Aérospatiale/BAe Concorde

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The reason I love Concorde so much is the fact that it was, and still is, probably one of the most beautiful and sophisticated creations mankind has ever made, up there with the likes of the Saturn V Rocket. With smooth crisp lines and a long sweeping body, Concorde, although very much a plaything for the rich, showed the world that Supersonic travel is not just reserved for Fighter Pilots, but for the fare paying public as well, and took us to a place where I sadly feel we shan’t return to, not in this day and age.

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A prototype production model during early testing.

So where does Concorde’s story begin? Well our ability to break the Sound Barrier is a good start, with the early Spitfire pilots of World War II inadvertently doing so, and then a flight by the experimental Bell X-1; which was launched from the underbelly of a bomber and jetted off into a world very much of its own. Following these breakthroughs in speed, the first considerations for a passenger alternative were considered as far back as 1950, and in 1954 the first meeting of the Super Sonic Transport (SST) Committee was held.

Original intentions were to build passenger aircraft to similar principles as the X-1, but these were shelved due to impracticality. Instead a new design known as the Delta-Wing was looked at, being used on the likes of the Avro Vulcan. Ideas were created and tests carried out on the similarly designed Handley Page HP.115, a purpose built aircraft for the intention of making the perfect testbed for the future SST. Eventually, the Delta design chosen was dubbed the Ogee Platform, derived from the Ogival Wing design. The most important intention of the design was to place the wing’s centre of pressure as close as possible to the centre of gravity so as to lower the amount of control force required to pitch the aircraft, and the Ogee Platform came closest to this requirement.

Final design requirements came down to the design of the airframe itself outside of the wings. Essentially, the aircraft was similar in design to contemporary Delta-Wing fighter jets with a long streamlined nose and a smooth body to reduce resistance as much as possible. Problems came with the actual operation of the aircraft’s basic functions, most notably the cockpit; which had to be designed with streamlining in mind but couldn’t use conventional aircraft windows with the strengthened window frame obscuring the view forward for takeoff and landing. In response designers created a Drooping Nose, where the streamlined visor could be raised and lowered with conventional aircraft windscreens behind to provide a view similar to that of a regular aircraft. Due to the length of the aircraft, it was fitted with a small wheel at the rear of the frame so as to absorb any potential tail-strikes during takeoff and landing.

During supersonic flight and transit through the Sound Barrier, fuel would be distributed between the forward fuel tanks and a small fuel tank in the rear whilst the aircraft was accelerating and decelerating so as to alter the centre of mass, essentially acting as an auxiliary trim control.

But one of the most endearing parts of the design was the point on the nose, which is not there for stylish flare but for a very important reason. Without the point, aircraft attempting to transit the sound barrier would face much greater resistance as the airframe is much larger and more obtrusive. The point on the other hand breaks the sound barrier ahead of the actual aircraft itself, meaning the transit effect travels around the frame of the aircraft rather than against the hull.

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A British Airways example soaring high above the earth, wearing the distinctive ‘Landor’ livery of the 1980’s.

Of course, the most difficult part when it came to getting the SST to go are the actual engines themselves. For the greatest efficiency, the new SST couldn’t use conventional Turbofan engines as their cross-sectional area was too excessive. Instead, Rolls Royce was commissioned to build a set of Turbojet engines that could be slung in streamlined pods underneath the wings. The result was a quad set of Rolls Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 engines that had been developed from the Bristol engines used on the Vulcan bomber. In all, only 67 of these engines were ever built, and had an overall maximum thrust of 38,000lbf, pushing the SST to beyond the speed of sound.

By the mid-1960’s the designs had been near enough perfected, and after signing up
with Sud Aviation of France (later to become Aérospatiale), the combined efforts of British Aerospace and Aérospatiale resulted in the construction of two prototypes in 1965, these aircraft being dubbed ‘Concorde’, the French word for Harmony, Agreement, or Union. Concorde 001 was built in France at Aérospatiale’s factory in Toulouse, whilst Concorde 002 was built at the BAC works in Filton near Bristol. The first flight of a Concorde aircraft took place on the 2nd March 1969, with Concorde 001 flying from Toulouse. On the 9th April, Concorde 002 made its first flight from Filton, and on October 1st, 001 made its first supersonic flight.

Both aircraft were presented at the Paris Airshow of June 1969, alongside one of their rivals, the Boeing 747. But Concorde was not the world’s first supersonic commercial airliner, as the Soviet Union had beaten them to the punch in June of that year with the Tupolev Tu-144, an aircraft of almost exactly the same principles of Concorde that had been hastily put together between 1965 and 1968 after blueprints and designs had been obtained by Soviet Agent Sergei Fabiew. The Tu-144 made its first supersonic flight in June 1969, and made its first supersonic commercial flights with Aeroflot in May 1970.

