The pointy-nosed plane barreled down the French tarmac and into the air. The crowd of 200,000 spectators that gathered near the runway at Le Bourget Airport for the 1973 Paris Air Show watched the star of the day, the Concorde, climb toward the horizon.
Its rival would not be so fortunate. The Soviet-built TU-144, like it British/French competitor, sought to usher in a new era of supersonic passenger travel. But the Soviet plane swerved suddenly during ascent and dropped like a stone onto the nearby village of Goussainville, where it killed six in the plane and eight on the ground.
Though marred by tragedy, the air show of ‘73 signaled that the supersonic era had arrived—and that the Concorde would be its vanguard. From 1976 to 2003, the Concorde shrank the Atlantic Ocean in half, ferrying passengers from New York to London or Paris in a just three and a half hours. The plane cruised higher than 50,000 feet, revealing the curvature of the Earth at a casual glance out the window. Tickets were outrageously expensive. But living in the future, even for just a few hours, has never been cheap.
Today, that future has come and gone. Because of difficult economics and the physical realities of air travel beyond the speed of sound, the Concorde retired more than 15 years ago. No supersonic airliner has risen to take is place—yet. A half-century after its first flight, the legacy of the Concorde’s engineering genius lives on, especially in the new breed of aviation startups and companies seeking to bring back supersonic travel.
The Birth of the Concorde
On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager broke through. Cruising in an experimental Bell X-1 aircraft at an altitude in excess of 40,000 feet, the test pilot made history by crashing through the sound barrier and becoming the fastest man in a plane to date.
Nobody knew it at the time, since the U.S. government’s top-secret project stayed under wraps until 1948. Soon, though, the nations of the world knew supersonic air travel was possible. Just as the 1950s gave rise to a space race, so too did it spur a competition in the stratosphere to build an airliner that could carry passengers faster than the speed of sound, effectively shrinking the globe.
The United Kingdom mostly watched the space race from the sidelines as the USSR put satellites in orbit and the United States rushed to catch up. The supersonic race, however, represented a theatre in which postwar Europe could reclaim some pride. Various groups were in on the directive, such as Britain’s Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee, which was tasked in 1956 with developing a Supersonic Transport (SST) fit for commercial use.
Nationalism fueled the ambition. “The reason it was built was largely politics,” says Bob Van Der Linden, Chairman of the Aeronautics Department of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. The Concorde was a way for Europe to leapfrog the U.S., which had already tried and failed to build its own smaller SSTs in the 1950s, but still dominated the market for commercial planes.
However, Britain’s aviation experts soon discovered the cost of building such a plane would be huge. So Britain sought help. “The British government wanted to split the costs with another country,” says Jonathan Glancey, author of Concorde: The Rise and Fall of The Supersonic Airliner. After unsuccessfully seeking American assistance, Britain found an ally in France. In 1962, the two nations signed the Anglo-French Concorde agreement, ensuring cooperation on a new plane, one they hoped would finally level the aeronautical playing field in Europe’s favor.
“[Great Britain and France] let politics and reasons of national pride get in the way,” Van Der Linden says. “This was a way of showing we are as good if not better than the United States than it was building an airplane for the market…“They were the pride of Great Britain and France and they wanted to show it off and had every reason to show it off.”
Befitting its two-nation heritage, the Concorde’s name translates to “harmony” or “union” in French. The two aviation giants charged with building it, Aérospatiale (which later became Airbus) and the UK’s British Aircraft Corporation, faced an onerous challenge. “They almost had to reinvent the airplane to make it work, and they did,” Van Der Linden tells Popular Mechanics.
The speed itself wasn’t the problem. By the early 1960, flying faster than the sound barrier in a military jet had gone from milestone to routine. Going that fast in airliner crammed with 100 paying passengers, however, entailed a different kind of thinking.
The Concorde was equipped with four Rolls-Royce afterburner engines, the same kind used on fighter jets, each of which generated 38,000 pounds of thrust. The bird used a slanted droop-nose that lowered upon takeoff and landing, enabling pilots to see the runway. Revamped brake systems allowed the plane to touch down on a tarmac unscathed even if it landed at far higher speeds than its subsonic counterparts. Because the plane’s nose temperature could climb to 278 degrees while it flew, it was coated in a highly-reflective white paint that radiated heat.
Perhaps the most impressive engineering improvements was the plane’s triangular delta wings, which allowed it to navigate different angles of attack while soaring at breakneck speeds. “None of these lesser technical improvements approached the revolutionary status of the thin delta wing design that made sustained supersonic flight possible,” says to Samme Chittum, author of the Last Days of Concorde.
That pride and the work paid off. Four months before men walked on the moon, the Concorde made its maiden flight. In 1973, it bested the Soviet supersonic effort in Paris. And soon thereafter it finally appeared on the runway, bearing the liveries of British Airways and Air France.
The Concorde could dart through the clouds at speeds greater than Mach 2 (1,350 mph). Despite the jarring kah-boom that resonated as it breached the sound barrier, inside the cabin, all was serene and luxurious, even as the plane seemed to violate the rules of time and common sense. Judging by the official time, the London to New York flight would land before it departed. The Irish journalist Terry Wogon gleefully remembered the Concorde allowing him to eat “breakfast at Heathrow, and breakfast again on arrival in New York.”
