(first posted 5/24/2016) Forty years ago today (in 2016), 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.
Escapees would have been shielded from the airstream by a large steel plate, dropping like a guillotine blade into the airstream.
A full test crew included a team of engineers and observers, working with data collection equipment that seems historic now but was as advanced in 1969 as the aircraft itself.
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.
BA’s profits from Concorde were reported to be up to £30million per year. And, if you’ve ever wondered what happens at an airport on 25 December, it’s taking photographs like this one.
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?
I remember seeing Concorde twice. Once in c 2000, at my brother in law’s house near Heathrow and right under the flightpath. Even after 25 years, everyone looked up at Concorde coming in, while they ignored everything else. And in Oct 2003, when a huge crowd gathered at Edinburgh Airport to see the very last Concorde take off – one of the 3 that landed together in the video above. And I mean huge – not a few people on the spectator galleries, but a crowd that filled the car parks and fields all around the airport, at 2pm on a school day. Made quite a lot of noise, and a much longer take off run than the 737s we usually get, but it was worth it.
Nice piece our kid,
I saw a Concorde at Adelaide Airport and was surprised at how small it was. Iconic doesn’t even begin to describe this. I’ve never really been an aeroplane-head, but this just seemed to be everything about futurenow back when I was a kid.
Superb Roger. Explained much and what a great selection of pics. The French and British Concordes ‘skirmishing’ at the Paris Air Show is my favourite. Cheers.
I was also surprised by how small the Concorde was, especially in comparison to the jumbo jets that established the “jet set.” I truly believe that the small passenger capacity was a factor in Concorde’s failure to thrive as a passenger aircraft, because it was nigh impossible to achieve economies of scale. To scale up the aircraft would slow it down, and to add passengers to its existing size would detract from the experience of luxury (and also add weight, slowing things down).
A further limit was the lack of Concorde service to inland markets in North America and Europe. While there are a lot of transatlantic flyers within a reasonable distance to JFK and Dulles, were there enough to make the numbers work? And for the rest of the country, I recall a sentiment of, “Nice idea, but if I’m going to have a layover to board the Concorde AND pay extra, I’d just as soon stay on the same plane for the entire trip.”
But I’m glad that someone dared to dream. The Concorde is a beautiful legend.
The Concorde seems about as wide inside as a DC-4. It was said the fuselage flexed visibly in flight.
My late uncle once flew the Concorde & remarked about the Mach indicator at the front of the cabin. He was in the oil biz, I suppose on a matter urgent enough to justify the high fare.
Hate to sound like a humbug, but it’s easy to dream with Other People’s Money. Prestige projects are a manifestation of hubris: “Look at us, aren’t we wonderful?”
“Hate to sound like a humbug, but it’s easy to dream with Other People’s Money.”
I don’t think you sound like a humbug, and I couldn’t agree with you more.
And that’s largely the reason why it’s a good thing that some impractical, expensive dreams come to fruition: To help us determine the boundaries of practicality. Otherwise, we’d never test the limits, and never achieve advances in technology.
Charles Babbage’s difference engine wasn’t successful by Babbage’s terms, but it had great spinoff benefits.
Great piece. In 1973 I was working in Holland on a KLM DC-10 engine maintenance [computer] program when I saw a picture of the airshow crash on the front page of a Dutch newspaper. Not speaking/reading Dutch, I had to take it to a bi-lingual co-worker to determine if it was the Concorde or the TU-144. Air shows were big marketing opportunities and this was news all over the globe.
Fantastic photos and videos. Thank you.
I’ve read that the TU-144 crash was likely caused by an unseen French fighter jet observing the flight that had gotten too close and destabilized the TU-144’s flight (possibly even a near-miss inflight collision). The whole thing was hushed-up for political reasons. The TU-144 probably wouldn’t have made it into production, anyway. Even if it had, given the safety record of the Soviet (now Russian) aircraft industry, it surely would have crashed in a spectacular fashion at some point, even without interference from another country’s fighter jet.
For those who haven’t seen it, the video of the TU-144 crash is quite dramatic as the wings flail about and the Soviet flight crew valiantly tries to regain control.
They land like an F-14 slamming onto the deck apparently 🙂
An excellent morning read, Roger. I was a kid when the Concorde became such a star around 1971. A friend (whose interests were broader than mine) built a model kit of it. As I recall, there were two separate nose sections in the kit, one up and one down, which fascinated me.
