This Plane Cut Flight Times In Half, So Why Did It Fail?

Vintage |

Do you remember the Concorde? You should. Back in 1962, the British and French governments announced they would be building a turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner. They wanted to show the world that European aircraft manufacturers could create the most cutting-edge designs. The origins of the Concorde project date back to the early ’50s, when...

Twitter - @ron_eisele

The director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, or RAE, asked Morien Morgan, who would later be known as “the Father of Concorde”, to form a committee to study the supersonic transport concept. The program initially cost around $90 million, but it would soon encounter huge overruns and delays, causing it to eventually cost over $1.6 billion. This extreme cost became the main factor in the production run being much smaller than anticipated...

The Concord Story

Twenty Concordes were built and operated from January 21, 1976 to October 24, 2003. It had a maximum speed over twice the speed of sound at Mach 2.04, or 1,354 mph at cruise altitude, cutting international flight times in half. It was celebrated around the world and had so much to offer, but now it's gone. Read ahead to learn everything you need to know about the rise and fall of the Concorde...

The Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde

The name Concorde came from the French word concorde, which means agreement, harmony or union, in reference to the Anglo-French treaty between Sud Aviation, which was later renamed Aérospatiale, and the British Aircraft Corporation, or BAC. It could seat 92 to 128 passengers and was first flown in 1969. It is one of only two supersonic transports to have been operated commercially, and the other, which was overall inferior to the Concorde, was only in service for a year...

Twitter - @AvGeekJames

Concorde flew fast transatlantic flights from London's Heathrow Airport and Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia, and Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados, among other destinations. And it had way more to offer than just it's speed.

Twitter - @Museum_Pictures

The Concorde represented class and style, and was used mainly by wealthy passengers who could afford to pay a high price in exchange for the aircraft's speed and luxury service. As previously stated, it was very fast, but that came with a price. Many Concorde flights could cost more than 30 times the cheapest option. But how much did this have to do with it's eventual failure?

SST - Supersonic Transport

SST stands for supersonic transport, or any transport that's faster than the speed of sound. Supersonic airliners have been the objects of numerous recent and ongoing design studies. It's been the topic of considerable concern within and outside the aviation industry, which noted that the economics of the design were questionable. Outside the field, the entire SST concept was the subject of a decent amount of negative press that will be discussed later in this article…

Twitter - @marklanebiz

Throughout the 1950s an SST looked possible from a technical standpoint, but it was not clear if it could be made economically viable. It all comes down to a fairly simple issue. Lift is generated using different means at supersonic speeds, and these methods are considerably less efficient than subsonic methods, with approximately one-half the lift-to-drag ratio...

Twitter - @speedbird020

Basically, SST aircrafts have to use a lot of thrust, which means using a lot of fuel. While the cost of fuel was problematic, SST designs flying at least three times as fast as existing subsonic transports were possible, and would be able to replace as many as three planes in service, thereby lowering costs in terms of manpower and maintenance. Again, this sounds great, but what happened?

Chuck Yeager Breaks The Sound Barrier

Before delving deeper into the story of the Concorde, it's important to look at one of the most important individuals in its origins. Chuck Yeager is a former United States Air Force officer, flying ace, and record-setting test pilot. In 1947, he became the first pilot confirmed to have exceeded the speed of sound in level flight. But first...

Twitter - @TheAviationist

He started his career as a private in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. Following his service as an aircraft mechanic, he began enlisted pilot training in September of 1942. After graduating he was promoted to the rank of flight officer, which was the World War II USAAF equivalent to warrant officer, and became a P-51 fighter pilot. Then...

Twitter - @EVZVN

When the war ended, Yeager became a test pilot of many types of aircraft, including experimental rocket-powered aircraft. On October 14, 1947, he became the first human to officially break the sound barrier. He flew the experimental Bell X-1 at Mach 1 at an altitude of 45,000 ft, for which he won both the Collier and Mackay trophies in 1948. He then went on to break several other speed and altitude records. This changed everything...

The Tech Race of the 1950s and 1960s

With the sound barrier broken, a worldwide technological race followed. Engineering met competition, and multiple governments spent hundreds of millions of dollars in SST research and development. A huge portion of the overall industry was formed, seeing entire teams working day and night to figure out how to bring this concept to passenger air travel. It wouldn't be easy, but...

