The aircraft involved was Tupolev Tu-144S CCCP-77102, manufacturer's serial number 01-2, the second production Tu-144. The aircraft had first flown on 29 March 1972. This aircraft had been heavily modified compared to the initial prototype, now featuring engine nacelles split on either side of the fuselage, landing gear that retracted into the nacelles, and retractable foreplanes. The pilot was Mikhail Kozlov, and the co-pilot was Valery M. Molchanov. Also on board were G. N. Bazhenov, the flight navigator, V. N. Benderov, deputy chief designer and engineer major-general, B. A. Pervukhin, senior engineer, and A. I. Dralin, flight engineer. The crash occurred in front of 250,000 people, including designer Alexei Tupolev, towards the end of the show.
During the show, there was a "fierce competition between the Anglo-French Concorde and the Russian TU-144". The Soviet pilot, Mikhail Kozlov, had bragged that he would outperform the Concorde. "Just wait until you see us fly," he was quoted as saying. "Then you'll see something." On the final day of the show, the Concorde, which was not yet in production, performed its demonstration flight first. Its performance was later described as being unexciting, and it has been theorized that Kozlov was determined to show how much better his aircraft was.
Once in flight, the aircraft made what appeared to be a landing approach, with the landing gear out and the "moustache" foreplanes extended, but then engaged all four engines and climbed rapidly. Possibly stalling below 2,000 ft (610 m), the aircraft pitched over and went into a steep dive. Trying to pull out of the subsequent dive with the engines again at full power, the Tu-144 broke up in mid-air. The left wing came away first, and then the aircraft disintegrated and crashed, destroying 15 houses, and killing all six people on board the Tu-144 and eight more on the ground. Three children were among those killed, and sixty people received severe injuries.
The crew of the Tu-144 were buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow on 12 June 1973; during the ceremony Pyotr Dementiev, the Minister of the Aircraft Industry, gave a speech.
Following the crash, Marcel Dassault called for the 1975 Paris Air Show to be held at Istres, which is situated in open country 25 miles (40 km) north west of Marseille.
The crash reduced the enthusiasm of Aeroflot for the Tu-144. Restrictions on the Tu-144 following the Paris Air Show crash meant that it only saw limited service during 1977 and 1978, and it was finally withdrawn following another crash in May 1978.
Bob Hoover believed that the rivalry of the Tu-144 and Concorde led the pilot of the Tu-144 to attempt a maneuver that went beyond the abilities of the aircraft: "That day, the Concorde went first, and after the pilot performed a high-speed flyby, he pulled up steeply and climbed to approximately 10,000 [feet] before leveling off. When the Tu-144 pilot performed the same maneuver he pulled the nose up so steeply l didn't believe he could possibly recover."
Another theory claims that there was deliberate misinformation on the part of the Anglo-French team. The main thrust of this theory was that the Anglo-French team knew that the Soviet team were planning to steal the design plans of the Concorde, and the Soviets were allegedly passed false blueprints with a flawed design. The case, it is claimed, contributed to the imprisonment by the Soviets of Greville Wynne in 1963 for spying. Wynne was imprisoned on 11 May 1963 and the development of the Tu-144 was not sanctioned until 16 July.
In 2005, during the production of the Russian documentary "The fight for supersonic flight: The truth about the Tu-144," E. Krupyanskiy said: "There were certain experimental control units present on the plane (Tu-144), that were installed on the plane for the first time." On the in-cockpit footage released before the test flight, the control console is clearly seen fully exposed on the back of the captain's seat. The control units were supposed to be disabled, with the console covered up and sealed for the test flight, however in the wreckage the console was found without seals or cover. Krupyanskiy said "They enabled a system, which was used to improve the maneuverability characteristics of the aircraft... improving the effectiveness of the rudders." E. Gorynov (another Tu-144 test pilot) stated that he is completely sure that usage of these experimental technologies was not decided by the crew. He also stated that he was 30 meters away from the aircraft before the test flight and overheard a discussion by the crew, where the captain said loudly: "If we are going to die, then at least we will die all together". This is further supported by the fact that after a meeting held in the evening before the flight, a G. N. Bazhenov (the navigator on the flight) went to speak with E. Gorynov, who stated in the documentary that Bazhenov was very worried, and said the leadership had "come up with something", but that he would not be able to disclose anything in detail. It was concluded in the documentary by the narrator that the flight crew was not at fault for the incident.