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During 1996, Pepsi struck a promotional deal with Air France as part of a major rebranding, with Concorde F-BTSD receiving this striking livery for a period of a few months.

However, the ‘Concordski’ (as it was known by the West), had many serious flaws, which came to bear in a series of horrendous crashes. The first major crash was at the 1973 Paris Air Show, where, during a display flight, the first production Tu-144 aircraft broke apart over a suburb, killing 6 people on the aircraft and 8 on the ground. Another major incident took place in May 1978 when on a routine test flight an improved version of the aircraft known as the Tu-144D crashed on landing, resulting in the withdrawal of the 144’s from commercial service after only 55 flights. They would remain cargo aircraft until 1983, after which they were used for the training of Soviet Cosmonauts for the Buran Space Shuttle project.

Concordski, however, did have a profound effect on Concorde, especially after its crash of 1973. Confidence in the Concorde was rumbled by the failure of the Tu-144 and thus many potential buyers pulled out. Originally, airlines such as American Airlines, Pan Am, Japan Airlines, Eastern Airlines, United Airlines, and Air Canada had all put in orders, but by 1975 only Air France and BOAC (later merged with BEA to form British Airways) orders remained. At the same time, Boeing and Lockheed of the United States attempted to create their own SST’s so as to combat Concorde; with Boeing creating the 2707 and Lockheed the L-2000, neither of which went beyond concept models.

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An Air France Concorde takes a break at the gate.

Eventually, 14 production Concorde aircraft were handed over to their respective airlines between 1976 and 1980, with the initial aircraft being delivered to British Airways on the 15th January. The first commercial flights of Concorde took place on January 21st, 1976, with British Airways flying a service to Bahrain, while Air France simultaneously operated an inaugural flight to Rio de Janeiro via Dakar in Senegal. However, the Transatlantic routes to the United States were the main points of contention as the fear of Sonic Booms caused protest, resulting in a ban being passed by Congress. Although permission was given to fly to Washington Dulles on the 24th May, the New York Port Authority continued to ban Concorde due to the noise. The result was a risky training program by Concorde pilots to land at JFK Airport without using any power at all, meaning that from the start of their descent over the New York area, no power could be applied so as to keep the noise levels to a minimum, doing the whole approach in one. Eventually the ban was lifted after it was found that Air Force One, a Boeing VC-137 (converted Boeing 707), was louder than Concorde, and thus commercial services to JFK began on November 22nd, 1977.

In addition to the British Airways and Air France flights to New York and Washington from Paris and London, a slew of other short lived ventures occurred at the same time. In 1977, British Airways jointly shared a Concorde for flights to Singapore via Bahrain with Singapore Airlines, painting G-BOAD in a BA/SA hybrid livery. These flights however were capped after only 3 runs due to noise complaints.

Another short lived venture was with the American airline Braniff, which leased 10 aircraft from both airlines to operate subsonic domestic services from Washington to Dallas-Fort Worth from 1978, with Braniff crews taking over from international crews after landing at Washington. These services ended in 1980 due to a lack of profitability, with only 50% bookings or less on most flights.

Over the years, Concorde also flew to a myriad of destinations off its usual Transatlantic services, including Mexico, Florida, the Caribbean, South America, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, mostly on charter flights but sometimes for short demonstration flights for fun seekers. Usually, Air France would provide the charter aircraft as their Concorde fleet was used less than the BA fleet, only operating two flights a day as opposed to BA’s four.

The 1980’s though were the boom years of Concorde, as this was when the money makers really spread their wings. In the immortal words of Jeremy Clarkson “For the have not’s, it wasn’t much fun, but the have’s were having a ball!” Wealth moved from the stars of stage and screen to the stock marketing men and women of Europe and America. Investments on oil shares, and other large multinational companies meant you and your house was worth more than most countries. Greed was endemic, and the super-rich had no shortage of that. They’d have Champagne for breakfast, eat nightly at the Ritz, have a fleet of chauffeur driven Rolls Royce’s at their beck and call, and would make weekend trips across the Atlantic with Concorde like it was a commuter train!

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Another British Airways example, again in the regal Landor livery.

It was thanks to Concorde that Phil Collins could perform two shows for the 1985 Live Aid in one night, the first at Wembley in London, the second at Philadelphia JFK stadium, picking up Cher along the way who would join him in the finale ‘We are the World.’ You could arrive before you departed, and probably bump into a selection of celebrities en-route. Ex-Beatles, Actors, Businessmen, Fashion Designers, you name it, they were probably there!

