What really caused the Crash of the Soviet TU-144
Fascinating story on Nova detailing how the crash of the Russian supersonic passenger jet at the Paris air show in 1973 was, 25 years later, revealed to have been caused by a French Mirage fighter jet taking surveillance photos of the airplane. The Mirage was photographing the retractable "Canard" wings developed by the Soviets, that allowed their airplane that was larger and faster to make smoother landings at slower speeds than the Concorde.
NARRATOR: The TU-144 was scheduled to fly directly after Concorde. As it taxied for takeoff, the Russian pilot, Koslov, was told by the French air traffic controllers that his display time had been cut in half.
HOWARD MOON: The French, in my opinion, intervened into a scientific, technical spectacle for political reasons. This was a major piece of French prestige and honor. I think they simply wanted to showcase their bird. They wanted to show it off to the world and to push the Russians in the background.
NARRATOR: French test pilot, André Turcat, was watching the TU-144's display.
ANDRÉ TURCAT: We saw the whole movement, the whole presentation of the airplane from very close up. I must say, it was very well done. A 360-degree turn above the runway with good inclination. After this last pass, the plane climbed quite steeply.
NARRATOR: British pilot, John Farley, and his co-pilot, Andy Jones, were also watching.
JOHN FARLEY: Because there was no cloud, he could go up and up and up, and, I don't know, three and a half, four thousand feet. This thing was just going up, looking at it as we were, you know, going away from us like this. And then suddenly, it just very abruptly leveled off. I mean, really violently. And it did something that you never see big airplanes do, really violently change their pitch attitude. And both Andy and I went, "Ooooh!" You got this vision of this aircraft coming down. And it has to do with the angle, the speed, and the distance remaining when you think, 'That's not right.' And I said to Andy, "He's lost it." And at that point, with the aircraft still fairly well up, probably -- I don't know -- 1,500 feet or a bit less, it started to break up and had clearly been overstressed.
NARRATOR: Six Soviet crew members and eight French citizens died. One little boy playing in front of his home was decapitated by a piece of flying debris. Two other children were also killed. Sixty people were seriously injured and fifteen houses totally destroyed.
NARRATOR: Nearly 25 years after the event, what caused the TU-144 to crash is only now being revealed. Minutes before Concorde and the TU-144 were scheduled to fly, a French Army Mirage jet took off. A surprising departure, since at international airshows, competing pilots expect to have the skies to themselves. Regulations state that a five-mile column of airspace must be kept free for their display. Concorde's crew was warned that the Mirage would be flying. Jean Forestier, French accident investigator, was asked if the same courtesy had been extended to the Russian crew.
JEAN FORESTIER: No.
NARRATOR: Why not?
JEAN FORESTIER: Right. Listen. We're moving away from the subject. If this is the case, we will go round and round impossible issues. As far as I'm concerned, it's very clear. The conversation is going in such a way. It's quite clear. Right. It's over.
NARRATOR: Jean Forestier's revelation that the Soviet crew was not warned of the Mirage was excluded from the government statement. There is speculation that the French neglected to admit this breach of regulations because the Mirage was on a clandestine mission to photograph the TU-144 in flight. In particular, the French wanted detailed film of the canards, the insect wings behind the cockpit. Flying at a height of approximately 4,000 feet in and out of the clouds, the Mirage tracked the TU-144 through its routine. As the Soviet plane climbed on a trajectory which would cross the Mirage's flight path, the pilot, Koslov, was not aware that the French jet was flying directly above him.
YURII KASHTANOV: At the moment when the pilots saw the Mirage which was flying at roughly the same height as the TU-144, they couldn't tell whether it was coming towards them or moving away.
NARRATOR: To avoid colliding with the Mirage, Koslov was forced to pitch the plane violently downwards, causing gravitational forces of minus 1G, known in pilot's jargon as a bunt.
JOHN FARLEY: We talked to the Russian ground crew immediately after the accident, and they all said, as did a Rolls-Royce chap who was familiar with their engine, they all said, "Well, the engines would have not have taken that bunt." Now, what they meant by that was the compressors would probably have surged. This means that you lose thrust. The rotating machinery at the front of the engine, which is generating the pressure before it gets to the combustion chamber where you burn the fuel, that will have stalled. It's purely aerodynamic, and it would have stalled. So, he had one, two, maybe even all three or four of his engines misbehaving now. So, he's level. And you can almost see the question mark over the top of the airplane, you know, as it's going along level.
NARRATOR: At a height of 4,000 feet, Koslov had just one option -- to put the plane into a steep dive in an attempt to windmill-start his engines.
JOHN FARLEY: So, he's got to lower the nose, quickly get some speed up, get these engines blowing around, and then go through a few check lists, turn on the fuel, turn on the ignition, and so on. And I suspect that he did this and was completely preoccupied with it. Probably got one, two, maybe even all of them going in the end, and suddenly thought, "Oh! Look at the height!"
NARRATOR: In his effort to pull the jet out of its steep dive, Koslov over-stressed the plane, causing a structural failure. It is widely believed that the French and Soviet governments colluded to cover up the cause of the crash. With eight French citizens killed on the ground, the French government did not want the world to know that the Mirage jet was the precipitating cause of the accident. The official statement implied human error on the part of the Soviet pilot. Jean Forestier returned to defend the statement.