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"Supersonic Spies"

PBS Airdate: January 27, 1998
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HOWARD MOON: To this day, there has not been a full explanation of what really happened.

ANNOUNCER: A mysterious crash amidst a Cold War battle for supersonic supremacy, fought with ingenuity in the skies. . .

HOWARD MOON: They claimed it was faster. It was a very impressive aircraft. We took it very seriously.

ANNOUNCER: . . .and espionage on the ground. Now, the untold story of Supersonic Spies.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from The Quiet Company? Northwestern Mutual Life.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and viewers like you.

NARRATOR: Just minutes after take-off, this plane will be carrying passengers across the Atlantic at more than twice the speed of sound. It is the Concorde, the only supersonic jet in commercial service. Over twenty years old, this product of Anglo-French ingenuity has flown more miles beyond the speed of sound than all other supersonic aircraft combined. But Concorde was not the first. It once shared the skies with another supersonic rival—a Soviet-built look-alike nicknamed Konkordski. During the Cold War years of their development, these two jets fought to win both profit and prestige in the world aviation market. It was a battle for supersonic supremacy. It was fought not only in the skies by the world's top aircraft designers, but also on the ground, by secret agents working for the East and the West.

RAYMOND BAXTER: It was one of the most classic examples of industrial espionage in the history of modern aviation.

NARRATOR: The battle began in 1962, the year France and Britain joined forces to build the world's first supersonic passenger jet. They believed the future of civil aviation was at stake. From the start, it was a high-risk venture. Serious technological problems would need to be solved. Engines would need to be twice as powerful as those found on even the largest subsonic jets. The airframe would have to withstand enormous forces caused by shock waves during supersonic flight. Heat buildup was another concern. At 1,400 miles per hour, wind friction quickly raises airframe temperatures beyond the boiling point of water. Only military pilots had ever ventured into such hostile territory. In the ink-blue skies of the stratosphere, flying faster than a rifle bullet, this new jet would have to carry over 100 passengers in complete comfort and safety. Its complexity was unprecedented, but so was its promise. The United States entered the race with this Boeing design, seen here in a full-scale mock-up. The Boeing 2707, with its extravagant swing-wing configuration, would be one-third faster and twice the size of Concorde. Boeing proceeded at its own pace, believing that when the 2707 emerged, it would win the market. Although confident after Soviet triumphs in the space race, Nikita Khruschev saw matters in a different light. He did not aspire to the grand schemes of Boeing, but chose instead to compete head to head with Concorde. And he would stop at nothing to win.

ALEXANDER POUKHOV: For the Soviet Union to allow the West to get ahead and leave it behind at that time was quite unthinkable. We not only had to prevent the West from getting ahead, but had to compete and leapfrog them, if necessary. This was the task Khruschev set us.

NARRATOR: The Kremlin was convinced that beating Concorde into the air would clinch their lead in aerospace technology. Deep within the Soviet Union, Khruschev gathered his senior aviation engineers. In a secret meeting, design blueprints for a Russian Concorde called the TU-144 were drafted and discussed. Khruschev's favorite aircraft engineer, Andrei Tupolev, was chief designer. A pioneer in Soviet aviation since the 1930s, Tupolev had not always been held in such high esteem.

SIR JAMES HAMILTON: Tupolev was the king of the Soviet aviation industry. He was the grand old man. I remember, he told me, that Stalin actually put him in jail because he was a bit too outspoken. But interestingly enough, the Tupolev company still wanted to make use of his talent, so they actually sent him all the drawings in jail so that he could work on them there.

NARRATOR: After his release in 1942, Tupolev went on to design over 100 military and civilian aircraft. Building the first supersonic passenger jet would prove his greatest challenge. Almost from the start, the Russians found themselves falling dangerously behind.

HOWARD MOON: I'd say, as a rough estimate, maybe two years, three years, but further behind in some areas than others. They never closed the gap in engines, because Stalin had decreed that computers were a non-Marxist science. They never caught up with this in electronics. When it comes down to civil aircraft, airliners, they were at a great handicap, because their main experience of airplanes was building aircraft for war.

NARRATOR: Russian jets had traditionally been made with sweptback wings and a separate tail. Tupolev was inspired to use a delta wing for his new SST. Although optimal for supersonic flight, this design was a product of Western, not Soviet, engineering. If the Russians ever hoped to get ahead, they would need to borrow even more from the West. The Kremlin's vast espionage network was quickly put to the task—gathering information on Western supersonic technology, wherever it could be found.