Living in the Midwestern US, the Concorde never had service here, though I do remember that it came through Indiana once, late in its life.
Wonderful writeup Thanks so much
“…Concorde was finally approved into the US for commercial service in February 1976, by the Carter Administration.”
There was no Carter administration in 1976.
Good catch, that would have been the Ford administration. But Roger not being from the US, such a slip can be forgiven. I suspect that quite a few Americans under 50 would have missed this too.
Must learn my American presidents better…..thanks for the correction.
Carter would have been elected in 1976, taking office in 1977.
And, of course, Ford was unelected. (Think his boss got into a spot of bother from what I recall).
I am Canadian, 52 years old and I remember when Carter won the election in Nov. 1976 and his inauguration in Jan. 1977.
Nice article! I toured New York’s example
at the Intrepid Museum a couple years
Sadly, i feel the human race’s aerospace
endeavors have DEvolved over the last
20 years. Think about it.
Between 50-40 years ago, jet travel
became firmly established. The
widebody jet gave us more elbow
room, we had the Moon, and the
promise of supersonic travel and
the space shuttle just around the
What do we have now? Both the SST
and STS(Shuttle Transport. System) are
retired. Wide-body jets are being
supplanted by ‘mid-bodies’ with airlines
attempting to jam the same ten seats
across a cabin 1-2feet narrower than
the old 747!
Oh great: Modern jets use 50-70% less
fuel per passenger mile on the same
route, and they have Wi Fi, and thousands
of songs and dozens of movies to pick
That’s not the same kind of evolution I
was expecting – at least not the IFE
(In-Flight Entertainment) part.
I agree. When I was growing up in the 80’s there was the Space Shuttle, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the Concorde. The future seemed a lot brighter than it turned out to be. But a lot of that was just reality setting in.
And GREED setting in. There’s less total R&D money
available now to keep evolving in the directions the jumbos,
SST, and space programs were taking us. I do not
count smart-phones, tablets, Blue-Tooth, etc. as
Aerospace advancements are being made all the time, and with tremendous results. Thry are just less spectacular for the public. Advanced telescopes (Hubble, Kepler, Webb) space probes (Cassini, New Horizons, Messenger) rovers on other planets etc have been the future of aerospace. But sometimes the media and the public fail to grasp how unbelievable such advances are. For example Kepler has found 3000 planets orbiting other stars. This is a tremendous achievement but not nearly as understanable by the media as a fast plane people can see.
The shuttle and the ISS are a dead end in their current formats. The real future involves the development of truly high speed drive systems, where rapid unterplanetary and eventually interstellar travel is possible. If you look, you can see such goals are ambitious, are being taken seriously and impressive technology is being developed.
The space in aerospace is doing just fine, the aeronautics side on the other hand… Personally I just can’t get past my cynicism when it comes to the prospect of interstellar travel.
A nice read, thanks. I saw a Concorde fly once when I was in the UK, waiting in line to see Buckingham palace.
I’ve also seen the static Concorde in New York. All these years later it looks nothing like any other airliner..
A lot of info from “behind the scenes” so to speak, thanks.
Not as big a plane enthusiast as I am a car nut, but it was very interesting to read about all the various problems involved in the plane’s development and then how they were overcome.
If one plane can be said to have been “the mother” of many other great aircraft, it’s this one. Certainly this plane influenced the space shuttle?
My best memory of the Concorde (other than the crash) was (I believe) Phil Collins doing the Live Aid concert at Wembly, jumping on the Concorde and then doing the American concert the same day. (Or was is Elton John, I remember it was one of the two, as I didn’t care for either of them?) The news feed made quite the big deal of it that day.
It was Phil Collins. Back in 1985 he certainly wanted to make sure nobody, absolutely nobody could escape him (“So you Yanks thought you were safe on your side of the pond, eh? Nice try!”).
I happen to like a lot of Collins’ work – both with Genesis
and without. He possesses a level of talent in low
They taught us that cross-Atlantic concert during our
in-cabin tour of the Concorde at NY Intrepid.
Meh, I prefer Peter Gabriel myself.
