Aviation enthusiasts have a special place in their hearts for the Anglo-French Concorde. The world’s most famous supersonic airliner with its slender fuselage, huge delta-shaped wing and drooped nose (to improve visibility during take-off and landing) all working together in gorgeous symmetry to cruise at a speed in excess of Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), was for many years the epitome of man’s desire for flight.
Streamlined and elegant, Concorde looked fast even when it was standing still. Anyone who has watched the aircraft take-off, with an unimaginable roar that shook every window in the vicinity, flames leaping out of the Rolls Royce Olympus turbojet engines as it raced down the runway, will never forget the sight. The characteristic ‘sonic boom’ which announced to all on the ground that the sound barrier was broken once more, was at once admired by those who loved Concorde and derided by the critics.
A short history
Supersonic flight was always a primary goal of the aircraft design community. By the 1950s it was routinely achieved in the military sphere, primarily for fighter aircraft. A few supersonic bombers were also developed, the XB-70 Valkyrie being one that reached the flight-test phase.
However, rapidly advancing missile technology made these concepts obsolete. Some of the research was channeled into the design of a supersonic passenger aircraft. Boeing was awarded a contract by the US government to develop such a machine in 1966 after many years of research. This project never reached fruition and Boeing halted development once the government money ran out, to concentrate on the commercially more viable gigantic 747 model.
At the same time, a British and French consortium was formed to jointly develop a supersonic passenger transport aircraft on the other side of the Atlantic. The Russians too were working on such a design, with the Tupolev design bureau tasked with the project.
A stable oil price
What is often forgotten in today’s world, where the price of oil seems to fluctuate daily, is that this is a relatively new phenomenon. From the 1880s (when oil was first extracted in commercial quantities) right through to 1970, the price of oil remained constant at around USD 1.50 a barrel.
This lack of price fluctuation was taken as a given. Fuel efficiency, such an obsession today, was not even considered as important. Aircraft designers could concentrate on factors such as speed, size, capacity etc. with little regard to fuel consumption.
Geopolitics was to ambush and destroy this mindset. OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) was formed in 1960 in Iraq by a number of countries to push up the price of their principle export. By the early 1970s, OPEC members controlled more than half the world’s production and were successful in gradually increasing prices. The 1973 oil embargo led by the Arab states, when the price of oil quadrupled in a short space of time, was a huge shock to the global economy. It was to completely change the aviation industry as well.
Design, development and delays
The Concorde project’s original development budget of GBP 70 million proved to be hopelessly optimistic. The technical challenges were immense and the program would eventually cost in excess of GBP 1.3 billion.
The huge cost overruns and delays, plus the complete change in airline economics with the oil price raises, meant that the Concorde was a white elephant from the start. An added complication was supersonic “boom”, which is as the aircraft broke through the sound barrier on the way to its design cruise speed of over Mach 2. The ear-splitting noise was strenuously objected to by the earthbound populacewith homes under the flightpath and a law banning it over the USA’s landmass was passed, effectively meaning that Concorde could only fly supersonic on over-water routes
The long delays, oil price and inability to fly within the USA (due noise constraints) all led to the final production run being a mere twenty aircraft. The French and British governments absorbed the development cost. Only British Airways (BA) and Air France (AF) ever operated the aircraft.
The communist rival
Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, superpower rivalry meant that the Russians too were working on a supersonic airliner. Unkindly dubbed the ‘Konkordski’ by the Western media, the Tupolev Design Bureau was testing a very similar delta-winged aircraft, the TU-144. There was immense pressure to outdo the capitalists and prove that Soviet aircraft technology was superior.
The details of this have been documented exhaustively elsewhere, but suffice it to say that it appears the Russian design was fatally flawed. In the course of a demonstration flight at the Paris Airshow in 1973, in front of an audience of thousands, the TU-144 prototype broke apart in mid-air killing all on board.
The Anglo-French Concorde avoided such a public debacle and went onto receive its certification by the British and French authorities. It quickly became the flagship of both country’s national airlines, with British Airways and Air France proudly carrying their premium passengers in great comfort and record time on board Concorde.
Flying primarily on the lucrative trans-Atlantic run between London/Paris and New York/Washington D.C., Concorde was a popular choice for many years. The supersonic cruising speed meant that it would cross the Atlantic in less than half the time a conventional airliner would take. Concorde could leave Heathrow at 11:15 am (London time) and reach New York at 10:10 am (East Coast local time). Getting to one’s destination before the departure time was impossibly seductive. This tremendously fashionable feature demonstrated the untouchable performance of the aircraft.
The significant fuel cost was more than offset by the premium paid by the wealthy passengers who flew on Concorde regularly. Both BA and AF were able to operate Concord at a significant operational profit on their limited Trans-Atlantic networks in the 1980s and 1990s.
Despite the popularity and profitability, there were many technical challenges to the operation. A tremendous “gas guzzler” Concorde was at the limit of its range on the westbound service, due to the prevailing winds. New York’s famously rude and inflexible air traffic controllers would make special allowance for Concorde, allowing the pilots to take many shortcuts to avoid a critical fuel state.
Another particular stress-point were the tyres. With a take-off speed (rotation in pilot’s parlance) of 220 knots (over 400 kph) and a touchdown at 185 knots (346 kph) the tyres were subject to unbelievable stress. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was concerned about this issue for some time. The possibility that the tyres could explode and damage the fuel tanks alarmed the NTSB greatly.
In 1993 this proved prescient, when an exploding tyre punctured the fuel tank on a BA Concorde while taxiing. Thankfully the crew were able to stop the aircraft and shut down the engines. It was found that a fuel tank had been punctured on the left side of the aircraft, from which fuel was leaking out.
British Airways developed and implemented a design change to cover for this eventuality, but Air France opted not to adopt the modification.
On July 25 2000, an Air France Concorde departing from Paris Charles De Gaulle airport encountered a metal strip on the runway. This caused a tyre to explode at high-speed, with the debris puncturing the fuel tank. The leaking fuel ignited instantly and as the pilot rotated, ATC reported huge flames at the back of the aircraft.
Unable to stop the aircraft on the remaining runway, the crew tried to reach nearby le Bourget airport. However they were unable to do so and Concorde crashed less than three minutes later, killing the 109 souls on board and 4 people on the ground. By an ironic twist of fate, the Air France Concorde crashed very close to the site of the TU-144 disaster 27 years earlier.
A final bow
With many design changes made to the fleet as a result of the subsequent investigation, Concorde was able to return to the air in November 2001. However, the general slump in the industry after the attacks of 9/11 and a spiraling fuel price made the return to commercial service non-viable.
Airbus, now a profitable company with a stable of aircraft models, made a decision to stop production of spare parts for the type. This was the final nail in the coffin of Concorde the world’s only supersonic commercial aircraft.
A series of farewell flights, totally sold out to an adoring public, saw the world’s most elegant airliner relegated to museum duty shortly thereafter.