Twitter - @CDCHistory

At the time it was known that the drag at supersonic speeds was strongly related to the span of the wing. This led to the use of very short-span, which produced very little lift at low speed, resulting in extremely long take-off runs and frighteningly high landing speeds. On top of the inherent danger, this would have required enormous engine power and unrealistically giant planes. Based on this, the SST concept was considered infeasible, but still...

Twitter - @AeroDork

Serious work on SST designs started in the mid-1950s, when the first generation of supersonic fighter aircraft were entering service. By the early 1960s, Concorde designs had progressed to the point where the go-ahead for production was given, but costs were so high that BAC and Sud Aviation eventually merged their efforts in 1962 to produce Concorde. But they weren’t the only ones...

The Lockheed L-2000

The director of the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, elected to improve upon the Concorde’s design rather than compete directly with it. The Lockheed Corporation’s official entry into the government-funded SST competition was the L-2000. It was intended to carry more than twice as many as the Concorde, and also...

Twitter - @DukaKofi

It would be significantly faster at Mach 2.7 to Mach 3.0, well over 2,000 mph, with a range of 4,000 miles. Lockheed’s first SST attempts date back to 1958. By 1966, the design took on its final form with a re-designed wing and fuselage lengthened to 273 feet for up to 230 passengers. The new wing featured a proportionately larger forward delta, with greater refinement to the wing’s twist and curvature.

Twitter - @doctorow

A full-scale mock-up was presented to the FAA on December 31, 1966. The Lockheed design was judged simpler to produce and less risky, but its performance during takeoff and at high speed was slightly lower than its competition. The L-2000 was also predicted to be louder. If Lockheed had built its simpler design, it might have flown by 1971, but in the American competition to beat the Concorde, the Boeing was chosen. Read ahead to learn about the 2707…

The Boeing 2707

The Boeing 2707 had similar qualities as the Lockheed L-2000, including a cruising speed of Mach 3, but also offered room for more passengers with 250 to 300 seats. A key design feature of the 2707 was its use of a swing wing configuration. During development the required weight and size of this mechanism continued to grow, forcing the team to start over using a conventional delta wing.

Twitter - @Elwick70

Boeing had worked on a number of small-scale SST studies since 1952. The Boeing design was considered more advanced, representing a greater lead over the Concorde and thus more fitting to the original design mandate. Kit Mitchell, the principal scientific officer at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment during the ’60s also worked on the Concorde. He said that the main problem of the Boeing 2707 was that it was trying to do too much.

Twitter - @DanGreenup

The recession of 1971 caused fuel prices to rise to a level Boeing couldn’t overcome. In March of 1971, the U.S. Senate rejected further funding, cutting over 60,000 jobs. It became known as the plane almost ate Seattle. As a result of the mass layoffs, with so many people moving away from the city in search of new work, the billboard above was erected near Sea-Tac airport...

The Russian Tupolev Tu-144

The Russian Tupolev Tu-144 was actually the first SST to enter commercial service. It had its first flight two months before Concorde on December 31, 1968. The design was a product of the Tupolev design bureau, headed by Alexei Tupolev, of the Soviet Union and manufactured by the Voronezh Aircraft Production Association in Voronezh, Russia.

Twitter - @EmbassyofRussia

The Tu-144 first went supersonic on June 5, 1969 and less than a year later, on May 26, 1970, it became the first commercial transport to exceed Mach 2. It conducted 55 passenger service flights, at an average service altitude of 52,000 feet, or 16,000 meters, and cruised at a speed of around 1,200 mph, or Mach 1.6. But then...

Twitter - @jrvianney

On June 3, 1973, the Paris Air Show hosted an officially-approved demonstration flight of the Tu-144, which tragically crashed at the end of what was an exact repeat of the previous day’s display. The crash destroyed 15 houses while killing all six people on board and eight more on the ground. Apparently, the flight crew had been instructed to outperform the Concorde display by any means necessary. While there are various explanations as to how this happened, the Tu-144 never fully recovered, making the Concorde the only passenger SST...