HOWARD MOON: There were lists of different things for their people in the West to find. Exchange students, for example, helped pay their scholarship in the West by leafing through open source magazines. The information was brought back into Russia. There was a kind of a central collection agency that got all this material together, this army of about 10,000 grubs going through this very turgid, very, very sensitive, hard-to-understand technical material.

NARRATOR: Soviet agents first targeted design plans for Concorde's Olympus jet engines. Superior to any Soviet-built engine, they could fly up to three hours at supersonic speeds. But infiltrating Britain's plant in Bristol proved more challenging than expected. Even when information was extracted, Western technical notations were often indecipherable. In the US, the Kremlin also studied Boeing's SST design, analyzing its aerodynamics and construction details. But for Soviet agents, infiltrating the Concorde factory in France proved much more successful. The French intelligence service, known as the DST, never saw them coming.

JEAN ROCHET: For a while, those in charge of the French economy, whether at the forefront of research or at research centers, were not aware of the dangers we were running and of the number of agents in our country engaged in trying to steal our secrets.

NARRATOR: Blueprints and technical documents for Concorde's delta-winged airframe were soon heading east on Soviet-bound trains. To smuggle it out, Russian agents had transferred the documents to microfilm. Then couriers hid it behind grilles, in towel dispensers, and in trash cans, cigar tins, and toothpaste tubes. It wasn't until the beginning of 1964 that France woke up to the threat posed by Soviet penetration. French industry was quickly put on guard.

JEAN ROCHET: The DST contacted Chambers of Commerce and associations of company directors in order to give them information, to put them on their guard, and to tell them that they shouldn't hesitate to get in touch with the DST's Public Affairs Office if they had any problems or anxieties.

NARRATOR: One Soviet agent was already under surveillance—Sergei Pavlov, chief of the Paris office for Aeroflot, the Russian airlines. One of the DST agents assigned to watch him was Pierre Levergeois.

PIERRE LEVERGEOIS: His job, his supposed job as head of Aeroflot in Paris, enabled him to approach all aeronautical circles, all aviation companies, as a matter of course. In this way, he could make contacts with any Tom, Dick, or Harry in aviation companies or other organizations with access to specific technical documents.

NARRATOR: Day and night, Levergeois and his team tracked Sergei Pavlov through Paris.

PIERRE LEVERGEOIS: You follow, you listen, and little by little, you pick up things which prove that you are either on the right or the wrong track. A Soviet spy never rushes things; he uses psychology. He has certainly been trained to do this. You place agents in the vicinity, engaged in normal activities, who stay put.

NARRATOR: Under surveillance, Pavlov approached an airport worker to collect tire scrapings off the runway from a Concorde test aircraft. His guilt established, the French intelligence used the unsuspecting Pavlov to confuse the Russians. They fed him false intelligence.

HOWARD MOON: They brewed up in their laboratories, apparently, this marvelous rubber compound, something like bubble gum, previously unknown in the annals of industrial chemistry, and gave this to the Frenchman to pass on to his Soviet contact. And I've always had this picture of these poor Soviets out there in the steppes trying to reproduce this bubble gum and try to turn it into large tires for their SST and completely failing and being rather severely punished by their administrators and the entire system for their inability to make this stuff work.

NARRATOR: On February 1, 1965, Pavlov was to meet a contact for lunch at a restaurant in the center of Paris. In the blocked-off streets outside, French intelligence finally apprehended him, and he was not empty-handed.

JEAN ROCHET: He was interested in Concorde, and what's more, we found the plans of Concorde's landing gear in his briefcase.

NARRATOR: Information pertaining to Concorde's aircraft brakes and airframe composition were also in his possession. Pavlov was deported. On his return to Moscow, he was appointed Deputy Minister of Civil Aviation. But in France, the Russians had other tricks up their sleeve. French intelligence was not aware that another Soviet agent was operating under cover. His activities would not be discovered until it was far too late. The agent's name was Sergei Fabiew. In the drive to gather Concorde intelligence, he was Moscow's most powerful weapon. For fifteen years, Sergei Fabiew remained undetected. Working with a network of Communist sympathizers and paid informants, Fabiew supplied the Soviets with thousands of technical documents.

JEAN ROCHET: He was finally arrested in 1977. Once he was in the hands of the DST, he ended up cooperating to some extent, during the course of his interrogation.

NARRATOR: Sergei Fabiew's cover was blown by a Soviet defector. Slowly, the devastating value of the secrets he had stolen became apparent, as did the contents of his coded radio transmissions back to Russia.

