Forty years ago today, two aircraft landed at Washington Dulles Airport. The supersonic age had arrived, and with it a true design and technology icon. The Spitfire, the Hurricane, the Harrier, the Vulcan, the Lancaster – all are significant aircraft and arguably icons each with a deserved place in history, alongside so many others – the 707, the 737 and the 747, the B52, the DC-3 and DC-8, the Constellation and too many others to list. But one aircraft stands out so much it needs no introduction. It does not even need the definite article. Truly, Concorde is a case apart.
The dream of Concorde officially goes back to 1954, when Britain was leading the world in jet engine development and use in civilian aviation. The British Ministry of Aviation commissioned a study of the potential for supersonic flight, and published a report in April 1955 which identified an aircraft similar in concept to the Avro 730 Mach 3 reconnaissance aircraft, the closest North American equivalent would be the North American XB-70 Valkyrie. But, the report also had some more worrying observations.
The committee had concluded that the ‘short wingspan produced very little lift at low speeds and this would result in extremely long takeoff runs, frighteningly high landing speeds and would require enormous engine power to lift off from existing runways’, thereby in the opinion of the Ministry of Aviation making the idea impractical for safe commercial operation. Effectively, the government was closing the door on financing any SST development, and such finance was the only commercially sound and potentially available source for such development.
However, by early 1956, the Royal Aircraft Establishment, a research institution under the control of the Ministry of Aviation (and later the Ministry of Defence) completed research work on the “wing planform” or slender delta wing concept, and the committee met again. The Handley Page HP115, above, was one of several aircraft subsequently built specifically to develop the delta wing concept.
By 1959, Hawker Siddeley, Bristol and Armstrong Whitworth, just three of Britain’s many aircraft companies of the time, were working on slender delta wing ideas. Almost immediately, technical and commercial risk sharing partners were sought, with Boeing, Douglas and General Dynamics being approached, as well as Sud Aviation of France (a nationally owned company formed from several independent business in 1957), who were at a similar stage of initial design of the Sud Aviation Super Caravelle, which was also expected to feature Bristol Olympus engines, below.
In 1960, the British industry was merged into two, though still privately owned, groups – British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and Hawker Siddeley Aviation, and BAC were to lead the supersonic project, working with Bristol Aero Engines, subsequently part of Rolls-Royce.
After a lot of government to government negotiation, partly linked with Britain’s ambition to join the European Common Market (then the EEC, now the EU) and France’s insistence on some return for this and then the French veto on Britain’s membership in 1963, a formal international treaty to jointly develop a supersonic passenger aircraft for commercial service was signed in November 1962. The status of this as a treaty rather than just as a commercial agreement was important – being a lot harder to break, its existence saved the project more than once over the subsequent years.
There were several key points to be decided at the start – how big was the aircraft to be, what was the expected range, and where it would be built. The answers were a passenger capacity of around 100, sitting 2+2 in a smaller narrow body fuselage than BAC had proposed, a range capable of transatlantic service and a manufacturing plan that saw production in both France and the UK.
British Rolls-Royce Olympus engines were to be used, though a French partner, SNECMA, was also brought in. Given the power of the engines, just four were needed for flight and only two for taxiing to avoid excessive wear on the brakes, compared with up to eight engines in some earlier proposals.
The aircraft was starting to look, to a casual observer, like a fast version of the Avro Vulcan bomber, with the plan form wing and underslung Olympus engines, though there were some very important variations, and there was no formal relationship, although the Vulcan used the same basic engine and a Vulcan was flown as the testbed for the Concorde installation.
There was more than a lack of power that prevented the Vulcan from being supersonic. It may have had a planform delta wing, but it is not working aerodynamically in the same way as the much thinner chord wing on Concorde, nor was it swept as steeply. The aerodynamic profile of the fuselage and nose was quite different, and being supersonic, Concorde had to have innovative work on the air intakes for the engines.
Aero engines cannot accept air entering at supersonic speeds, so a series of baffles, known as ramps, are required in the intake duct ahead of the engine to slow the airflow before it reaches the engine itself. Of course, these are only required at high speeds, so for take off and slow speed flight, they retract within the nacelle, before extending as speed increases.
I heard an amusing tale around these ramps from a retired Concorde Captain recently. At over Mach 2, his aircraft exhibited severe juddering and vibration, and the flight engineer recognised that the ramps for one of the engines had closed. Procedure directed that the engines be shut down, thereby slowing the aircraft suddenly and abruptly. The engineer was able to re-open the ramps, restart the engines, and the flight was successfully and safely resumed. The captain recorded that this was the only time that the (very amply provisioned) alcohol reserves of Concorde were drunk dry…..