I remember the Concorde in a book about transportation that I had as a kid. It was one of those big books with all the pictures in it that was made in the late 90s period. I always remember the Concorde because of the nose, but I never understood its importance in the modern Aerospace revolution. Now, I give it the respect it deserves (Even though my interest in planes is limited and my favorites are the B-2 and the SR-71)
Gabriel & Collins are in my book as among
progressive rock’s giants. Neither one for
me is subject to dismissal.
I saw one once on the tarmac…I couldn’t stop staring at it…it was so beautiful.
What a wonderful way to start my day. Thanks, Roger for another fantastic article!
British Airways has been a long-time client. In 1998, before BA moved their HQ off the Heathrow property, we spent a few lunch breaks touring the maintenance hangar and getting up close and personal with the Concorde fleet. They are magnificent aircraft, but to say they required a lot of care and feeding would be an understatement. Even at that time, before Airbus officially said “non,” spares availability was becoming a problem. A huge effort went into maintaining the dispatch reliability expected for a premium product. I think BA was right to fly them as long as they did, but let’s just say they were profitable only if you did the accounting the right way.
In that era I usually stayed at a hotel adjacent to the main east-west runway. One winter evening before dinner I went out to the fence and watched the Concorde take off, from brake release until I could no longer see it in the distance. That was not a long interval! With full throttle and reheat it accelerated more like an F-15 than an A320 and was off the ground quickly despite a long takeoff roll. It climbed like a fighter, too. I suspect the noise abatement procedure was “fly higher, faster.” The only thing I could see was 4 little dots of light from the engines, which then just disappeared. And of course there was the noise. Not as a loud as a Vulcan, but there is only so much you can do to quiet down 4 Olympus engines.
I love the Concorde. I am impressed by the determination and effort that went into building it and keeping it flying. While I don’t think I don’t think we’ll see commercial supersonic service in the next 2 decades, we are better off for having had the Concorde.
but let’s just say they were profitable only if you did the accounting the right way.
I always strongly suspected that. Thanks for confirming it.
Chauvinism can make a remarkable impact on financial statements!
If BA had had to purchase or lease Concorde at a true market price in 1982, then it would never have been profitable. The deal BA were able to get from the gov’t was crucial to the operation, and was possibly linked to the gov’t’s intention to privatise BA, which it did in 1987.
Concorde by then was the airline’s USP, a unique flagship and a very profitable one at that
I would like to add a few comments about British Airways, Air France, and Airbus…
British Airways actually made profit with Concorde due to the excellent locations (New York and London, both financial capitals). However, BA was faced with the higher than anicipated cost of replacing the avions with the modern versions: the cost was about $30-40 million for its entire fleet. That was after the extensive fitment of Kelvar shields in the fuel tanks and redesign of landing gears. BA would probably proceed with the update if Airbus had not withdrawn its certificate in 2003.
Air France had deferred the maintenance many times and balkanised the parts from other Concorde in its fleet until the parts could be ordered and delivered. Many times, Concorde sat in the hangar or on the aprons, awaiting for the parts and required maintenance, which lowered the profitability of its fleet. Not to mention one significant mistake: Air France did not bother modifying the landing gears as to add the shields over the rubber wheels.
That modification would have probably prevented the second fuel tank puncture and saved Concorde from its certain catastrophe. British Airways did as soon as the similar incident occured to Air France Concorde shortly after its take-off in Washington, DC in 1979.
The French government had subsided Air France many times in the past and made a stern ultimatum: withdraw the Concorde fleet from its service as a condition for the additional funding. The problem here: Air France CEO (whose name I could not recall right away) in 2002 had a seriously massive ego and was very jealous of British Airways’s ability to generate profitability with its Concorde service. He could not stand seeing Air France losing its Concorde fleet while British Airways continued to fly Concorde ‘indefinitely’. Typical French pride…
Since the CEOs of Air France and Airbus were very close friends, they conspired to withdraw the certificate as to force British Airways to end its Concorde service. That secret liaison spared Air France and its CEO the humilitation.
To this day, I have very low opinion of Air France and would not fly with that French airline…
While public roads are of benefit & useful to everyone, even non-drivers, you can’t say the same for supersonic travel or in America, long-distance rail travel. Therefore, though it wasn’t clear to me at the time, I’m now grateful Congress canceled the US SST, and disappointed they financed Amtrak even though I like rail travel, for relatively few Americans use long-distance trains.
Concorde was a fine, if very costly, effort.
Amtrak, a good idea, but poorly thought out in current form.
