Supersonic: 50 years after its first flight, the Concorde story is still remarkable
Fifty years ago, the first Concorde supersonic transport took to the skies over Toulouse, France. Hailed in its day as a technological achievement to rival the first manned Moon landing, it not only set an aeronautical standard that we cannot match today, it also stood as a prime example of the way in which engineering and sheer beauty can be melded into a single package. Here's a look back at the career of the luxury passenger aircraft that flew faster than the Sun.
In the mid-1980s, I lived under the flight path in and out of London's Heathrow Airport and one the highlights of my day was when Concorde flew overhead. It was pretty hard to miss. The deep-throated roar of the Olympus turbojet engines firing their afterburners was unmistakably different from that of the conventional turbofan engines of conventional aircraft, and a glance out the window was often rewarded with the sight of the huge, white, swanlike shape of the supersonic airliner passing overhead.
It wasn't just that you were seeing a technological marvel pass by. It was something amazingly beautiful, almost living. It had perfect proportions, graceful lines, and even at subsonic speeds looked very much in its element. Imagine the Eiffel Tower with wings and you get some small idea of the impression it left.
Even today, 50 years after its first flight and 16 years after it flew for the last time, Concorde still has an aura about it – the mere mention of its name can cause a certain glint in the eye of devoted fans. Was it just aesthetic? Is it nostalgia for a time before airliners became flying cattle cars for most travelers? Or is there something more?
There was a lot more to Concorde than looks, and those sleek lines were the result of very cold and functional equations aimed at creating a passenger airliner that could not just fly at twice the speed of sound, but cruise at that speed for hours on a daily basis for decades – something that was beyond even military aircraft of the day.
Though only 20 Concordes were built, with 14 going into regular service with Air France and British Airways, they racked up a surprising number of firsts. Concorde was the first airliner to have a fly-by-wire flight-control system, the first commercial aircraft to employ hybrid circuits, the first with computerized engine controls, and the first to use electronics so extensively. It had the greatest range of any supersonic aircraft, and to this day the tiny Concorde fleet has the record for the most supersonic flight time of any military or civilian aircraft.
And that's is only the tip of the iceberg of its astonishing story.
Who flew in Concorde?
Concorde was not cheap to fly – in fact, the tickets were eye-wateringly expensive. Not surprisingly, it had only one class – first, of course – and along with being able to cross the Atlantic from London to New York in three and a half hours, both national airlines that operated it made its luxury service as big a selling point as speed.
The popular image of the average Concorde passenger is of jet-setters, VIPs, statesmen, and the great and the good in general. And there's a lot of truth to that. The passenger list often read like a who's who of celebrities, including British royalty, prime ministers, film stars, sports stars, and rock stars. Sir David Frost used Concorde to commute back and forth between doing television shows in New York and London so often that he lost count, estimating the number of trips to be between 300 and 500.
Yet, surprisingly, A-listers only made up 10 percent of passengers. A full 80 percent were repeat flyers on business trips and the remainder ordinary people who'd saved up for the trip of a lifetime. Since Concorde could only carry 128 passengers in extremis, flights were short and intimate with a palpable air of excitement that invariably infected both passengers and crew. It was also very efficient, with the cabin crew of six trained to provide rapid, unobtrusive personal service, which meant dropping everything if a passenger asked for a drink as well as being adept at serving gourmet meals while posing for photos.
Flying on Concorde
But the main attraction and the excitement of Concorde was that it flew higher and faster than any conventional commercial airliner. In many ways, the interior was like that of a spaceship, with only 25 rows of seats set two on either side of the aisle and tiny widows that only added to the impression. Up front was a large digital display showing the altitude in feet and the speed in Machs.
Takeoff also had a space age quality. Because the giant delta wings provided almost no lift on the ground, Concorde was essentially powered into the air using two of its four Rolls-Royce Olympus turbojet engines, a modification of those originally built for the Avro Vulcan nuclear bomber. When these were powered up for takeoff, the pilot would kick in the afterburners, providing a massive thrust that built up speed quickly. before bringing the aircraft up at such a steep angle that the engineers had to install a special wheel in the tail section to keep it from scraping on the tarmac.
Once airborne, the afterburners cut out, but Concorde gained altitude quickly. Once over the open sea at a height of 28,000 ft (8,500 m), all four engines were online and the afterburners kicked in again, pushing the aircraft to Mach 1 (748 mph, 1,192 km/h). The passengers then enjoyed Champagne while the aircraft climbed to 60,000 ft (18,000 m) and pushed past Mach 2 (1,484 mph, 2,388 km/h).
This was so high that the sky started to darken and the curvature of the Earth could be seen. It was so fast that you could look down and see conventional aircraft seeming to fly backwards. It also built up so much air friction that the windows were very warm to the touch and the entire fuselage expanded 6 inches.