JEAN ROCHET: Soviet agents in our territory contacted the headquarters of their service by what was known as sort of flash broadcasts.

NARRATOR: French intelligence had intercepted these messages, but without knowing Fabiew's transmission code, they couldn't decipher them. During his interrogation, Fabiew revealed his secret code, enabling the French to read the stored messages.

HOWARD MOON: The French, I understand, brought somebody back from retirement to work through this mountain of Russian language material, and in it, they found the congratulations from Moscow for making off with the entire set of blueprints for the Concorde prototype.

NARRATOR: By the beginning of 1968, the Soviets had managed to catch up with Concorde. They were now poised to overtake the West. The shape of the Soviet plane was still a closely-guarded secret. The Soviets were determined to beat Concorde into the air, and by the summer, the prototype was almost ready to fly.

ALEXANDER POUKHOV: We knew that when Concorde's maiden flight had been set for February or March, 1969, we would have to get our plane up and flying by the end of 1968.

NARRATOR: The Russians worked frantically to complete the prototype.

YURII KASHTANOV: In the final days before the first test flight, it was very hard work. At one point, I didn't leave the flight test base once for seven days. I was sometimes working shifts of up to 48 hours.

NARRATOR: On the 31st of December, 1968, from the dark confines of its secret hangar, the TU-144 emerged for its first flight. Its appearance was strikingly similar to Concorde. There was no public announcement. If anything went wrong, the Soviets could deny that the flight had ever taken place. A small crowd, including Andrei Tupolev and his son, Alexei, gathered on the runway to watch.

ALEXEI TUPOLEV: I felt fine. My father felt fine. He was absolutely sure that nothing was going to happen on that first test flight. And his confidence and ingenuity inspired all of those involved in the operation.

NARRATOR: The TU-144 made three passes over the airfield during a flight lasting 28 minutes. The Russians had won the race, beating Concorde into the air by just three months.

ANDREI KANDALOV: To be first, just like when you run on the sprint, if you win one-tenth of a second, you'll be the world champion. So, we are first in the world, supersonic.

NARRATOR: The Soviets flashed pictures of their triumph around the world. Western designers were appalled by its resemblance to Concorde. The media was quick to name it "Konkordski." In France, the Concorde prototype took its maiden flight in March, 1969. As the world watched, rumors persisted over the similarity between the two prototypes. Was the TU-144 a copy of Concorde?

SIR JAMES HAMILTON: I think one has to be careful about the word "copy." I think the Russians would argue that if you're designing a supersonic airplane, the physics of the problem leads you to this kind of solution. That is not quite true. But on Concorde, we tested something like 200 different shapes before we decided on the final shape. So, although they may not have copied the design, they certainly took advantage of all the preliminary work that we had done in coming to the Concorde's shape. And it doesn't half help if somebody else has done all the hard work for you.

NARRATOR: Despite Tupolev's access to Concorde blueprints, his design team was limited in its ability to decipher and implement them.

ANDREI KANDALOV: It's very difficult to make a copy. Different system in drawing, different system in measurement, different system in technology. You don't need to make a copy. You may have a sample. You may steal it; you may find it from the wreckage. If you have a sample, you have characteristics. If you make the thing with similar characteristics, it looks and must be similar.

NARRATOR: The drop nose was perhaps the most striking similarity between Concorde and the TU-144. But Boeing's yet-to-be-realized SST had this feature as well, a necessity in all three aircraft so that pilots could see the runway during takeoff and landing. Concorde and Konkordski proved to be very different aircraft. Although both jets were designed using the arrow-shaped delta wing, Concorde's wing was much more sculpted. This contouring gave it a critical advantage at slower speeds.

RAYMOND BAXTER: That shape was totally new, and Concorde's worked and theirs didn't.

NARRATOR: But why didn't theirs work?

RAYMOND BAXTER: Because it didn't create the anticipated lift and stability throughout the speed range.

NARRATOR: Konkordski's wing was flat in comparison. Although this design was optimal during supersonic flight, it made the jet less stable at slower speeds, resulting in rough higher-speed landings. Engine placement on each jet was also very different. Compared to the Concorde, with its engines extending out under each wing, the engines on the Soviet jet were contained within a single box directly under the cabin. This increased the potential for contagious engine failure, where the shock wave from one stalled engine disrupts the others. After years of Soviet espionage, what had gone wrong?