The plane spurred the kind of hype and fanfare not seen since the debut of Boeing’s brawny 747. It became the vessel of choice for showbiz stars like English late night host David Frost, who, according to legend, would commute between London and New York to record segments, and then zip back across the Atlantic to retire for the evening. For others, flying on the Concorde turned air travel into a bucket list item, as Samme Chittum tells Popular Mechanics:
It’s hard to overestimate both the hype and romance surrounding Concorde and travel. As much [hype] as there was, that was equal if not surpassed by what passengers actually experienced.When they took a flight on this supersonic plane, they knew what they were doing was a first in a lifetime experience for them. What it was like at that height seeing the curve of the Earth and knowing that moment watching it on a display in a cabin when you were traveling at supersonic speed, there was a tremendous thrill involved. You have to be quite a dull person not to appreciate that.
The Concorde engines guzzled 6770 gallons of fuel per hour, necessitating ticket prices that climbed into quadruple digits. To account for the price, the service was top-notch and the settings upscale.
“I felt more strongly that I had entered a private club,” Tom Ford, a worker on a maintenance crew tasked with updating the Concorde’s interior for British Airways, told CNN this year. “It was a brief glimpse into a life I had not known, polite, considerate, and beautifully detailed. It was impossible to not feel spoiled, and valued.”
Passengers could expect to clink champagne glasses at altitude and eat Beluga caviar. Even though the Concorde cabins were slender and barebones, with the ceiling measuring a cramped six-feet tall, few could complain about the experience. “Partly because of the premium prices charged for Concorde flights, the aircraft attracted the kind of clientele – mostly senior business execs – who didn’t need entertainment,” says Jonathan Glancey. “Passengers would, of course, chat and mingle to an extent, but many worked.”
Beneath the glamor, sex appeal, and the thrill of flying at Mach 2, however, lurked some serious problems. While 16 airlines initially placed orders for the Concorde, the plane launched right into the oil crisis of 1973 that thinned out the demand for a thirsty supersonic plan. In total, only 20 Concordes were built, and six of them remained prototypes.
In With a Boom, Out With a Whimper
The Concorde could outrun any airliner. It could never withstand the economic and engineering woes that were always in close pursuit. For one thing, the cost of burning fuel at such an unprecedented rate meant ticket prices even the plane’s well-heeled clientele struggled to afford. “The airplane usually flew with lots of empty seats, just because it was too expensive,” Van Der Linden says.
The environmental movement came into full bloom in the 1970s, and protesters who resented the Concorde’s fuel-guzzling routinely greeted the plane’s arrival at airports with ire-laden protests. Countries banned the jet from flying over their airspace because of the cacophonous sonic boom, which limited routes to those over the ocean. (The United States still has laws on the books barring SSTs from traversing the country, for fear of noise pollution and windows shattering below.) The Anti-Concorde Project sprung into action almost as soon as the Concorde was ready to roll out on the runway, validating academic studies that noted the plane’s deleterious effect on the environment.
And then came the crash. In July 2000, Air France Flight 4590 crashed during takeoff, the result of a punctured tire that spewed shrapnel into a fuel tank. All 109 people onboard died in a cataclysmic fire, one that damaged the public perception of supersonic passenger jets.
“The Concorde crash was entirely preventable,” Chittum says. “The inadequate tires were not replaced with more resilient tires, even after it became obvious that they should have been following a string of documented tire blowouts during take off.”
Air France 4590 was by no means solely responsible for the Concorde’s demise. Shortly afterward, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks fostered an understandable sense of public paranoia that also cratered Wall St.’s faith in the airline industry. But the crash signaled the beginning of the end. Concorde maintenance costs had been climbing for years while the number of customers willing to pay exorbitant ticket prices waned. By 2003, Concorde manufacturer Airbus cited a litany of growing concerns, revealing it would cost British Airways alone £40m over the next several years to maintain its beleaguered fleet.
Lastly, many travelers had simply realized that the time saved on a Concorde flight wasn’t worth the expense. “For some people, saving them four hours was vital, but for most people it wasn’t that important. And not enough to justify the price tag,” says Van Der Linden.
Within five months of each other, Air France and British Airways would throw in the towel on flying the Concorde.
A Supersonic Return?
The Concorde is just a museum piece now, but the dream of flying faster than sound hasn’t died. A number of players, ranging from NASA and Lockheed Martin to upstarts like Boom Supersonic, are vying to revive SSTs and make them viable again.
Although the technology is clearly proven, the challenges pervading the return of a commercial SST remain. It’s been illegal for commercial SSTs to fly over land in the United States since the Concorde’s heyday, but lawmakers are cozying to the idea of their return if scientists can minimize the sonic boom.
NASA and Lockheed Martin’s X-59 prototype, for example, plans to reduce the tumult to little more than than a faint thud. Still, the plethora of hurdles remains. Samme Chittum sees SSTs returning, albeit in a different, more limited capacity:
I wouldn’t bet my savings on it. It seems very likely, that business people with a lot of money could be flying supersonic private jets. It seems unlikely that supersonic flights will become commercially available to everyone.
With that in mind, it seems the Concorde, or anything like it really, might just remain absent from the skies forever.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics