This is an excerpt from Soviet SST: The Technopolitics of the TU-144
, which is the best and most comprehensive account yet written about the -144, of the first TU
-144 flight carrying Westerners in November 1977:
Westerners on board the 144 had a different story [from the official Soviet line]. This was the first occasion that non-Soviets had actually flown the TU
-144, and their dispatches revealed how uncomfortable it was. The Soviets had taken pains to make the first “commercial” flight of their flagship as auspicious as possible. Before takeoff, official speeches linked this first Soviet supersonic service to the sixtieth anniversary of the Revolution, as “a great achievement, a huge contribution to the celebrations.” But ground services were strictly earthbound. Bugavev, who had assigned the speech making to his deputy, Gulakov, was infuriated by the breakdown of a new motorized embarkation ramp, which delayed departure half an hour. Similar problems occurred on arrival in Alma-Ala, when the plane was towed back-and-forth for twenty-five minutes in an attempt to align it with an exit ramp.
Eighty privileged passengers, selected by the Soviet Foreign Ministry, were served caviar and cognac for breakfast from serving carts which could barely negotiate the narrow aisle. Reports of vibration problems seemed unfounded. The cabin had shortcomings: several ceiling panels were ajar, service trays stuck, and window shades dropped without being pulled. The five-abreast seating was criticized as cramped. Not all the toilets worked. These shortcomings were normal in a new airliner. A more serious problem remained.
On-board speakers played the theme from Love Story
, “Gloomy Sunday,” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head,” but few aboard could hear it. Their dominant impression was not speed but noise. Fed by the onrushing air, the huge air-conditioners and the huge engines created “an ear-shattering roar that could almost have been heard in Queens,” according to the New York Times
. Shouting, Tupolev explained that most on-board noise originated from the huge air-conditioners designed to keep the high skin temperatures at bay, and that Soviet technicians were at work to cut down the decibels. Passengers complained that the loud onrushing sound of wind made conversation impossible and communicated with each other by passing notes. The cacophony was almost unbearable in the rear of the cabin. Tupolev admitted that the TU
-144 was half again as noise as the conventional TU
The passengers’ other prime impression was the tremendous acceleration of which the 144 was capable as it took off. Air et Cosmos
calculated that it had a power-to-weight ratio almost 20 percent higher than the Concorde. Since the 144 was carrying only eighty passengers—57 percent of capacity—its rate of ascent was truly dramatic. Although the Soviets had devoted top priority to this project for fifteen years, they had been unable to achieve levels of comfort suitable for a civilian airliner. The noise, lack of range, and naked power of the TU
-144 reflected the personality of a military aircraft, as did its practice of landing with three popout parachutes instead of thrust reversers. Issuing sound-deadening helmets to passengers, as is done on board helicopters, would have been a cheap, pragmatic solution to the noise problem, but Tupolev was not about to accept defeat.
The Soviet media seem to have received mixed signals on coverage of this inaugural flight, patently designed for foreign consumption. Soviet press coverage of the first passenger flight was less than that of the first freight flight at the end of 1975. This ambivalence seems well founded. Following the media event of the first flight, Aeroflot canceled the next three, although tickets were sold and passengers were waiting. No explanation was given for these cancellations. For the West, this Soviet propaganda splash was anticlimactic: the Concorde had been serving international routes to the Middle East and North and South America for twenty-two months.
Keynes is dead and we are living in his long run.