Concorde would then decelerate to below Mach 1 using its clamshell thrust buckets. It's no wonder so many passengers expressed disappointment at how soon the supersonic phase was over.
The birth of Concorde
So where did this remarkable aircraft come from? And why were only a handful of them built? The answer lies at the end of the Second World War when the world of aerospace engineering was undergoing an astonishing evolution. When the first Wright Flyer took off in 1903, it made a top speed of 6 mph (10 km/h). By 1947, the Bell X1 broke through the sound barrier.
It was an achievement that required a huge raft of innovations in fuselages, wing designs, engines and materials, all taking place in a half a dozen different countries. It also came at a time when long-range jet passenger aircraft were taking to the skies for the first time and engineers expected that craft like the de Havilland Comet and the Boeing 707 would inevitably give way to something bigger, faster, and with longer range.
In other words, a supersonic transport.
In 1954, two years before the Fairey Delta 2 went supersonic, Britain convened the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee (STAC) to look into the prospects of building a supersonic commercial aircraft. About the same time, France's Sud Aviation was studying how to make an advance on its successful Caravelle jet airliner with a supersonic Super-Caravelle. Meanwhile, American companies like Boeing, Lockheed, and Convair were considering how to turn their expertise in building large, high-speed bombers into their own SSTs.
It was out of this melee that Concorde was born on November 29, 1962 when the British and French governments signed an agreement to share the costs and pool their resources to go supersonic. The new aircraft was to be built by Sud Aviation and the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and would be called Concorde – the French spelling that Paris insisted on and a harbinger of a very rocky partnership.
The French and the British had a very different view of the project. To the British, it was a practical commercial enterprise designed to advance technology and turn a profit at the end of the day. To the French, it was a prestige project designed to show the world that France, still smarting for defeat in the last war and a series of postwar setbacks, was still a world power. The result was a constant stream of arguments between the two sides, with the French insisting on continuing work even in the face of astronomical cost overruns. But it also meant that everything was scrutinized down to the last period and comma.
"Every bloody thing the French would put forward we'd do our best to knock it down, and everything we put forward they'd do their best to knock it down. So you couldn't get by with a loose proposition," said Sir Archibald Russell, joint chairman of the Concorde Executive Committee of Directors between 1965 and 1969. "And I think I must put part of the credit for the eventual technical success down to the fact that there was no possibility of a loose decision getting through."
Another reason for all this friction was that Concorde was like nothing else that had ever been designed to fly. It required massive amounts of design work, the development of whole new ways to work aluminum alloys, and to put together a plane without welding. The double-delta, ogee/ogival-shaped wings were the result of incredibly complex calculations in an age that still depended on slide rules and months of tests in special supersonic wind tunnels.
Concorde was also tested in full scale to a greater degree than any aircraft before it. Mockups were assembled and disassembled over and over. The wings and fuselage sections were vibrated, rolled, heated, pressurized, and depressurized in every way imaginable. One of the engines was installed under the belly of a Vulcan bomber for flight testing.
Every specification was carefully chosen. The cruising speed of Mach 2.04 (1,354 mph, 2,179 km/h) was selected because the original speed of Mach 2.5 would have required building Concorde out of titanium in quantities almost impossible to obtain. However, at around Mach 2, aluminum worked fine, As to Mach 2.04, that was settled on because it was the most fuel efficient, allowing Concorde to burn only (!) 4,880 gal (22,000 l) per hour.
The same was true of every of every other detail. The turbojet engines were chosen because turbofans had too much drag. Cabin pressure was set to the equivalent of 6,000 ft (1,800 m) for maximum passenger comfort. It also helped diners to appreciate their food better because higher altitudes kill the sense of taste. The white livery was chosen because Concorde needed a special heat-resistant, heat-reflecting paint. Even the toilets were specially designed with preheated pipes to keep waste water from freezing as it was flushed overboard.
Then there was the famous droop nose that made Concorde look like a giant bird when landing and taking off. While cruising, Concorde looked like a paper dart. In fact, that was what inspired the final design. The pilots were protected by a special visor with armored, high-temperature resistant glass panels 1.5 inches thick. It left the crew only able to see straight ahead and to the side, but it did its job.
But a sharp, streamlined nose wasn't suited to take off and landing because the pilots needed to be able to see up and down as well as ahead. Instead of coming up with a compromise, the engineers gave Concorde both. For take off and landing, the nose drooped down for maximum visibility. Once in the air, the nose swung back up and the visor slid into position.