HOWARD MOON: They did not copy slavishly. They would do shunt engineering. They would go around the things that they could not do or could not copy.

SIR JAMES HAMILTON: The general impression was they'd rushed to put this airplane together to get it into the air first, which is not a good thing to do on this kind of design.

NARRATOR: The need to be first had compromised the entire operation. Changes would have to be made if the Soviet Union ever hoped to compete with Concorde. The US supersonic program also ran into problems. Boeing was forced to abandon a major innovation—its swing-wing design. Configured to increase lift at low speeds, it proved too heavy for the aircraft. Engineers acknowledged that the plane could fly across the Atlantic, but only without the added weight of passengers. This miscalculation marked the beginning of the end for US participation in the supersonic passenger market. Tupolev and his team had much better luck working through the problems of their SST. In 1973, a radically redesigned TU-144 was now ready for its first appearance in the West. The Soviets had come up with a design feature which owed nothing to Concorde, called canards, two little insect wings behind the cockpit. Extended, the canards improved low-speed flying by adding 20% more lift, allowing the jet to make softer, slower landings. During supersonic flight, they were retracted. The wings also grew more sculpted, more like the Concorde. The engines moved as well, into separate boxes further along the wing. This forced a radical change in the landing gear, which now retracted into a compartment within the engine intakes. At the 1973 Paris Airshow, Konkordski was ready to take on Concorde. Held once a year, it is a world stage for new aircraft designs, a place where reputations can be made or broken.

HOWARD MOON: There was earnest consternation at the FAA in Washington: "Are the Russians going to run away with the supersonic transport market?" They claimed it was faster. They claimed it was clean and quiet. It was a very impressive aircraft. We took it very seriously.

JOHN FARLEY: Competition between the two airplanes was very well-founded. I mean, they were both supersonic airliners. They were both, in 1973, both hoping to go into service, both hoping to carry passengers in large numbers. The TU-144 was a larger airplane, carried more. And the world at that time didn't know which was going to be the better one.

NARRATOR: Like two supersonic gladiators, they would battle it out in the sky. On the third day of the show, in front of 200,000 spectators, Concorde flew first.

HOWARD MOON: The Paris Airshow in '73 I sort of liken to a coming-out ball. We had the two highly-prepared, primped young debutantes coming onto the world's stage. It was a crucial time for the French and British. This was a symbol of Anglo-French cooperation with very dramatic political overtones, the sense that we are entering the EEC; the French are embracing the British. There's just a great deal of interest and excitement.

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.

HOWARD MOON: They did not come clean. To this day, there has not been a full explanation of what really happened, at least from government sources. It is my view that the Soviets and the French authorities cut a deal.

NARRATOR: One year after the accident, the French and Soviet governments issued a short statement concluding it was impossible to determine the cause of the crash. To this day, neither government has released a full report. Among other mysteries, the TU-144's black box had apparently been destroyed.

JOHN FARLEY: I've never heard of a black box being destroyed. You have an aircraft that has broken up in the sky. And it's just like throwing things out from a thousand feet up. They just fall down. It's not like the aircraft plunging in one piece at 400 miles an hour, straight into the ground. You could believe that recorders and so on get badly damaged in the bottom of the crater.

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.


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.

JEAN FORESTIER: The official press release—And I quote from the official press release, because I have no desire to mislead you: "Even though the inquiry established that there was no real risk of collision between the two aircrafts, the Soviet pilot was likely to have been surprised."

NARRATOR: But the official statement concealed crucial evidence which proved that, far from overreacting, the Soviet pilot was forced to take evasive action. Krupianskii, a member of the Russian investigation team, has agreed to break ranks.

EDGAR KRUPIANSKII: In the investigation, we gathered up all the pieces of wreckage, laid it out and tried to work out how the accident happened. While we were working on this, there was another investigation being carried out parallel to ours by the flying commission. There, they were presented with photographs taken by the Mirage. Then, the radar scan readouts were presented, which also showed how close they'd been.

NARRATOR: In Moscow, the authorities also had incentive to collaborate in a cover-up. Regardless of the cause, the TU-144 fell out of the sky for all the world to see. This public relations nightmare would prove fatal if any suggestion was made of mechanical failure in the crash report. Behind the scenes, the Russians agreed to spare the French by not blowing the whistle on the Mirage, providing the French agreed not to suggest there was anything technically wrong with the airplane or its design. Alexei Tupolev was the Soviet accident investigator. He was asked to comment on whether the French and Russians had concealed the true cause of the crash.

