#1: The Tu-144

I was an airplane freak as a kid. I read about airplanes, watched TV shows about them, watched them take off and land from the neighboring airport, and haunted the local airplane museum. I didn’t want to expect to become a pilot, but I loved airplanes. When we flew overseas I was ecstatic the whole time.

I spent my second grade year, ages 7-8, in Paris. My dad had a sabbatical year from his university job and was using it to teach and research at the University of Paris.

Near the end of our stay in Paris, the big air show occurred. I desperately wanted to go, so my brother, who is ten years older, took me. I was in heaven the whole day. All the world’s civilian and military planes show off there; it’s the big one. Not only did I see all sorts of supersonic fighter planes and huge weird transports, but the airliners were new and all of the planes did weird maneuvers to show off. The Paris show is not only a big entertainment event, but also the big marketplace for airplanes, so everyone wanted to make a big impression with their product.

At the time, the prestige plane was the Concorde, the Franco-British supersonic airliner. There was nothing like it in the world; even the U.S. had failed to build a supersonic liner. It hadn’t entered commercial service yet but was already famous, and was doing the air show circuit to drum up sales.

Since this was also the middle of the Cold War, the Russians felt the need to one-up the West. They built their own SST: The Tupolev 144. Due partly to spying and partly to their own considerable expertise, they got the Tu-144 up and running pretty quickly. It was not only intended as a propaganda victory, but as a tool; their empire was so huge that being able to send a liner across it at Mach 2 was an attractive idea.

At the ’73 Paris Air show they showed it off. The Concorde flew first, demonstrating its supersonic capability with a nice kaboom. Then the Tupolev took off. As I recall there was a flyby to show off the speed, and then the plane went out to a distance and dove. There was a tiny wisp of smoke, which I pointed out to my brother. “You’re always too dramatic,” he said, “there’s no smoke.” The plane didn’t come out of the dive. Instead, there was a gigantic explosion, impressive even at several miles distance. A fiery cloud rose up and then there was just this drifting huge black ball of smoke as the blast noise hit us.

The plane had augered down into a small French town, killing everyone on board and some people on the ground and taking out 15 houses. We all quietly went home.

I never lost my enthusiasm for airplanes, nor have I had any fear of flying since. But I don’t go to air shows. That’s where they take airplanes to their limits and beyond, whether out of sheer macho, the need to sell, or national pride. At 8 years old I had just learned an important lesson about hubris.

5 thoughts on “#1: The Tu-144

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