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Concorde

Fast, Loud and Sexy

“Fast, loud and sexy” – just a few of the many words that have been used to describe this visionary aircraft that was first unveiled to the general public at the Paris Air Show in 1969. Quite simply unlike anything we had ever seen before, it was a beacon of engineering ingenuity, that shone brightly for only 30 years. An aircraft so ahead of its time, it was retired without a successor, because frankly, we’re not even sure what comes next. It was, of course, Concorde.

Every now and again, humanity leaps forward. We’ve come to assume that technology progresses in a linear motion… We create something, then it is improved upon over a period of time, normally with incremental steps. But occasionally we launch forward to such a point, it makes further progress difficult, or even impossible. These projects are the outliers, the futuristic visions that are so far ahead, they sometimes struggle to find their place in our time. 

Tearing through the skies at a maximum speed of 1352 mph (2180kmph) and shattering the sound barrier, Concorde was one such engineering feat.

We are now approaching twenty years since Concorde took its last flight but in that time no commercial passenger airliner has come anywhere near what Concorde was capable of. In terms of size and passenger capacity, airliners have never been bigger. But when it comes to speed, altitude – and indeed aura – Concorde remains unmatched. 

But this was also a project that raised serious questions about environmental issues, affordability and noise pollution. This was an extraordinary aeroplane, that eventually, because of a combination of political and social situations, became a victim of its own pioneering vision.   

Planning 

The U.S Bell X-1 fighter jet became the first aircraft to fly supersonic in 1945, meaning it broke the sound barrier and was capable of flying at speeds in excess of 767 mph (1234 km/h) – or above Mach 1. Over the next two decades, many military aircrafts flew above this speed, but most questioned whether larger passenger aircrafts would ever be able to match it. 

In 1955, The Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), a British aviation research group released a report in which the concept was explored for the first time in Britain. While the technology, and indeed knowledge, around supersonic air travel, was still in its infancy, most agreed that the drag at supersonic speed was directly correlated with the wingspan. In layman’s terms, the plane’s wingspan had to be very narrow to be aerodynamic enough to reach such speeds, and remain stable. The Boeing 707 released in 1959 had a wingspan of 42.6m (130ft), which would be virtually impossible for supersonic travel, so the RAE suggested something closer to the planned Avro 730, a planned British reconnaissance aircraft with a wingspan of just under 18.2 m (60ft). But such a narrow wingspan would result in very little lift at low speed, meaning it would need a huge runway for takeoff and would be landing at incredibly high speeds. 

Initial studies found the concept to be unfeasible but shortly after this the delta wing design appeared. These triangular-shaped wings, that we would eventually see on Concorde, led to a breakthrough and paved the way towards supersonic commercial flights.

In 1956 a new research group, Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee (STAC), was formed in Britain and by the end of the decade, it was clear that something important was emerging. Contact was made with both the American and French governments over a possible collaboration but by the start of the 1960s, it was still anybody’s guess where the first supersonic airliner would appear.   

Now, if you watched our video about the Channel Tunnel, you will know that when these old warring neighbours really want to, Britain and France can collaborate with astonishing success. To the surprise of many, in 1960 a partnership emerged between British Aircraft Corporation and Sud Aviation in France. Though they didn’t agree on everything – it was the British and the French after all – there was certainly enough to move forward. 

On 29th November 1962, the British and French governments signed an International Treaty that effectively green-lit the project and included severe penalties for cancellation. This set off alarm bells in Washington. Not only did it appear that the British and French would lead the way in supersonic travel, but the Soviets – of all people – were also developing their own supersonic passenger airliner, the Tupolev Tu-144 – now I’m not going to go into that aircraft at all because it deserves its own video, which we are going to do later in the week. But the Americans were worried and pushed forward with their own design, the Boeing 2707, which was eventually cancelled in 1971.    

Back to the Europeans, who needed a name that really exemplified the entire project and one that reflected the Anglo-Franco partnership. The word chosen means agreement, harmony and union in both French and English, but of course carries an extra ‘e’ at the end of the French version. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan controversially dropped the final ‘e’, some say because of a perceived slight from Charles de Gaulle. However at the press unveiling in 1967 Tony Benn, the minister of technology, announced that the government was restoring the ‘e’, to much Nationalistic outrage fueled by the British press. His eventual explanation that the ‘e’ stood for, Excellence, England, Europe and Entente Cordial, which were a series of agreements reached in the 19th century between Britain and France, appeared to have calmed the rabble, and the ‘e’ stood.   

In 1965 construction began on the two first prototypes. Concorde 001 was constructed by Aerospatial in Toulouse, with Concorde 002 being built by BAC in Bristol. But with engineers working feverishly behind the scenes, the most pressing matter for the project was future sales. The vast amounts of money needed for the project meant that in order to be profitable, they would need plenty of buyers. 

 In 1967 a marketing campaign began, aimed at attracting airline companies from all over the world. Concorde bosses had made the bold prediction of 350 aircrafts worldwide by 1980, yet while it certainly garnered interest – and a non-binding order of 62 planes from 16 companies – it remained well below what had been anticipated. More on that shortly.

