What Happened In The Tupolev Tu-144 Accident At The Paris Air Show In 1973?

The second half of the 20th century was all about the fight of the west versus the east. Arms races, fights for influence in several countries all around the world, a space race and to some extent, a race for the best commercial airliner to grace the skies were the main topics of that time.

While the Brits successfully built the first commercial jet in the form of a Comet, when the aircraft actually served passengers, it saw minimal success, as the Comet had multiple fuselage failures during the years. This allowed other manufacturers, including the Soviets and, namely, Tupolev, to catch up.

And they did with the Tupolev Tu-104, which beat the first American manufactured jet, the Boeing 707, by 2 years. The Tu-104 entered commercial service in September 1956 while the 707 made its debut commercial flight in October 1958.

But the Tu-104 had a similar story as the Comet – while it was “the first”, the aircraft itself was not very good.

Anyhow, the main topic regarding the commercial airline race is, of course, the Supersonic race.

The Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144 were set to fight for the glory of every nation and manufacturer that built it. As much as the two supersonic aircraft were built for the comfort of the passengers, they were also huge political statements.

It all came down at the 1971 Paris Air Show when the two supersonic aircraft finally met face-to-face. While the two showed off, nothing really eventful happened compared to the next Paris show, which happened in 1973.

Concorde and Tupolev Tu-144 at Sinsheim Museum In Germany

Two SSTS attending the Paris Air Show

The Soviets had pulled the first punch, as they made the first test flight just a little earlier than the test of Concorde.

However, the Europeans revealed the Concorde in 1969’s air show.

But in 1971, the general public both from the West and the East could see the competition they were facing. In a newspaper clip from The Los Angeles Times quoted a U.S. Air Force official saying that the Tu-144 is “a beautiful plane, we should build one like it.” On the other hand, the Soviets lacked presentational skills, as another U.S. expert noted that “This plane flies a lot, but you’d think if they wanted to sell it to the West they would at least put new tires on it”, as the Tupolev Tu-144 had very worn tires.

Generally speaking, the 1971 Paris Air Show was a success for the Soviets, as they showed a slick, greatly designed jet. The technical specifications, which the Soviets presented at the time, were much better as well – less weight, more passengers, more range. All in all, a better package than the Concorde.

Yet the 1973 Paris Air Show painted a very different picture and put a huge stain on Tupolev’s reputation.

The number 2 chassis of the Tupolev Tu-144, CCCP-77102, stalled and proceeded to enter a steep dive. The aircraft’s left wing disintegrated first, while the rest of the body followed it. The Tupolev Tu-144 plunged into the village of Goussainville, about 10 kilometers north of Paris – Bourget Airport.

As a result, 6 people on board and 8 people on the ground have passed away. The crash injured 60 people and left a huge question mark on what exactly happened.