France built the central fuselage and wings, Britain built the fuselage forward of the wing, the nose and rear fuselage and rudder. The engines were built by Rolls-Royce in Bristol and the exhaust, afterburner and reverse thrust assembly by SNECMA of France. Worth noting is that the French elements of the airframe were designed in metric units (millimetres and grams), while the British element was designed in feet, inches and pounds.
Concorde was unique amongst Western commercially operated aircraft in using reheat, injecting fuel directly into the hot jet exhaust of the turbine (hence the alternative term afterburners), for take off and initial climb, and for the transonic transition, as the aircraft accelerated through Mach 1.
Flying at Mach 2 speed raised another issue – airframe heating. Concorde cruised at almost 60,000 ft, compared with 38-40,000 ft for a conventional aircraft, where the outside temperature is normally around -60 deg Celsius, (-140 deg Fahrenheit). The external temperature of the airframe would rise to over 120 deg Celsius (250 deg Fahrenheit), and the aircraft would stretch by several inches. By using a system of rollers, the passenger floor was kept separate from the main airframe and the effect of the stretch concentrated on an area immediately behind the flight engineer’s station, where a gap would open up.
Tales exist of flight logs being left in the gap, and then trapped there when the aircraft cooled. Likewise, crew caps are visible, protruding from the gap but solidly trapped, on several preserved aircraft.
The fuel within the wings tanks was also used as a heat sink from the air conditioning, and surface heating was the reason the British Airways Concordes had an all over white livery, rather than the usual BA blue and grey or later blue and white.
Of course, one of Concorde’s most noticeable and commented on visual features is the droop nose, which is lowered for taxi, take off and landing. This is purely to give some forward visibility for the pilots, and is also my (tenuous) link to Concorde. The droop nose and visor were designed and built not by BAC or Sud Aviation but, as the only part of the airframe contracted out by the main partners, by the British company Marshall of Cambridge (now known as Marshall ADG), which was my first employer in aerospace in 1984. Whilst Concorde had by then been placed in the company’s history file and archives, the ability to invoke it was always useful, and it invariably featured on staff induction and visitor tours. Some years later, I supplied some Concorde bin latches to British Aerospace as well, but that’s a story for another day.
Knowing the position of the centre of gravity of an aircraft and its location relative to the centre of lift is vital for a conventional aircraft, and any changes, due to loading, fuel burn or speed of the airflow and attitude changes, must be capable of being easily managed, usually by trimming the horizontal stabiliser (or tailplane). Keeping them close together keeps control forces lower as well. On a delta wing aircraft without a horizontal stabiliser this is obviously not an option, so Concorde used a system of moving fuel between the wing tanks and a smaller tank in the extreme tail cone to compensate.
The lack of a tailplane also meant that conventional elevators were not possible. Instead, Concorde used a combined elevator and aileron, known as an elevon, working together for pitch and differentially for roll.
Construction of the first aircraft, known as 001, began in Toulouse, France in February 1965 whilst Concorde 002 was built at Filton, in Bristol in south west England.
The aircraft first flew in March 1969.
The Concorde 001 took off from Toulouse, under the control of Andre Turcat of Sud Aviation,.
The British aircraft flew just 6 weeks later from Filton in Bristol to RAF Fairford, the UK base for test flights, commanded by BAC’s Brian Trubshaw.
This flight was notable for the failure of both radio altimeters.
The radio altimeter measures the aircraft’s altitude during the stages of final approach and landing, so the failures made the landing a more challenging test of airmanship, to say the least.
An intensive development programme inevitably followed. Given the nature of the development at the boundaries of experience and the potential unknown factors, all the crew wore parachutes and escape hatches were cut into the fuselage of the aircraft.
Concorde 001 went supersonic in October 1969 and Mach 2 was reached in November 1970.
The first pre-production aircraft, Concorde 01, flew from Filton in December 1971 and in December the first of the 14 production aircraft flew from Toulouse, going supersonic on its maiden flight. The last production aircraft’s first flight was in April 1979.
The first joint appearance of the British and French aircraft was at the Paris Air Show in June 1969, by which time orders and options had reached a total of over 70 from 16 airlines, and BAC/Sud Aviation were planning on the basis of over 350 aircraft by 1980.
The orders, and options taking the total over 100, were from a full top table of the world’s airlines, including BOAC (later British Airways or BA), Air France, Lufthansa, QANTAS and Air India as well as TWA, American, United, Pan Am and Air Canada from North America.