Lastly, as most of these kinds of projects tend to do, the cost spiralled well above what was first calculated. Original estimates placed the production costs at £70 million in total, but eventually cost an eye-watering £1.3 billion – that’s about £8 billion today. The final unit cost per plane in 1977 was £23 million (£120 million today).   

Concorde 001

First Flight

On 2nd March 1969, Concorde 001 took to the skies above Toulouse piloted by André Turcat and seven months later, on 1st October, it went supersonic for the first time. While Concorde 002 became airborne for the first time on 9 April 1969, piloted by Brian Trubshaw.

The early 1970s saw the advertising campaign expand even further, with Concorde 001 visiting numerous countries around the world to help drum up business. But it didn’t work. Despite the public interest, a perfect storm was brewing that would set Concorde sales back from the very start. A stock market crash and an oil crisis in 1973, along with the crash of a Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 at the Paris air show proved disastrous for Concorde sales. The vast financial implications of Concorde were becoming clear, and it began to haemorrhage orders, eventually leaving only British Airways and Air France – both of whom were able to rely on their government for support.  

But despite all of the problems with sales, the world still watched in awe on 21st January 1976 as two full Concorde flights departed simultaneously on their maiden voyages. One from London Heathrow to Bahrain, and the other from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, with a stop in Senegal along the way.  

The Aircraft

This was an aircraft that quickly became iconic. Not simply because of its speed, but also because of its sleek exterior design. But you might be surprised to hear that when the plane first launched the design inside looked more Ryanair than British Airways Business Class – decidedly un-luxurious. Things did eventually change with much larger leather seating eventually added, but this was always an aeroplane that placed speed above comfort. The windows were tiny, designed to maximise the strength of the airframe, rather than supply much of a view to those who had paid a small fortune to be onboard.

At 61.66 m (202 ft 4 in) in length a Concorde was roughly ten metres shorter than a modern Boeing 747 but with a wingspan of just 25.6 m (84 ft) they were incredibly small compared to the 64 meters (212 feet) of a 747. Concorde’s maximum take-off weight of 408,000 lb (185,070 kg) – about fifteen double-decker buses, was just over half that of the 707’s 735,000 pounds (333,400 kg). When it was airborne, Concorde had a maximum altitude of 60,000 ft, an astonishing 15,000 ft higher than that of a 747. This is so high, that you can actually see the curvature of the Earth. 

Apart from their delta wings, perhaps the most iconic aspect of the plane was its droop nose. If you’ve ever seen two pictures of a Concorde and thought to yourself, why do the noses look so different, well it was because the nose could be set in two positions. The best aerodynamic position is straight ahead, and this is used when airborne, however, it does obscure the pilot’s view – definitely not something you want when the plane is coming in to land at 187mph. To solve this problem, the nose can be lowered by 12.5 degrees – giving a lovely clear view of the quickly approaching land beneath you.  

Another area that needed to be different was its brakes. A typical Concorde landing at Heathrow meant that the temperature of the brakes could reach between 300c and 400c (573F – 752F). To handle this sort of heat, each wheel had multiple discs which were cooled by electric fans, while the brakes themselves were made from carbon rather than steel, significantly reducing their weight.

Concorde was powered by 4 Olympus 593 turbojets built by Rolls-Royce/Bristol Siddley and Snecma. Each one of these beasts produced 38,000 pounds of thrust. 

Onboard, Concorde had a crew of three – two pilots and a flight engineer. This was complemented with 9 flight attendants, always on hand with the champagne and the Beluga Caviar. That’s not a joke by the way. If you’re paying that much you expect a little more than a bag of peanuts and a cold pasta dish. 

But let’s be honest, you can get champagne anywhere. What you can’t do is to break the sound barrier, and most passengers waited in anticipation for the Captain to announce that they had gone supersonic, which was virtually impossible to tell by simply looking out of the window.  There was one common phrase often heard over the intercom on Concorde

“I just wanted to let you know how the flight is progressing – the answer is quickly”

An interior view of the cockpit of a British Airways Concorde aircraft. The aircraft is on an around-the-world test flight.

Opposition     

Almost from its inception, Concorde faced opposition. While many of the early objections related to safety, by the 1970s most focused on noise and environmental problems. By far the biggest issue was the sonic boom created by Concorde. This is the noise generated by shock waves when an object travels faster than the speed of sound. Extra tidbit of information for you here, the cracking sound of a bullwhip is a mini sonic boom.  

The volume of a sonic boom can seem to fluctuate quite a bit, and sometimes cannot even be heard on the ground. But often it certainly can. Concorde’s 100-110 decibel sonic boom was said to mimic a small explosion, now that sounds hellish especially when above your home, but that’s only about the same decibels as a car horn.    

The U.S congress banned Concorde from U.S airspace, preventing the lucrative trans-Atlantic routes that had always been planned. Eventually, this was lifted, but individual cities still prohibited them, most notably New York City. This was despite a report showing that Air Force One, the U.S presidential plane, was louder than Concorde. 

