on the French controllers for allowing another aircraft (not the Mirage) to enter the airspace where the TU-144 was flying which forced the aircraft into a negative G manoeuvre that led to it breaking up and crashing. I can in no way vouch for the accuracy of the claim.

  • 10
    status07
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    http://stallwarning.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/23000-ft/
    http://stallwarning.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/concorde/

  • 11
    comet
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what market the Soviets were aiming at for the TU-144.

    Even before the oil shock of 1973 (the same year it crashed), how many citizens behind the Soviet iron curtain would have been able to afford supersonic travel?

    It also seems strange that sharp manoeuvres were enough to cause this aircraft to disintegrate before it hit the ground. Yes, I know that sharp manoeuvres were blamed for causing the vertical tail fin and rudder to separate from an American Airlines Airbus A300 which crashed into houses in New York in 2001. But aren’t airliners designed to take much more than that?

    Amazingly, the TU-144′s impact zone here (Google Map TU-144) is only 4.5 kilometres from the Concorde’s impact zone here (Google Map Concorde).

    The Concorde crashed into a hotel. If you look at the Google Map of Concorde’s crash site in satellite view, you can still see the foundations of where the hotel was. Thirteen years later, it appears not to have been rebuilt.

  • 12
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    The TU-144 not only flew higher (63,000 feet) and faster than the Concorde (mach 2.3) but was the only airliner type that the previous USSR version of Aeroflot admitted publicly to being afraid of.

    The superior metrics of the Russian SST were only briefly sustainable and required continuous reheat according to some analysis compared to the two periods in which it was normally used on Concorde, which was on takeoff and then during transition from around mach 1.2 to mach 1.7 by which time it was at around 45,000 feet and gradually rising to a cruise altitude of between the low and high 50 K level and it think not all that often at 60,000 feet. It’s sweet spot was around mach 1.98-mach 2.

    The Concorde could also do the LHR-JKF route non-stop, all but the much modified last experimental variant of the TU-144 did not have that endurance.

    Aeroflot eventually turned the Moscow-Alma Ata route into a package service. There were a number of serious crashes. The airline and its customers were claimed to be terrified of the jet, although this did not become widely known in the West until soon before or after the fall of the USSR.

    To answer Comet’s question about markets aimed for, I don’t think ‘markets’ came into it. The goal of the TU-144 was to fly higher and faster than Concorde, which it did. But not usefully.

  • 13
    comet
    Posted June 17, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Ah. National pride. Thanks for that incredibly interesting answer, Ben.

  • 14
    wendal
    Posted June 18, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Is it not somewhat ironic that one of the last actions of the crew of doomed Concorde flight AF4590 was to attempt to reach Le Bourget?

  • 15
    Malcolm Street
    Posted June 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Ben – yes, bizarre that having developed an SST the Soviets then only used it to carry parcels!

  • 16
    Malcolm Street
    Posted June 18, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Just read the whole Wikipedia article on the Tu-144 for the first time – frightening! What a lemon!

  • 17
    comet
    Posted June 18, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Science fiction.

    People going to the moon

    Air passengers hurtling through the stratosphere at supersonic speeds.

    Now these are all just museum pieces, frivolous relics from a bygone era.

  • 18
    Doug Fraser
    Posted June 19, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    In case anyone is still interested, I spent some time sorting through the usual mess of spotty fragments on YouTube and struck gold (of sorts) in this German doco which tells the full story of the Tu144 series:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WPsbulT1oE

    Provided your German is up to scratch, this is well worth the 45 minutes you need to view the full clip – worth a second viewing, even. The story is full of odd little crotchets you wouldn’t have expected. Even if you don’t have any German, it’s worth watching for their digitally cleaned-up version of the INA footage of the crash to which Ben referred us.

    Interesting take on the conspiracy theories, too. They start by running with the Mirage one, which everyone in the Soviet Union seems to have believed at the time (complete with *very* unconvincing computer-generated mockup), but at the end of the program come round to the idea that the experimental “autopilot” (which sounds like some kind of spiritual predecessor of VW’s DSG gearbox) cut in at just the wrong moment and sent the plane into its death-dive. They attribute this version to the black box, generally supposed to have been destroyed, which Russian spooks in the crash analysis team reportedly found lurking in a bucket in Goussainville, privily took home and analysed. The results were apparently so embarrassing they were kept under wraps until well after the Soviet Union was no longer around to worry about getting embarrassed. Makes a good story, anyhow.

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