Long-distance rail service no one rides is the price we pay to get enough votes in Congress to sustain East Coast and West Coast rail service that is indispensable.
It is disappointing that the U.S. govt is in
such cahoots with big oil that America has
less miles of high speed rail than a tiny
island nation like JAPAN. As for me, I’d
love to see a passenger & freight rail
service that would remove half the trucks
I see on our highways, and at least 1 out
of 3 motor coach buses. The way some of
those are driven nowadays is downright
Anyone who wants to see these
large vehicles continue to increase as percentage
of total highway traffic and slow it down more
needs to rethink their priorities.
Thank you so much for this article. I happened to visit the Sinzheim Technology museum in Germany a few months ago and walked through the Tupolev and the Concorde on display there. They are amazing birds!
I wish I had the information you provide here at hand. It would have made the visit much more valuable.
Thanks Roger this was a captivating read.
Fond memories of the couple of occasions I caught a glimpse of an operating Concorde peering out of a lesser craft’s window waiting on the runway at Heathrow.
A breathtakingly elegant piece of design and engineering which I’m profoundly glad to have lived in the time of.
Bravo, Roger. Great write-up.
My parents flew on the Concorde once, thanks to a very rich Saudi who wanted my father at his brain surgery at Johns Hopkins. It was of course memorable for my father, who was something of an aviation buff, but my mother said it was just cramped and noisy!
Saw the Concorde on is last tour of the US. Living in Jacksonville FL and miles away from the airport, it routed around the city near my home. In a right 20 degree turn at high AOA with nosed drop, I recall its classic shape and white fuselage against boiling gray clouds about to unleash a thunderstorm. Regardless of the economics one cannot deny the merge when engineering transcends into art.
I wonder what manner of mayhem was caused by a half-metric, half-imperial project.
Just this second I was shown a photo of a German coach lodged in a medieval arch in Alnwick beside a sign reading 9’3″.
Weren’t Chevettes mainly metric with legacy components shared with bigger GM cars inch-based?.
What a great read to go along with my morning coffee!
Thank you for a great write up, Roger! And thank you, Paul, for dedicating this site to non-automotive entries as well as automotive! 🙂
I was lucky to see a Concord landing aproach near Pearson airport in Toronto.
Great article on a plane I have always loved. Thanks!
I saw the Concorde fly overhead at the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in the summer of 1988. People could get an hour ride on it for $400 (I think). I don’t remember it being that noisy at subsonic speeds. What really drew my attention was the display of the Rockwell B1 bomber, which was cordoned off with an armed escort. That plane looked supersonic even just sitting on the tarmac. That and other warbirds on display always had me grumbling about my myopic eyes and I couldn’t be a military pilot like my dad, who was a US Navy carrier pilot in the 1960s (still, the coolest job in the world to me).
I, too, saw Concorde at OSH, may have been the same year. Beautiful aircraft, and a great write-up, Roger!
Great write-up of an iconic aircraft.
I worked 4-5 miles south of Dulles airport in the mid-80s, and every time someone spotted a Concorde overhead, everyone would stop what they were doing and gawk. It never got old. That speaks for the elegance of the design and the durable romance with supersonic flight.
A friend had the privilege of flying Dulles to Heathrow on Concorde. He was working for NASDAQ pre-1999, when they still had money to burn. His main reaction was that the cabin was pretty cramped.
During a promotional tour Concorde landed at LAX in late October 1974. Visitors could see the exterior in a small, fenced-in area near T-2. My friend and I were struck by how small it was, especially compared to the jumbo jets that were most popular during the time. Later I got to witness many take-offs and landings during several visits to the UK in the 80’s and 90’s and to see the interior at the air museum in Duxford. I still have a little Corgi toy model of Concorde.
Great article, fair and balanced. Despite environmental concerns, this type of very exclusive air travel benefited from the (partial) economic recovery and changes in tax policy during the Reagan/Thatcher years that promoted a more prosperous elite consumer class in the US and UK. Ironically, from that perspective it would probably do well again today though the interior would be configured for a much smaller number of passengers to travel in far more luxury and comfort.
Saw it at Farnborough Air Show in the early 70s (70/71?). Another fine read Roger and another great idea killed off far too soon
What a great article, simply fantastic read. I’m so tired after a long day (it’s 22:20 local time), yet I couldn’t stop reading it. So interesting it was.