These names and numbers were, of course, before the energy crisis of 1973, as well as the awareness of environmental concerns, including the sonic boom. If you accept that a sonic boom is unacceptable over land, then operations to many areas or across continents become impractical.
As early as 1971, the US suspended any activities on the remaining SST project, the Boeing 2707 seen here being built in full size mock up form, partly in response to environmental concerns, partly on the economics and partly on the technical challenges of achieving Mach 2.7 with 250 passengers.
The biggest issues Concorde had in terms of public acceptance were different on different continents. In Britain, especially, and France it was the cost of the project and apparently diminishing financial prospects for the project.
In the US, the major concern was environmental, based around the fuel consumption for a relatively small payload, the potential damage to the ozone layer, the noise on take-off and the concerns of the impact of the sonic boom if the aircraft were to make any coast to coast flights. Allegations of American protectionism persist in Europe, although evidence is by no means absolute, and many campaigners were undoubtedly sincere in their environmental concerns.
In the UK, the concern was about the cost and lack of direct financial return for the government expenditure on the aircraft. The cost of the Concorde project is normally quoted at £1.5 billion in mid 1970s values, perhaps £15 billion in current values, and it all came from the French and British governments. In the economically constrained times that were the 1970s, that amount of money for 14 aircraft for rich people to fly in didn’t seem great value.
It is only fair to record that Concorde was actually the second SST to fly and to go into service. The first was the Russian Tupolev Tu-144. Visually, there were enough similarities to Concorde for it be referred to as the Concordski, but there were many differences. The engine controls were much less advanced, as Concorde’s Lucas Aerospace (now part of Goodrich, within the UTC umbrella) equipment could not be sold to Russia; cooling used a more conventional but heavier air-conditioning system; and canards were used to aid low speed lift and lower the still high landing speeds to counteract a less efficient wing design. The engines needed afterburners to maintain supersonic speeds as well as for the sonic transition, and their thirst limited the range. The aircraft was also very noisy, in fact uncomfortably and impractically so, for passengers
Development started in 1963 and the aircraft was in service in late 1975.
Tragically, one aircraft crashed at the Paris Airshow in 1973. Tu-144 services were suspended in June 1978, and aside from some cargo services, that was it, until NASA used one for aerodynamic research in the 1990s, associated with a speculative new SST.
By 1974, the long term future and any commercial operational prospects for Concorde were weak. The US was blocking the aircraft from entering the country commercially, the practicalities of flying to the Middle East or beyond from Europe were hampered by the sonic boom issue and flights to South America were limited by amount of demand a premium service like Concorde would need to attract. Britain and France kept pushing, installing a revised Olympus engine with a cleaner (and much less visible) exhaust.
Despite the continuation of a lot of well organized and funded opposition leading to a restriction approved by Congress, Concorde was finally approved into the US for commercial service in February 1976, by the Carter Administration. The first service flights into the US were on 24 May 1976, with simultaneous arrivals at Washington Dulles International from London and Paris. Airports will often work with airlines to enable this sort of event – after all, they are commercial organisations in a competitive world as well.
The real draw for the Europeans, though, was New York. The Port of New York Authority refusal to permit Concorde into John F Kennedy Airport, ostensibly driven by the concerns over noise and environmental impacts, was finally overturned by the Supreme Court in October 1977 and London and Paris services began on 22 November 1977, again simultaneously.
Listening to this recording, though, you sense that the American aviation community came to like the aircraft as well!
The step change in flight times was exactly that. London-New York became a three and a half hour journey, compared with around six hours in a 747 or a VC-10. Concorde’s transatlantic record was 2 hours 52 minutes 59 seconds from New York to London Heathrow, and a record of 95 minutes was set for the journey from Hopedale, Newfoundland to the coast of Ireland. The aircraft was flying not only faster than the proverbial bullet but faster than the rotation of the earth. The regular service left London at 10.30 am and arrived in New York at 9.25 am, a scheduled flight time of just under four hours. The aircraft could reach Mach 2 within seven minutes of takeoff, if flying out directly over the sea.
Concorde flew round the world in 32 hours; London to Sydney was accomplished in 17 hours and in November 2003, after retirement, New York to Seattle in under four.
British Airway’s Concorde operational economics took a huge turn for the better in 1982. Previously, British Airways had operated the aircraft but not owned it, and the owner, the Government, was set to suspend services as it was not achieving anything like break even. BA was able to negotiate to purchase the seven aircraft for £16.5 million plus a profit share for the first year, and the BA Concorde experience was stepped up.
