Fri, 22 Sep 2023

A Paris Air Show tragedy 50 years ago marked the beginning of the end for supersonic travel.

As aircraft roared overhead during the Paris Air Show on June 3, 1973, 12-year-old Marianne was playing with dolls alongside her cousin and sister in the town of Goussainville. At 3:39 that afternoon a Soviet Tu-144 supersonic passenger jet nose-dived above the children and then broke apart.

'I saw absolutely everything,' Marianne later recounted to a French journalist, "I watched the plane diving down, spinning, exploding into flames and falling on the school and the houses."

People walk among the fallen wreckage of the Tu-144 that crashed onto Goussainville.

The girl's sister, Martine, was killed in front of Marianne by falling debris, while their cousin suffered serious injuries.

Along with 11-year-old Martine, seven other people in the town were killed in the fiery crash and all eight crew aboard the Soviet jet also died. The tragedy took place in front of more than 250,000 spectators who had gathered to watch flights by both the Tu-144 and Concorde, the world's only other supersonic passenger jet.

A wooden model of America's version of a supersonic transport jet, photographed in 1970.

From the 1950s, supersonic transport (SST) was widely seen as the next frontier for airline travel. Britain and France jointly began development of the technology in the 1960s, followed by the United States, which feared its dominance in jet airliner manufacturing could be lost if SST was adopted widely adopted.

The U.S.-government-funded SST project was eventually canceled, partly as a result of monthslong 'boom tests' above Oklahoma in 1964 that highlighted the nerve-rattling, window-shattering side effect of supersonic overflights.

A model of the Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic passenger aircraft being prepared for structural testing at a facility near Moscow in 1971.

In the Soviet Union, with the space race ongoing, the quest for a hyper-fast passenger jet was seen as a new opportunity to potentially demonstrate technical supremacy over the West, and a way to effectively shrink the vast expanse of the U.S.S.R.

With the development of the Franco-British Concorde project already under way, the Soviet leadership in the early 1960s approved their own plan to create the first supersonic airliner. The Kremlin decreed that the first jet should be airborne by 1968.

Mikhail Kozlov at the controls of an early Tu-144. The decorated test pilot was flying the plane that crashed near Paris in June 1973.

Both the Soviet Union and Western countries had military supersonic jets in use, but the technical difficulties of creating a plane that flew faster than a rifle bullet, yet was comfortable and safe enough for regular passenger use, were immense.

The Tu-144 photographed in December 1968, the month of its maiden flight.

Valery Benderov, the son of the lead flight engineer aboard the doomed Tu-144, told a Russian journalist, "to speak plainly, the aircraft was created at an accelerated pace." He added that, "in 1965 the first plans appeared. The plane took off three years later. Three years is a very short time for such a machine."

The yoke of the Tu-144

When the supersonic airliner set off for the 1973 Paris Air Show, Olga Benderov, the daughter of its doomed flight engineer Vladimir Benderov recalled, "he knew that the plane was not finished properly, it was still 'raw'. My father said to my half-brother Valera 'Take care of Olga,' he'd never said that before a business trip."

A policeman guards a chunk of the Tu-144 in Goussainville on June 4, 1973.

A cause for the 1973 crash has never been confirmed. One theory is that a French Mirage jet flew too close to the Tupolev, which evaded the smaller aircraft and lost control. One French eyewitness confirmed that the doomed Tupolev "was accompanied by a small Mirage which left toward the city when the Tupolev 144 stalled." Other experts put the crash down to the aggressive maneuvering of the aircraft "that exceeded allowable stress limits."

Passengers inside the first passenger flight of the Tu-144, from Moscow to Alma-Ata in Soviet Kazakhstan, on November 1, 1977.

Despite the 1973 crash, two years later the Tu-144 entered service carrying mail between Moscow and Alma-Ata (now Almaty) in Soviet Kazakhstan. By November 1977, it was carrying passengers along the same route, which was chosen for its sparsely populated flight path.

The flight time was two hours, less than half the time of other passenger jets but journalists aboard noted "during the flight the cabin is noisy. One can have a conversation only with difficulty."

A ceremony to install a Tu-144 as a monument in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, in August 2019.

After another crash of a Tu-144 during a test flight in 1978 killed two flight engineers, the passenger service was shut down, then the entire Tu-144 program was ended in 1983. The supersonic jet's final mission was a joint Russian-American research project on supersonic travel that lasted until 1999.

In July 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed shortly after takeoff just a few kilometers from where the Tu-144 had crashed in 1973. In 2003, the Concorde program was also shut down, marking the end of supersonic passenger travel.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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