It’s a pleasure – glad you enjoyed it!
Curbside Classics NEVER disappoints!! My visceral reaction to the crash was akin to the one I experienced when I first heard of the Challenger diaster.Truly an informative article, with more than sufficient content to pique the interest of both aviation and non-aviation buffs! Bravo!! 🙂
I do know that both British Airways and Air France now operate the ginormous Airbus A380 along with Boeing 777s across the Atlantic to large cities like LAX and JFK. And British Airways has over 50 Boeing 747s in service. I guess it’s cheaper to operate the 74 and 77 than the Concorde.
We live in south-west London, so the Concorde flight to JFK banked above our house at each morning at 11:00. The noise was spectacular (at least once it brought a couple of tiles down from the roof) and it looked quite beautiful. All activity was suspended for 30 seconds each morning, because all you could hear was four Olympus engines!
I never flew in her – my parents took an excursion flight over the Bay of Biscay, and I wish I’d done the same; but I have been on board the fuselage that’s preserved at the old Brooklands racing circuit, a few miles away. It is small, and tight, no doubt – but it still feels a whole lot more exclusive than regular airliners.
One (mildly) interesting thing about us Brits is a shared love of the great planes – much more so than our love of cars (even the Morris Minor). Of course, the Spitfire and Hurricane saved the nation, and the Lancaster is an immortal giant – but there is a very broadly shared affection for Concorde, the Vulcan, the Red Arrows and and so on. I think that comes across very clearly in the BBC news segment in Roger’s great piece.
Other historic planes can keep flying – and it’s economically viable to build new Spitfires from scratch, such is their financial and emotional value – but we’ll never see Concorde in the air again. It was great to have a visit every day, even if the house took a bit of a beating!
Fantastic write-up Roger!!!! Love the Concorde!!
Much appreciated here too. Like Philip I’ve been in the Concorde at Brooklands; the ticket price was much more to my liking than a ‘real’ Concorde ticket!
I gather the Concorde may have flown commercially to Sydney, and to many other Australian and south Pacific cities on promotional tours and charter flights, with a LHR-SYD record time of 17hrs which included 3 stops due to its relatively short range. That compared to a 747-200 of the time needing to stop twice; there is now just a single stopover but apparently plans for a non-stop 20hr flight to commence next year!
I have also experienced the “arrive before you leave” thing; flying from Melbourne to LAX we left around 10am and landed around 8am on the same day, thanks to crossing the date line! On the other hand, on the way home we missed Thursday entirely…
Magnificent retrospective on a magnificent aircraft. Among civilian aircraft, I agree, the most elegant airframe to have ever graced the skies.
I had the good fortune to fly in an Air France Concorde in 1982 with my dad, from Paris to New York. I was 21 at the time. One of the very best memories from my younger days.
At that point I was in NROTC in college and committed to going into naval aviation, with the dream of flying F-14 Tomcats. That Concorde flight certainly lit my afterburner for the appeal of speed and raw power.
A few years later I was able to achieve my dream as an F-14 RIO and, on one bright spring Saturday afternoon in 1987, exceeded my Concorde flight’s Mach 2.00 speed, reaching Mach 2.4 during the supersonic dash portion of a post-maintenance check flight at 50,000 feet in an F-14A Tomcat, pointed east out over the Atlantic, some 100 miles east of Cape Hatteras.
That flight was memorable, too, but I’m here to tell ya, the meal service, drinks, and stewardesses were far more agreeable on Concorde.
I lived in Dallas when Braniff commenced the Concorde service to Dallas, Texas in 1979. Interestingly, the First Class passengers could upgrade their tickets to fly Concorde subsonically between Dallas and Washington, DC for only $90. However, not many took advantage of that due to Braniff’s poor advertisement and due to many clueless secretaries booking the travel arrangements for their executives.
Anyway, my father took me to the Terminal 2W (now Terminal B) at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The first time I saw Concorde parked in front of the terminal, waiting to be pushed back, was very exciting. For a twelve-year-old kid in 1979, it was the most far out and futuristic thing ever. I could hardly contain myself from squealing and having spastic fits.
After pushed back, Concorde began its travel to the north side of Runway 18L (or 18R). Seeing it moving further and further away, I felt a bit let down because the aeroplanes would sometimes travel further north as to cross a bridge to 17C/17R on the eastern side. I asked my father if we could rush over to Terminal 2E. He chuckled and said, ‘no, let’s stay here. If we miss it, we can come back again.’
