The setting could be any small village in France: winding lanes filled with teal shuttered cottages, a charming main square with a small school, café and boulangerie, and a church whose bells have beckoned the villagers to Mass for over seven hundred years.
The only thing missing are people. We’re standing in the middle of what was once a bustling, rural village called Goussainville-Vieux Pays just twelve miles north of Paris, but today it is deserted and empty. Doorways to homes lie on their hinges, and old tricolore flags from bygone Bastille days lie strung from the lampposts in tatters. It is as if the entire population of the village just disappeared in the middle of the night.
Then the eerie spell is violently broken by the thunder of a commercial airliner flying so low it seems to graze the steeple of the ancient church of St. Pierre et St. Paul. Five minutes later, the silence of the empty village is interrupted again by another low flying jet plane, and then another, the roar of jet engines never ending.
For just beyond the edge of the village fields are the runways of Paris Charles de Gaulle, Europe’s second busiest airport. When it opened in the 1970s, the peaceful tranquility of a village that stood since medieval times was forever shattered.
The incessant noise of the airplanes began to be too much for some, with many villagers beginning to leave their family homes. But then, in the summer of 1973, one of the airplanes crashed into the village centre, falling out of the sky like a portentous omen.
Fourteen people were killed, including six children. Almost overnight, nearly all the 144 families of Goussainville-Vieux Pays deserted the village, leaving behind a ghost town that has remained virtually untouched for over forty years.
But the plane which crashed into Goussainville-Vieux Pays wasn’t just any normal commercial jet: it was the Soviet rival to the Concorde, a ground breaking supersonic plane rarely seen outside of the Iron Curtain We went to investigate the eerie ghost town and a story of conspiracy and industrial Cold War espionage surrounding the doomed ‘Concordski’.
An air of excitement surrounded the Paris Air Show in the summer of 1973, with the scheduled appearance of the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144. The Air Show was the largest and most prestigious aerospace industry exhibition in the world, first held in 1909, and over 250,000 flocked to Le Bourget airfield in Paris to see the latest in military and civilian aircraft technology.
The Tupelov Tu-144 was supposed to be the futuristic jewel of the Soviet Aeroflot fleet. Only the second commercial airliner ever built to travel at supersonic speeds, a fierce rivalry broke out with the nascent Concorde, a joint Anglo-French venture being designed by Aérospatiale and BAC.
On New Year’s Eve, 1968, the Tupelov made its maiden flight, taking off from Zhukovsky airport in Moscow, becoming the first plane to ever reach supersonic speeds, beating Concorde to the feat by two months.
The rivalry between the Soviet & Anglo French supersonic aircraft mirrored the space race with the US. But the race to fly faster than the speed of sound was proving alarmingly dangerous; in testing, the Soviet plane routinely suffered from cabin decompressions, over heating, and stress fractures to the fuselage.
The summer of the 1973 Paris Air show, the Concorde set a record for the highest ever flight by a passenger aircraft, flying at 68,000 feet at over twice the speed of sound. With pressure mounting on the Soviets, the Tupolev arrived at Le Bourget promising to unveil design innovations that would outclass Concorde.
On Sunday morning, June 3rd, both supersonic planes were scheduled to perform an aerobatic display, competing in the air for the first time. The Concorde went first, performing a high speed fly by, before pulling up steeply, levelling out at 10,000 feet over the awe struck crowd.
Soviet test pilot Mikhail Kozlov was not perturbed: “Just wait until you see us fly,” he told the waiting crowds and press, “then you’ll see something”. His boast would prove to be deathly prophetic.
One of the few signs of life in Goussainville-Vieux Pays is the small library. The old wooden sign painted ‘livres ancient & modernes’ might have fallen to the pavement, but there’s still a shelf outside filled with several dozen books that passersby can help themselves to.
The library itself is sometimes open but often not. It was just outside this peculiar hold out that the Tupolev fell to earth.
The exact circumstances of how the Soviet supersonic plane crashed are still unknown. One theory is that the Soviets were under pressure to out perform the Concorde, and Kozlov pushed his aircraft too far: the supersonic plane suddenly stalled and pitched into a steep dive, the fuselage breaking up in midair before crashing into Goussainville-Vieux Pays.
Another theory centres on the presence of a French Mirage jet plane that suddenly appeared in the same airspace over Le Bourget. Originally denied by in the French government’s report, the French fighter was allegedly photographing the Tupolev’s innovative ‘canards’, an extra set of wings fixed near the cockpit. A secondary, later report officially admitted the presence of the Mirage, and that, “The Soviet pilot was likely to have been surprised,” possibly causing Kozlov to lose control of the plane.
Soviet hopes for supersonic air supremacy were further set back when another Tu-144 crashed again four years later, and the project was permanently shelved. The Concorde would go on fly in service for another thirty years, before it was rendered obsolete and too expensive to run.
But the air crash of 1973 forever changed Goussainville-Vieux Pays. After most of the villagers left, nature swiftly took hold. A grand old chateau, once the centre piece of the village, is perhaps the most visible reminder of what happened here.
The roof has long since gone, and its ornate rooms and stairways are decaying. Like the rest of this charming, but forgotten French village, it was ruined forever by the airplanes that disturbed its once peaceful skies.