How Concorde Changed The Game

An early advertisement for the Concorde said, "Concorde: The paper dart jet liner conceived jointly by Britain and France to shrink the world and cut air journey times in half." Back in the ’60s, the technology required to pull off these kinds of large scale advancements was almost as much of a challenge as sending a man to the moon...

Twitter - @In2Resourcing

The Concorde was truly a design marvel, especially considering it wasn't designed with computers. Instead, engineers used complex math and trial and error. This required constant innovation. According to Bob Van der Linden, the curator of air transportation at the National Air and Space Museum, "The aircraft needed to be very long and very narrow in order to supersonically comfortably."

Twitter - @AviateAddict

Concorde was the first airliner to have an analogue fly-by-wire flight-control system which was unique because it was the first commercial aircraft to employ hybrid circuits. There were a variety of concerns with this type of aircraft, including the powerplant and engines, which called into question the intake, noise and drag. Extensive development testing with design changes and changes to intake and engine control laws would address most of the issues. But even then…

The Paint and Fuel Flow

The paint used on the Concorde was twice as reflective as other jets. This was necessary as the Concorde needed to compensate for the heat from air friction. Due to air compression, many of the fuselage parts on the Concorde were heated to over 100°C, or 212°F, with the nose tip alone reaching 127°C, or 260°F due to aerodynamic heating...

Twitter - @iLove_Aviation

Every surface, such as windows and panels, was warm to the touch by the end of the flight. This happened as a direct result of flying Mach 2. To adjust its center of gravity for takeoff, flying and landing, fuel flowed around the plane during flight. Fuel pumps were working to do this throughout the plane's entire time in the air, something passengers were virtually unaware of. Unfortunately, they were more than aware of the heat.

Twitter - @CCCuration

Besides engines, the hottest part of the structure of any supersonic aircraft is the nose, due to aerodynamic heating. The engineers used Hiduminium R.R. 58, an aluminium alloy, throughout the aircraft because of its familiarity, cost and ease of construction. Concorde went through two cycles of heating and cooling during a flight. With this issue mostly taken care of, there was another aspect that had to be figured out...

The Ogival Delta Wing

When any aircraft passes the critical mach of that particular airframe, the centre of pressure shifts rearwards. This causes a pitch down moment on the aircraft if the centre of gravity remains where it was. The engineers designed the wings in a specific manner to reduce this shift, and the distribution of fuel along the aircraft was shifted during acceleration and deceleration to move the centre of gravity, effectively acting as an auxiliary trim control...

Twitter - @iLove_Aviation

The beautiful ogival delta wing was one of the Concorde's most distinguishing features. The "delta" in the name comes from the fact that it's triangular, like the Greek Delta, and "ogival" is a reference to its curve. Along with the aforementioned assistance provided by the wing, it also helped the Concorde to get lift during takeoff and then limited drag while in flight. Unfortunately...

Twitter - @Wikipedia

The only compromise that came as a result of the ogival delta wing is that it required an extremely high angle of attack at takeoff and landing. This angled approach made it so that pilots couldn't see out of the plane, so engineers had yet another big problem to solve. Read ahead to learn what they did...

The Drop Nose AKA...

Also known as the droop snoot and droop nose, the drop nose of the Concorde made it possible for the pilots to see during takeoff and landing. It was developed by Marshall's of Cambridge at Cambridge Airport and enabled the aircraft to switch between being streamlined to reduce drag and achieve optimal aerodynamic efficiency without obstructing the pilot's view.

Twitter - @plushistory

According to the August 21, 1971 issue of Flight International, "The drop nose was accompanied by a moving visor that retracted into the nose prior to being lowered. When the nose was raised to horizontal, the visor would rise in front of the cockpit windscreen for aerodynamic streamlining. A controller in the cockpit allowed the visor to be retracted and the nose to be lowered to 5° below the standard horizontal position for taxiing and take-off..."

Twitter - @MCO

"Following take-off and after clearing the airport, the nose and visor were raised. Prior to landing, the visor was again retracted and the nose lowered to 12.5° below horizontal for maximal visibility. Upon landing the nose was raised to the 5° position to avoid the possibility of damage." On top of these elements, the nose window and visor glass needed to endure temperatures in excess of 210 °F at supersonic flight...