A side note: the area surrounding the aeroport was so sparse and didn’t have any residential or industrial developments for miles in 1979. Thus, no complicated noise abatement or slow take-off manoeuvres as at JFK. Full throttle all the way. And in a very macho way!
We watched Concorde in the distance turning and positioning itself for a take-off. It began to roll faster and faster down the Runway 18L/18R toward the south side. As Concorde took off so quickly in front of Terminal 2W, we felt the thick windows vibrating hard and the sound of afterburners thundering through the building and through my body. While Concorde was flying higher and higher into the sky, the amazing sight of flame cones protruding from the exhaust ports was unforgettable. Then Concorde disappeared into the clouds. The whole stunt took less than thirty seconds. That was it…
I looked at my father and the people in the waiting lounges. Everyone, including me and my father, was stunned and speechless for a while. Being profound deaf since birth, it was first and only time I could actually hear the jet engines very clearly (without hearing aids).
I still get the goosebumps to this day every time I think of that take off.
Additional note: I visited Auto und Technik Museum Sinsheim to ‘board’ both Concorde and TU-144. Very fascinating exploration! I encourage you to make the visit whenever you are in Germany or Europe.
Fascinating read on a plane I’ve always been intrigued by, but had never gotten around to learn more about. Thanks Roger, and the compilation of supporting video footage is excellent!
For the first couple of years I lived in my house in central London, Concorde’s arrival at 9pm was a nightly event – you could hear the dishes rattling in the kitchen as it rumbled by, and I would look up at the prehistoric shape passing overhead.
Great article. It’s too bad the Concorde never really reached its full potential or served with other airlines. And it’s also too bad the U.S. SST program was stillborn. Perhaps if Boeing and Lockheed, had designed for a more reasonable Mach 2 (instead of Mach 3) with 200-300 seat capacity, they might have leapfrogged the Concorde the way Boeing and Douglas leapfrogged the Comet with the larger capacity and more profitable 707 and DC-8.
I recall being at a party some 25 years ago with a small group of pilot friends and the conversation got around to who flew the fastest. Most of us has flown to around 500-600 knots on commercial airliners and business jets, one said he flew at Mach 1.7 in a F/A-18. Then this civilian “groundhog” (technical term for anyone who isn’t a pilot) said, “I got you all beat. I’ve been to Mach 2 and was eating a flet mignon at the same time.”
He had just returned from a trip to Europe on a Concorde. Needless to say, that shut down the conversation.
The idea behind the US SST was a larger plane that would reduce the cost per passenger. But the market for Supersonic travel was quite limited. I ran across a webpage that suggested that a smaller SST would have been more useful in the market place. The Concord could have flown faster had it been made out of titanium instead of aluminum, as it did have the power.
The Concord was pushing the edge of technology, mainly with the tires. The tires failed far too often, usually damaging a fuel cell. Why they did not upgrade the fuel cells before the crash is troubling.
Yes, the Concorde could have flown at a higher speed, possibly reach Mach 2.7 if it had been made out of titanium. As you pointed out it did have the power. But titanium is considerably more expensive, had limited availability at that time, and more difficult to machine. That material cost alone would have made the Concorde more expensive to build, maintain and hence higher seat-mile cost and less profitable.
By limiting the speed to Mach 2, the aluminum alloy currently used in aircraft fabrication practice at that time could withstand the heat generated at that speed. And most aircraft manufacturers have experience with aluminum alloy but not as much titanium experience.
The point I was trying to make is that a larger 200-seat Mach 2 SST might have had lower seat-mile cost and more profitable. That is what the U.S. SST should have aimed at. But the thinking in the U.S. during that era was “anything the Europeans can do, the U.S. can do bigger, faster and better.” Hence they were aiming at Mach 3 design, not realizing the ramifications of the design, maintenance and operating challenges.
In the end, the technical and metallurgy challenges to go to and cruise at Mach 3 was overwhelming and cost prohibitive for commercial passenger operation. The only airframe manufacturer that had experience with large aircraft that could cruise at supersonic speeds was Convair (B-58 Hustler), Lockheed (SR-71) and North American Aviation (XB-70).
All three aircrafts turned out to be maintenance nightmare and very expensive to operate, which would have been unacceptable in commercial passenger operation.