ALEXEI TUPOLEV: But commissions, by their very nature, always fail to produce the true picture.

NARRATOR: Despite the cover-up, Russia struggled to come to terms with the very public failure of its prized jet, an accident from which it would never fully recover. For the moment, it seemed the field had been cleared for Concorde, ready now to fulfill its developers' dreams of commercial success in the passenger aviation market. But Concorde's field of dreams was not what the French or British had imagined. They built it—and no one came.

SIR JAMES HAMILTON: Concorde took a long time to develop. I mean, the development of a subsonic aircraft is perhaps two, two and a half years. Concorde took eleven or twelve years. And the world changed in that time.

NARRATOR: Born in the 1950s, Concorde was to be the jet of the future. But this vision of the future never came true. Concerns for the environment changed attitudes toward new technology. And by the mid-1970s, Concorde's debut was not warmly welcomed, especially when it came to sonic booms.

SIR JAMES HAMILTON: The sonic boom is associated with supersonic flight, and in essence, what it means is that whereas in subsonic flight, you get some warning of the airplane coming. You can hear it in the distance, you can hear it as it comes abreast of you, you can hear it as it goes away. In supersonic flight, all the noise is contained within shock waves which surround the airplane, so that when a supersonic airplane comes toward you, you hear nothing until you get all the noise collected together, as it were. And when that happens, instead of getting a continuous rumble of noise, you get a very sharp boom.

NARRATOR: Developers of Concorde never expected it to fly supersonically over urban areas, although they did plan routes over less-populated regions.

SIR JAMES HAMILTON: We had all sorts of complaints about sonic booms. We had the man who bred mink, and he complained that he'd lost a large number of mink kittens because the mink tend to kill their young if they're suddenly disturbed. And we had the young man whose lady friend was pregnant because he was startled at a given moment by a Concorde supersonic boom.

NARRATOR: Concorde was soon restricted to flying supersonically only over water. Once this happened, its web of proposed routes vanished. And sonic booms were not the only problem. Even at subsonic speeds, Concorde's massive turbo jet engines made it the loudest plane ever built, increasing noise pollution in and around airports. Its engines also produced levels of nitrogen compounds that damaged the ozone layer. But the most devastating blow had nothing to do with the environment. As far as the airlines were concerned, Concorde was an economic disaster, consuming too much fuel and carrying too few passengers. By 1975, the world's airlines dropped their options to buy the Concorde. Only 16 were ever built, all purchased by Air France and British Airways. In the end, speed came with a price few were willing to pay.

SIR JAMES HAMILTON: The calculations that had been made on the profitability of Concorde simply went out of the window, so that one was left in the end with the two national airlines as the only customers for the airplane.

NARRATOR: Konkordski's future was even more bleak. Andrei Tupolev died in 1972, before the Paris crash. Problems continued to plague the TU-144, further tarnishing its image. No longer a proud symbol of Soviet technology, its commercial service was confined to domestic flights. But Tupolev's team remains loyal.

ALEXANDER POUKHOV: My opinion is that at that time, it was a plane that was ten or even fifteen years ahead of its time and the capabilities of the country.

BORIS VEREMEI: I can honestly say this. Even after all these years, the TU-144 was in no way technically inferior to the Concorde, and on the whole was simply superior.

NARRATOR: At the end of the 1970s, after just 103 passenger-carrying flights, Konkordski was withdrawn from commercial service. The political will had gone, and it was too expensive to run. Of the 17 planes built, three survived for military flight tests. The rest were abandoned, rusting relics of the supersonic age. In the US, Boeing fared no better. After its swing-wing design was rejected, it did go on to build a model of a smaller, fixed-wing SST. But the project finally fell victim to the same forces that compromised the success of Concorde. Pressure from environmental groups and Congressional scrutiny closed the program in 1972. But the dream of supersonic passenger travel refuses to die. Twenty-five years later, in an ironic turn of events, the US has joined forces with Russia in an effort to build the next generation of supersonic passenger jets, and they're using a newly-retooled TU-144 to help them do it. For almost ten years, NASA has been working with Boeing and other US companies to develop models for a cleaner, larger and more efficient SST. To date, they have spent over $1 billion on the effort. The US has come to Russia to borrow what it was never able to build at home, a large, supersonic jet. This product of espionage and Cold War technology will serve as a flying laboratory for US scientists. The jet selected for this mission was the last TU-144 off the assembly line. It has not flown in over eight years. The cabin was cleared to make room for the American test equipment. After years of experimenting with models, the US will now have a chance to compare its findings against the real thing. While flying at twice the speed of sound, the aircraft's hot zones will be identified, information that will help in the design of a lighter, more heat-resistent jet. The TU-144's very slender delta wings will also be studied, providing clues on ways to improve aerodynamics for the next generation of SSTs. Cockpit controls will be analyzed as well. Sophisticated electronics may make it unnecessary to directly view the runway, allowing designers to dispense with the very heavy and costly drop nose.