Need For Speed

The biggest challenge the Concorde faced was speed. Mach 2 is 1350 mph, and Boeing claimed theirs would be 650 mph faster, which is unreal considering Concorde had a hard enough time at their level. The body of the Concorde was approximately one foot longer at supersonic speeds than it was when it was on the ground. If it wasn’t carefully maintained...

Twitter - @SgtAlCastro

This expansion and contraction of the body threatened to lead to metal fatigue, which is a weakening of metal due to stress, resulting in an accumulation of small cracks. Due to its high speeds, large forces were applied to the aircraft during banks and turns, and caused twisting and distortion of the aircraft’s structure. In addition...

The Concord Story

There were concerns over maintaining precise control at supersonic speeds. Both of these issues were resolved by active ratio changes between the inboard and outboard elevons, varying at differing speeds including supersonic. With these problems solved, the Concorde flew high enough for passengers to see the Earth's curve and faster than the Earth spins. Engineers even put a Mach meter up on the bulkhead, which dazzled everyone on board. This was just a small part of how the Concorde captured the imagine of the upper class...

The Appeal of the Concorde

The glamor of high speed flight was defined by the Concorde. An old promotional video even focused on the wardrobe of the flight attendants. This image led to the admiration of Hollywood celebrities and the world's most elite travelers. Concorde did it's best to provide passengers which a party atmosphere, which meant...

Twitter - @GREATBritain

Concorde through all of the old air travel clichés, like bad food, poor service and extreme discomfort, out the window. The food served on the Concorde mimicked that of a traditional, fine dining experience, which typically takes up to three hours. This worked perfectly because that was the amount of time of the most popular flights, like the ones from New York to Paris and London.

Twitter - @HistoryKE

And unlike cheap flights that cost as much as 30 times less than a trip on a Concorde, employees made sure to keep passengers as happy as possible. As a symbol of national pride, an example from the BA fleet made occasional flypasts at selected Royal events, major air shows and other special occasions, sometimes in formation with the Red Arrows, the aerobatics display team of the Royal Air Force. With public interest peaked and sustained, what went wrong?

So What Happened?

As much as Concorde did right, there ended up being too many challenges to overcome. Tragically, on July 25, 2000, Air France Flight 4590 crashed in Gonesse, France after departing from Paris-Charles de Gaulle en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, killing all 100 passengers and 9 crew members on board, and 4 people on the ground. While it was the only fatal accident involving Concorde...

Twitter - @PopSci

This changed everything. According to the official investigation, the crash was caused by a metallic strip that had fallen from another plane. This punctured a tire, which exploded, and a piece of rubber hit the fuel tank, which caused a fuel leak and led to a fire. This revealed a fatal flaw with the design of the Concorde, and it was grounded until November of 2011...

Twitter - @HWarlow

Prior to the accident, Concorde had been arguably the safest operational passenger airliner in the world. But there had been two prior non-fatal accidents. And then the 9/11 attacks seriously depressed the airline industry, changing how people travel forever. This, combined with the July 2000 crash, presented a couple of many fundamental challenges for the Concorde...

What Goes Up...

The Concorde's design issues meant that it had a relatively short airframe life of 45,000 hours compared to 100,000 hours for more traditional aircraft. This would effect the overall running costs for the airlines. And everything from the window seals to the electrical wiring had to be designed for the increased heat. On top of this...

Twitter - @SamAmAdEus

The Concorde not only had a negative impact on the environment and ozone layer, something the public was paying more attention to, but also hurt everyone on board, Their high cruising altitude meant passengers received almost twice the flux of extraterrestrial ionising radiation, which required a radiometer in the flight deck. If radiation got too high, the plane would descend. Additionally, a sudden reduction in cabin pressure is hazardous to all passengers and crew. But…

Twitter - @Sci_Phile

By the time the Concorde was in its flight testing phase people had become all too aware of a sonic boom created by these planes and it was going to be too much of a problem. As a result, supersonic flight over land was banned in most countries…This meant that the only viable routes were over the Atlantic from the east coast of the United States to the west coast of Europe. With these limited routes...