As for the tires, I can’t really comment except the Concorde does have a higher takeoff and landing speed than the subsonic jetliners of that period, which limits the useful tire life and requires more frequent tire replacement. It wouldn’t surprise me that maintenance short cuts at an attempt to extend the tire useful life beyond the safety margin to save costs, ultimately resulted in higher tire failure.
There were only 14 Concords in service, which apparently met the demand. I don’t know if a US SST would have found more customers or not. The projected fuel consumption of the Boeing 2707-300 was about the same per seat as the Concords. Without an actual flying prototype what might have been is speculative. The landing/take off speeds were also projected to be less I think, as the runway requirements were much shorter. The SR71 was an early 60’s plane, so a lot more should have been known about titanium, but still it was an expensive way to go.
With competition between a Boeing SST and the Concord, profits would have been difficult.
The British and French were able to get the Concord into service, if 14 planes is really much service. This was an accomplishment. Why exactly the Boeing effort was terminated is not clear, but I suspect that cost overruns were at least partly the reason.
My wife worked for BA and once travelled on Concorde to New York. Her overriding impressions were that the speed seemed effortless, that it was surprisingly noisy at the cruising altitude and that she was pretty cramped. Given that she’s 5 ft 7 inches tall you’d expect enough legroom for someone that height! She also said that the food and wine were really excellent. The fact that the exorbitant cost of the tickets didn’t cover the running costs just can’t have helped the case. Adding in the cost of the modifications after Paris killed any hope of a resurgence in its fortunes. Sad really.
Wonderful read. Thank you.
I’m 37 so for me Concorde has always been mythical in nature. It was too extreme to be real as a kid, and yet it was. It’s like finding out Santa Claus is real. Pretty nice…
In image #14, the first three livery schemes exuded class.
The fourth(latest, at bottom) appears as if pre-schoolers
were let loose on that fuselage! Certifiably un-classy,
on any airframe, not just a Concorde.
I went to school in south Wales for two years in the 1960’s and there was a school trip to the BAC plant in Bristol in 1967 or ’68, to see the first British plane being assembled. My memory is that just the fuselage tube was there, and that it was smaller than I had expected. But even in the mid-1970’s, when pictures of it were increasingly common in the media, I was fascinated by what seemed a ‘radical beauty’ for the times.
This is what the future was supposed to look like when I was a little kid:
Fantastic writeup I somehow missed the first time around. Got to fly Concorde once, from LHR to JFK, thanks to a BA frequent flyer promo in the mid 90s.
Three things stood out:
First, not just the narrowness, but the extreme curvature of the fuselage, which was very apparent from my window seat.
Second, the number of galleys – 3 or 4 if I remember correctly – for such a small passenger load, necessary in part because the aisles were too narrow for conventional trolleys, so your food was carried by hand to your seats, a weird piston-age echo on a supersonic flight.
Third, the only time I was physically aware of the speed was the deacceleration as we approached Long Island at the end of the trip – the ramp up to Mach speec was much smoother, probably b/c of the delay over Southern England/Ireland.
In 1978, I was on business in France and flew this bird back to Kennedy Airport in 3.5 hours. That was the ride of my life!
Excellent opportunity to re-read this great piece.
I had not noticed the ‘in flight’ experience video, so watched that, great footage. Mach 2.0, everything on board as stable as the table in front of you right now.
Thanks for this post.
I remember seeing the evening flight circling to land at Heathrow on occasion when I lived in London in the late 90s. Always spectacular. As was this article! Nicely done, Captain Carr.
Some years ago I heard the story first hand from a then young American stewardess present at the 1973 Paris air show crash. She and her fellow colleagues witnessed the Russian TU-144 flying ridiculously beyond its engineered limits to show off its capabilities. Then the Tupolev broke up midair and crashed to the earth in a huge fireball. Everyone went silent for a matter of seconds because their hearts had stopped. She was an active alcoholic at that time and the incident served as a moment of clarity for her. She sobered up shortly thereafter and was 40+ years sober at the time I heard her speak her story.
Of course, one of Concorde’s most noticeable and commented on visual features is the droop nose…. This is … my (tenuous) link to Concorde.
At first I thought you meant that you have a droop nose, and then I read the rest of the ‘graf. 🙂
Great read and a tremendously interesting subject. More Rampside Classics, please!