DR. LOUIS J. WILLIAMS: We're working to develop an artificial vision system for the cockpit that would replace the need to look out a window with the naked eye during takeoff or landing, and actually merge all of those advance sensors into an artificial vision system that can detect hazards more accurately than you can with the eye, or they can operate in fog just as well as in clear daylight, and can do a better job so that it can land routinely and accurately.

NARRATOR: NASA and its partners hope to finally solve the problems encountered with the first generation of SSTs. But it comes with a price.

DR. LOUIS J. WILLIAMS: To go ahead and develop a supersonic transport of the next generation will require an investment of over twenty billion US dollars. Before anybody's willing to make that kind of an investment, they have to be very confident that the airplane that comes out of that is going to be successful. And by that, we mean fares very close to subsonic fare levels. It has to have range enough to go across the Pacific as opposed to just across the Atlantic, because that's where the big market growth is, and has to do it and be environmentally compatible.

NARRATOR: Travel across the Pacific is expected to quadruple in the coming years. If a reliable and affordable supersonic jet can be built, it could cut international travel times by more than half. France and Britain are also hoping to improve on their original design, but are still awaiting funding.

SIR JAMES HAMILTON: The problem is money. It would be hugely expensive. It would have to be bigger than Concorde to be successful. Neither the British nor the French governments could afford to take a major part in this program, and it's questionable whether private finance could provide the amounts of money needed.

NARRATOR: As England, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States know only too well, the best laid plans can simply, and unexpectedly, fall apart. But the United States is taking another look, spurred on, once again, by the promise of profit and the allure of new technology. It was a banner day in Russia when the TU-144 climbed back into the sky. Despite its less-than-successful past, it is still a source of pride, even for those it was never intended to carry. In the beginning, supersonic travel was a product of political rivalry, a technological competition to advance national prestige. But the Cold War is over, and economics is driving the future of air travel. If the next generation SST is going to be a success, it must be a plane more people can afford to fly, and a plane all can afford to live with.

ANNOUNCER: Los Angeles to Tokyo in just over four hours? When will we board the next generation of supersonic planes? Check in at NOVA's Web site at

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Supersonic Spies

Produced by
Katherine Bailey
Stephen Sweigart

Directed by
Tim Shawcross

Narration written by
Stephen Sweigart

Rod Iverson
Eric Handley

Will Lyman

Music by
Ray Loring

Associate Producer
Henrietta Joy

Jonathan Harrison
John Warwick
Phillippe Manoux
Fyodor Simmul

Sound Recording
Stephen Gatland
Jane Barnett
Alain Grazide
Dimitri Konyushenko

Additional Editing
Stephanie Munroe

Mathilde Lotthé
Nick Sturdee

Production Assistants
Andrea Cross
Susannah Warren

Sound Mixers
Richard Bock
Daniel Lesiw

Online Editors
Mark Steele
Jim Deering

Mark Kueper

Archival Materials
Archive Films
Aviation Action Audiovisual
The Boeing Company
British Aerospace
British Airways
British Movietone News
Edwards Air Force Base
Film Archives, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Goodheart Productions
Gulfstream Aerospace
Huntley Film Archives
Index Stock Shots
Institut National de L'Audivisuel
Michel Plazanet
Moving Image
NASA Langely Research Center
Reuters Television Library
Rockwell International
State Archive of Film, Krasnagorsk
Tupolev Design Bureau Archive

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
Linda Callahan

Paul Marotta
Lisa Cerqueira

Unit Managers
Laurie Cahalane
Amy Trahant

Business Manager
Janel Ranney

Nancy Marshall

Post Production Assistant
Pamela B. Jacobson

Associate Producer
Post Production
Kimberly Schaffer

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Supervisor
Mark Geffen

Senior Producer
Coproductions and Aquisitions
Melanie Wallace

Series Producer
Beth Hoppe

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by Pendragon Productions in association with WGBH/Boston, Channel 4, France 3 and MFP

© 1998 WGBH Educational Foundation. All rights reserved.


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