Must Come Down

The amount of seats that could be sold was greatly reduced and the prospect of supersonic flight was dealt a huge blow. Even with no other civil traffic operating at the Concorde’s cruising altitude of about 56,000 feet, and Concorde having exclusive use of dedicated oceanic airways, Concorde still couldn't make it work...

Twitter - @historylvrsclub

While every issue, even the most difficult ones, was overcome by the design team behind the Concorde, there was little anyone could do about the cost of fuel. This would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Concorde. With the inefficiency of jet engines at low speeds Concorde burned two tons of fuel just by taxiing to the runway, let alone what it would require to take off, fly and land...

The Concord Story

Originally, the idea was that if the planes could fly twice as fast and arrive at their destination in half the time, they would be able to complete twice as many journeys and charge a premium. For a while, this made it so that fuel efficiency wasn’t as big of a problem as they initially worried it might be. When the supersonic designs were created in the 1960s fuel was cheap, but that changed dramatically over time…

Just In Case

As unfortunate as it is that the Concorde ultimately failed, there is plenty of silver lining. The aforementioned environmental awareness has become a huge part of modern society, and if supersonic travel had become more popular and prevalent, a massive fleet of supersonic planes could've ended up permanently damaging the ozone layer...

Twitter - @SFOMuseum

Although Concorde was technologically advanced when it was originally introduced, it had become outdated. There had been little commercial pressure to upgrade Concorde due to a lack of competing aircraft, unlike other airliners of the same era. Issues with coast have been discussed, and certainly didn't help Concorde's chances of staying in service...

The Concord Story

One of the most ridiculous aspects of the Concorde's problem with pricing is that, as a result of its demanding passengers, airlines had to have an empty, but manned, Concorde waiting in addition to one being used, just in case there were any problems. This meant expensive crews and personnel were paid for simply sitting on the runway. This is a great example of what was great about, and simultaneously what went wrong with the Concorde. And finally...

The Closing Announcement

On April 10, 2003, Air France and British Airways simultaneously announced they would retire Concorde later that year. According to the April 11, 2003 edition of the New York Times, "British Airways and Air France announced that they would retire their fleets of Concordes this year. The airlines cited declining passenger demand and steadily increasing costs of maintaining the fleet, which began service 27 years ago."

Twitter - @ConcordeGBBDG

The final blow had been dealt when Airbus ended maintenance support for Concorde. Noel Forgeard, chief executive of Airbus, said, "Its maintenance regime is increasing fast with age. Thus, as an aircraft manufacturer, we understand completely and respect the decision of British Airways, especially in the present economic climate." Concorde couldn't recover...

Twitter - @CBCNews

Concorde's time was up. By its retirement, it was the last aircraft in the British Airways fleet that had a flight engineer and the aging aircraft still has analog controls, both of which cost too much to maintain. Essentially, its scale was too small, making it wildly unprofitable to service, rebuild or revive. Even if Concorde was making more money, it still wasn't enough to afford a new smaller fleet. All good things must come to an end...

The Future of Concorde and SST

As beautiful, advanced and exciting as the Concorde once was, it didn't come with a proper business model. There wasn't a supply system, a political resolve and a plan to expand. But still, Concorde won the 2006 Great British Design Quest organized by the BBC and the Design Museum, beating other well-known designs such as the BMC Mini, the miniskirt, the Jaguar E-Type, the London Tube map and the Supermarine Spitfire....

Twitter - @verge

But on September 15, 2015, Club Concorde announced it had secured over $200 million to return to service. Club Concorde President Paul James said, "The main obstacle to any Concorde project to date has been "Where's the money?"—a question we heard ad nauseam, until we found an investor. Now that money is no longer the problem it's over to those who can help us make it happen." The company claims Concorde will be back in 2019...

Either way, this doesn't mean there will never be large scale supersonic transport. Several concepts have emerged since the retirement of the Concorde from company's like Aerion Corporation, Boom Technology, and even NASA. Proponents have argued that, if done right, this could easily be a billion dollar industry. Only time will tell if this type of travel is too good to be true...

Share On Facebook

Ryan

Ryan is a rabid consumer of content, from movies and television to podcasts and news. He lives in a hole underground with nothing but a computer and a strong internet connection. Ryan spends all of his waking moments online searching for the most interesting stories to share with the rest of the world.