In fact, the plane was much quieter than generally perceived, especially with pilots throttling back their engines while flying over urban areas. It was as if people built up the sound of the plane in their minds, rather than the actual noise.  At the time of the U.S ban, it led some to question the U.S government’s motives, and whether it had more to do with protecting U.S prestige and aviation manufacturing, rather than noise pollution. However, it wasn’t just the U.S. Many countries around the world rejected the chance to be on Concorde routes or to allow it to fly through their airspace.  

The environmental impact that Concorde left was also keenly addressed by activists. With a full load, Concorde had a 15.8 passenger miles per gallon ratio, while the large Boeing 707 had a 33.3 pm/g. It’s a bit like looking a Hummer today, definitely not the most environmentally friendly way to travel. In fact, Concorde could burn 2 tonnes of fuel just by taxing along the runway. As our awareness of climate change grew, it became harder to justify these fuel-guzzling speed demons.   

But perhaps the most glaring issue was its tag as an elitist form of transportation. In 1997 a return flight from London to New York would set you back around $7,995 ($12,700 in 2019), which was roughly thirty times more expensive than the cheapest airfare. This was simply not a service that the everyday man and woman could afford. Many airlines themselves were now focusing on affordability, rather than style and speed. It began to look like Concorde’s days may be numbered.   

Disaster

In its time Concorde completed roughly 50,000 flights and shuttled 2.5 million passengers around the world, but perhaps, with the exception of its inaugural takeoff, the flight many remember most vividly occurred on 25th July 2000. 

Watching a Concorde in action was a sight to behold, with its 250 mph (402kmph) takeoff speed, and 187 mph (300kmph) landing speed it was significantly faster than most airliners we have today. But as this Concorde roared along the runway on its departure from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, it was immediately clear that disaster was looming. As flight 4590 lifted into the sky, a torrent of flames erupted from engine number 2. The pilots on board shut down the stricken engine, but with engine number 1 surging as a result, the aircraft failed to gain altitude and plummeted back to earth, killing all 100 passengers and 9 crew.  

An investigation into the crash revealed that an aircraft that had taken off moments earlier had shed a metallic strip. When flight 4590 surged along the runway it ran over the strip, piercing a tire, which exploded. A fragment of the tire then hit the fuel tank causing the fuel link, and leading to the fire. 

However, further investigation raised questions about the official narrative of the story. Eyewitnesses claimed that the metallic strip was in fact 1000ft from the path of aircraft, and perhaps it had more to do with an unbalanced weight distribution in the fuel tanks and loose landing gear that caused the aircraft to veer off course. To this day doubts remain about what really happened to Concorde on its darkest day.

All Concordes were grounded for almost a year but returned for testing in July 2001. Then one morning in September, the first flight with passengers since the crash in Paris, landed safely in New York, carrying British Airways crew. Hours later, the world changed, and it proved to be one of the final nails in Concorde’s coffin.   

On September 11th 2001, four American Airline flights were hijacked in the skies above the United States. The resulting terrorist attacks sent shockwaves around the world, with the airline industry suffering catastrophic losses. Numerous carriers went out of business, and the industry as a whole lost around $11 billion in revenue.  

For a service that had become an expensive extravagance, the more austere method of air travel after 9/11, spelt the end for Concorde. Air France operated its final commercial flight on 3rd May 2003, while in Britain, October saw a grand farewell tour in which a Concorde travelled back and forth from London to cities around the country, often flying low – and slowly – above urban areas to give the public an opportunity to glimpse these wizards of the skies for the last time. On 23rd October 2003, the last Concorde to leave London flew west to New York, with Windsor Castle, the official residence of the Royal family, illuminated to mark the historic moment. 

The following day, three Concordes converged over London, circling the city ceremoniously before landing one after the other. The age of Concorde was over – and we had only ever seen twenty of them.  

The Last of its Kind?

In 2015, Club Concorde, essentially a Concorde fan club, announced that it had secured £160 million to bring one Concorde back into service. Though the initial date for this, 2019, has come and gone, with very little recent information about the venture. Many doubt the feasibility of re-fitting one of these planes and putting them in the sky once again. It may be a nice idea, but the practicalities look remote. 

While we may never see a Concorde in the skies again, there are small passenger planes on the horizon that will be able to break the speed of sound once again, some of which may be operational by 2023. However, it’s likely even the biggest of these will only be about half the size of Concorde.

If we want to really look to the future, then we need to talk about hypersonic flight. NASA is already trialling these planes that can far exceed Concorde’s Mach 2, with hopes that eventually we will have aeroplanes capable of travelling above Mach 5, or 3000 mph (6174kmph), meaning a flight from San Francisco to Sydney could be completed in 2 hours, rather than the 15 hours today. 

While this might seem a distant dream today, remember that what was first conceived in the 1950s was also considered a futuristic absurdity by some. Concorde was an extraordinary achievement for many reasons. But if nothing else, it gave us a fleeting glimpse of the future. A dream that came and went, unable to find its place in the present. We’ve already seen the future, and it happened 50 years ago.

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