Over the next twenty years, BA operated Concorde at a significant profit, such that from 1984 Government involvement was minimal, with the aircraft being operated and maintained by the airline with direct commercial support agreements from the manufacturers. These videos from a BBC special may be a little dated and laboured in presentation, but give a valid impression on how Concorde was looked upon in the 1980s and 1990s.
BA used Concorde as a premium service, with all the trappings of a conventional first class service in a narrow body aircraft, with the added luxury of speed, and as a huge marketing tool for the airline. Return journeys were priced in the thousands of dollars and pounds, even in the 1980s, and the regular clientele were included not just the top business people for whom time was money, but also the glamour market.
Charter business increased, with a wide range of destinations across North America and the Caribbean, although Air France had much less success in this sphere, and arguably did not use the aircraft to its capabilities, or maybe even want the aircraft. Certainly, for Air France, it ran at a loss and it is recorded is that the French aircraft had flown by 2003 a number of hours similar to that the British aircraft had reached 15 years earlier.
In July 2000, Air France aircraft F-BTSC crashed on take-off from Paris Charles de Gaulle, on a charter flight linked to a Caribbean cruise. Tragically, all 109 people on board were killed, the aircraft almost immediately grounded by the aviation authorities and the aircraft’s certificate of airworthiness was withdrawn a few weeks later. The cause of the accident, as so often, was a combination of several factors, including being overweight with a centre of gravity beyond limits, tanks topped up to the brim with fuel, a down wind take off and fragments from a tyre burst, caused by debris on the runway, hitting a very full fuel tank .
A major programme of preventative changes was commenced. Kevlar lining were fitted into the fuel tanks, new tyres were developed and changes made to the electrical control system. BA took the opportunity to have a complete interior refit also Services were resumed in November 2001, when demand for transatlantic traffic was low – indeed the first operational flight landed in New York from London on 11 September 2001.
But the writing was now on the wall. Maintenance of this now relatively old aircraft was getting harder and more expensive, passenger demand was slow to rebuild and one partner was not making money. In March 2003, Airbus, the successor organisation to the aircraft’s original manufacturers stated that support would be discontinued. Without manufacturer support, the certificates of airworthiness would inevitably be withdrawn by the UK CAA and French DGAC.
Air France and BA announced that operations would be finishing later that year. Air France finished quietly in May; BA continued until October, with a staged successive arrival of three aircraft at Heathrow from New York, Edinburgh and a final charter flight covered on live television.
This is from that day’s main BBC evening news, and gives a feel for the affection the UK had, and still has, for the aircraft. Dream-like to watch, but the dream was over.
The aircraft have been dispersed to various museums worldwide. There are aircraft on display in seven locations across Britain, three in the US (in Seattle, New York and Washington), in Barbados and in France. Of the twenty prototype, pre-production and production aircraft built, eighteen survive (the losses being the aircraft 203 destroyed in the Paris crash and 211 used for spares after a heavy landing in 1982) – five in France, eight, including one retained by British Airways, in the UK, three in the US and one each in Germany and Barbados.
There are inevitably differing points of view apart Concorde. Some will continue to stress its conspicuous consumption and environmental impacts, some question its economic cost relative to its commercial achievements and others argue that Europe may have been better served trying to compete more directly with Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. I would suggest the following should be borne in mind.
Firstly, it was always an experimental and research programme at heart, from the 1950s onwards. Commercial use and success were not the only reasons for the project – fundamental research into the supersonic flight was always a major part of it. Secondly, the spin off benefits in materials and techniques, in a similar way to the Apollo programme, are numerous and varied, and it also helped to inspire a generation, or more, of engineers.
The innovation in Concorde included the electrical control systems and the fly by wire technologies now used in modern aircraft. In the 1960s, such technology was at the leading edge; by 1988, the Airbus A320 was flying in airline service with full fly by wire control systems, leading the world in such technology, and this links to the expertise of Europe in such systems, through organisations such as Thales, Airbus and BAE Systems, and Europe based divisions of GE Aviation, Honeywell and UTC for example. The Airbus A350 and A380 have similar systems.
Airbus itself, as a business based in four countries with a history of shared ownership and dispersed centres of excellence (all Airbus wings are British designed and made, fuselages and most final assembly are German or French), is a successful example of international collaboration that has become market leader, challenging Boeing by building aircraft in the USA – a model started by the Concorde project. Rolls-Royce is an undisputed world class aero-engine company and a true British technology star. A Rolls-Royce engined Boeing 787, and there are many, is 25% British by value; an Airbus A350 even more.
There is one other reason that for some will trump any economic, industrial or technological factor – look at it and tell me Concorde is not the most elegant aircraft ever made?