These years were wild, profitable, and turned Concorde from an airliner, into a rite of passage for the money makers of this world. If you could fly on Concorde, then you’d truly made it in life!

However, as the 90’s began to blossom and boom, the end of the decade brought its headaches for Concorde, and when things went wrong, they really went wrong quickly!

The recession of 1992 damaged Concorde’s sales as money became much harder to come by, and the explosive era of greed began to fade away in the face of austerity. Environmental considerations began to crop up, and Concorde was singled out by environmentalists as one of the biggest culprits for noise and air pollution.

But on July 25th, 2000, disaster struck when Air France Concorde F-BTSC, crashed upon take-off from Paris Charles de Gaulle, smashing into a nearby hotel and killing all 109 passengers, plus 4 people on the ground. The cause was later determined to have been debris left by a preceding Continental Airlines DC-10, which punctured the tyres of Concorde and ruptured the fuel tanks on the port-side wing. However, the crash resulted in the grounding of all Concorde aircraft for over a year. Although test flights were carried out, and some private charters, revenue earning service was intended to return in the summer of 2001.

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A British Airways aircraft wearing the final ‘Union Jack’ livery, applied from 1997 onwards.

G-BOAF made the first service flight of a Concorde aircraft across the Atlantic from London to New York on September 11th, 2001, landing at JFK airport 30 minutes before American Airlines Flight 11, hijacked by terrorists, was flown deliberately into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, in what would turn out to be one of the darkest days in modern history. In the ensuing chaos, flights across America were grounded immediately, and Transatlantic services diverted, but this was just the beginning. Global markets collapsed and the aviation industry went into meltdown. Airlines such as TWA, Swissair, Sabena and Ansett Australia were just a few of the victims of this aviation downturn, and Concorde’s return to service was delayed until November 7th, 2001.

Concorde may have stuttered back into life, but time had really caught up with this supersonic machine of the past. The maintenance costs of the aircraft were now much higher, with fuel prices rising and passenger levels dropping due to stagnation in the post-9/11 market. British Airways was making a loss on every single flight they made, and both this, with a mixture of discontinued support from Aérospatiale’s successors, Airbus, meant that Concorde’s fate was very much sealed.

On the 10th April, 2003, Air France and British Airways simultaneously announced the retirement of Concorde. Although the day after Virgin Atlantic and its founder Sir Richard Branson intended to purchase British Airways’ Concorde fleet for a nominal fee of £1 each, citing a clause in the original agreement to operate the aircraft, the Government and British Airways denied allowing him to buy the aircraft for such a small price, demanding at least £1 million for every aircraft. This was further hampered by Airbus’ refusal to continue maintenance support.

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A CGI rendering of a British Airways and Air France Concorde in close formation flight.

The end slowly came throughout 2003, with Air France’s last Concorde flight taking place on 27th June, whilst British Airways conducted a series of farewell tours to a selection of destinations, including Toronto, Boston, Washington, Belfast, Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Concorde was officially retired from British Airways service on the 24th October, 2003, but continued to operate a small number of farewell charters until November 26th, when G-BOAF, the last Concorde to be built in 1979, flew to its home base of Filton, ending the supersonic age of passenger air travel.

In all, every one of these £125 million aircraft still exist apart from two. Aircraft 203, F-BTSC, was lost in the type’s only ever fatal crash in 2000, whilst Aircraft 211, F-BVFD, was withdrawn in 1982 after only 5 years of service and used as a spares donor, being cut up for scrap in 1994. The 6 prototype and 12 remaining production aircraft are now scattered across the world in museums, including Barbados, Seattle, New York, Brooklands near London, Manchester, Le Bourget, Toulouse and Chantilly in Virginia.

So, what killed Concorde and can we ever go there again? Many things killed Concorde, and when they came, they came fast. The economic downturn of the 90’s and the rising environmental considerations started to damage its image, but the Paris Crash, the September 11th attacks and the ensuing stagnation of the aviation market, an outdated design becoming more and more expensive to maintain, the discontinuation of maintenance by Airbus and the fact that they were making a loss on every single flight is truly what ended Concorde’s reign.

As for returning to the world of supersonic travel for the fare paying customer, in this world of austerity and environmentally bound agendas, I highly doubt it. Although Boeing considered the idea with the Sonic Cruiser, the amount of fuel required to operate these aircraft and the overall lack of interest or money to fund a project solely aimed at the 1%, means that chances are we won’t see the likes of Concorde ever again.

But either way, we can be glad to say that we did it, we built Concorde, we flew it, operated it for 27 glorious years, and in doing so brought nations and continents closer together. Concorde truly lived up to its name, an everlasting symbol of peace, prosperity, speed, design and human endeavour.