Putting all this together took an army of technicians from over 800 companies in England and France. It also entailed a logistical nightmare, because Concorde was assembled in both countries with the various components being ferried back and forth across 570 miles in huge Guppy aircraft. This required a lot of cooperation between the Sud Aviation and BAC, but it didn't prevent incidents, like when the French insisted in taking apart a complicated component before installing it, only to have to send it back because they couldn't put it back together again.
First flight and stumbling blocks
On March 2, 1969 at 3:40 pm, the first Concorde took to the air from Toulouse. Aboard Concorde 001 were chief test pilot André Turcat, co-pilot Jacques Guignard, flight engineer Michel Rétif, and three observers. It was over two years since the prototype was unveiled to the public and three years behind schedule. The aircraft never went supersonic. It didn't even raise its nose or its undercarriage. Instead, it flew about for 27 minutes with its wheels down before returning to base. It wouldn't fly past the speed of sound until October 1 that same year.
Despite this triumph, things didn't go well for Concorde. The partners launched an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at selling the plane all over the world in hopes of having over 500 flying by the 1990s. Instead, initial orders were all cancelled. This was due to many factors. The American abandoned their SST programs and had little sympathy for a foreign competitor. Then the burgeoning environmentalist movement opposed Concorde landing in New York for several years because of fears of the window-breaking sonic boom it generated at full speed, and the US government passed environmental regulations that were prejudiced against supersonic flight, making it almost impossible to operate in American airspace without extensive clearances.
It also didn't help on June 3, 1973 when the Soviet Union's SST, the TU-144 tragically broke apart and crashed during the Paris Air Show, killing all onboard. The TU-144 (below) was of an inferior design to Concorde and only made 55 commercial flights before being cancelled, but the idea that supersonic travel was unsafe fixed itself in the minds of the public,and the airlines.
But the killer was sheer economics. The year 1973 saw the Yom Kippur war, when Israel saw off an Arab invasion force and in retaliation the OPEC states imposed a series of oil embargoes against the West. This drove up air fuel costs and Concordes ticket prices also soared. Even with British government subsidies, a return ticket to New York in 1983 cost £2,399 or £7,600 in today's money. In the cash-strapped 1970s, it made Concorde and impossible sale to airlines.
So why were these two airlines flying Concorde? Because they were national lines and hadn't any choice in the matter. The governments said fly Concorde, so they flew them. It required bailouts and subsidies in the 1970s and early '80s, though Concorde eventually did run at a surprising profit.
Of course, that profit didn't hope to pay back the money spent by the British and French governments. The 14 planes couldn't possibly recoup the research and development costs that had ballooned from an initial £70 million to £1.3 billion in 1970s money.
Crash and retirement
Concorde continued to fly, with regular services starting in 1976 between Paris, London, New York, Washington DC, and Barbados. To this were added special flights to Asia, Australia, around the world, and even charters just flying in circles over the Atlantic.
Then came July 25, 2000, when a charter flight from Paris took off. On the runway it struck a piece of metal debris that ruptured a tire, then shot up and punctured a fuel tank. The wing caught fire, the engines failed, and the Air France jet crashed into a hotel, killing 100 passengers, nine crew members, and four people on the ground.
After an inquiry, the Concorde fleet was modified with Kevlar padding around the fuel tanks and additional modifications. Cleared for service, the first passenger flight took place on the ironic date of September 11, 2001 – the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks that crippled the airline industry. Though Concorde was flying again, the times and economics were against it and the supersonic airliner was removed from service. The last flight took place when Concorde G-BOAF flew from Heathrow to Bristol on November 26, 2003.
Today, the last Concordes are either on display in museums or in storage. Aside from its place of honor in aviation history, it leaves behind many records. It holds the record for the fastest transatlantic airliner flight from New York to London, the fastest airliner circumnavigations going both east and west, and when Concorde G-BOAG made its last flight to the Museum of Flight in Seattle in November 2003, it set the fastest New York to Seattle record, going supersonic over the Canadian wilderness with special permission.
G-BOAG has special significance for me. I often have writing assignments that take me to Seattle's Museum of Flight and I always take the opportunity while there to visit the retired Concorde, look up at its sleek lines from the ground and climb the stairs to go inside, where it's much more cramped that you expect.
The atmosphere is very different from when it was in service. G-BOAG is cold inside in the winter, everything is much too quiet and nothing moves – much like the unnatural feeling one gets visiting a ship in dry dock. The leather seats are all pristine in their neat rows numbers one through 26. There is no row 13. Who sat there? Warren Beatty? Pope John Paul II? The seats are sealed under giant perspex covers to protect them from the elements and curious hands, as are the galleys and the flight deck. It all seems very empty and a bit lonely, even when a crowd of tourists is aboard.
But listen very closely, at just the right moment, and I can hear a faint echo of the afterburners kicking in.