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Concorde

By Patrick Mondout

Truly faster than a speeding bullet, the Concorde was both extremely elegant and incredibly expensive. It had an equally interesting history involving environmentalists, an economic crisis, and espionage.

Gentleman, Start Your Engines!

The battle began in 1962, the year French President Charles de Gaulle called on Anglo-Franco cooperation in building aircraft to curtail what he termed the "American colonization of the skies."

The Boeing 707 had not only taken the lead in the jet age, but was starting to dominate (along with the American Douglas DC-8) and Boeing's short-haul versions (the 720 and 727) were giving the Americans a family of aircraft to sell to the world. If the Europeans had lost this round, perhaps they could win the next one.

It was believed that the future belonged to supersonic transport (SST) aircraft and the Europeans wanted to ensure they would dominate - or at least compete in - the SST market. Neither France nor Britain had the resources to develop such an advanced plane if the other did too and crowded the market. By cooperating, they believed they could beat the Americans in the SST race.

European Unity

On November 29, 1962, representatives of the French and British governments jointly announced the signing of a treaty (foreshadowing the creation of Airbus less than a decade later) that allowed the countries to jointly build the SST. These rivals had never before cooperated on such a project (though it paved the way for the even bigger Channel Tunnel project).

Both governments were using funds from a skeptical public and each believed their prestige, which had been damaged by all the colonial losses, was at stake.  Indeed, the very future of civil aviation itself was at stake. The Americans had discussed making an SST (supersonic transport) since the late 50s. It did not take long for the old rivals to get on each others nerves.

"E" Commerce

The British were still calling the plane the Concord while the French insisted it be called the Concorde. British Technology Minister Tony Benn finally caved in to the French and said that both British and French planes would be called the Concorde. He claimed the extra "e" stood for "excellence, Europe, and entente" though no one was fooled. That would not be the last concession the Brits made to the French.

Mach 2

The Concorde is designed to be flown at a cruising altitude above 60,000 feet and at an airspeed of Mach 2 (around 1400 mph at that altitude). The air is thinner and thus easier to fly through with less turbulence at higher altitudes. The aluminum body is lighter than the body chosen by Boeing for the 2707, but it also cannot be pushed much beyond the Concorde's cruising speed.

In addition to being lighter than the Boeing design, the Concorde is smaller and can only carry a maximum of 128 passengers (though it flew commercially with 100). 

From Russia With Envy

The Soviet Union, involved in costly technological supremacy race with the West, could not ignore the advanced new plane. Instead, Soviet Premiere Khrushchev sent his spy network out to get copies of Concorde blueprints. The resulting TU-144, which Khrushchev demanded fly before Concorde actually did make its maiden test flight first!  This was not the last time the Soviet Union copied the latest technology from the west.  Nor was it the first.

We Should've Asked Jeanne Dixon

By 1967, British Aircraft Corporation's "most pessimistic" estimates showed a market for 200 Concordes by 1975. But predicting the future is a tricky business at best as Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates from the same year which assumed a market for 500 Boeing SSTs by 1990 will attest. Even in 1972 the plane's future looked bright as more than a dozen airlines had placed orders for the aircraft, and even at a staggering $3.5 billion development cost, France and Britain expected to recoup their investment.

On December 11, 1967, the British and French got to see what their tax-dollars had purchased when the French prototype Concorde 001 was rolled out in Toulouse, France (the British 002 prototype was not quite finished in Bristol), but it took two more years of testing and fine-tuning the powerful engines before it made its maiden flight.

First Test Flight

On March 2, 1969, the first Concorde test flight took place, with the Concorde 001 traveling from the Aerospatiale plant in Toulouse, France, to Le Bourget, France. Though the British Concorde 002 was ready, but it was decided the French would fly first. The first flight of the British Concorde took place on April 9.

Speed Record

While the Soviet Tu-144 made it into the air first, the French prototype (Concorde 001) became the first to go at supersonic speeds on October 1, 1969.

Hey! Where'd Everyone Go?

With the Concorde project nearing completion, the worst possible market conditions materialized. The economy started to dip and orders for new airliners of any type began to dry up. The OPEC oil embargo hit the fuel-guzzling Concorde hard, as the price of fuel spiraled and prospective buyers began bailing. Pan Am and TWA dropped out in February of 1973 and Quantas and Japan Airlines followed soon thereafter.

   
 

In his announcement to the press on April 10, 2003 announcing the end of service, Air France Chairman Jean-Cyril Spinetta, said: "As far as Air France is concerned, we are proud to have rallied to this aircraft over the last 27 years all those who have a passion for Concorde, and beyond the air transport community, all those who are simply interested in successful human adventures.".

 
   

Courtesy Air France.

   
 

Shunned by U.S.

Although some of you may recall a Monogram model of the Boeing SST with United Airlines colors from the early 1970s, Braniff was the only U.S. airline to offer Concorde service. Even this was through an arrangement with Air France and utilized their planes. British Airways did fly a few of the planes jointly with Singapore Airlines (the Concorde used on the Singapore service was actually painted half in Singapore Air colors), but only the French and British government-run airlines felt compelled to fly the advanced and costly plane. Only 20 (including four prototypes) were ever built, though the original plan called for 300. Eventually, the governments of these countries were forced to write off the cost of the plane's production.

And Then There Were Two: SST is MIA

The American SST project at Boeing all but ended in May 1971 when Congress finally pulled the plug on federal funding. Boeing threatened that they would be unable to complete the project without the money and in fact, they never did finish the project. That left only the Concorde and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 to compete supersonically.

Eclipse

The speed of the Concorde was put to good use on June 30, 1973 when scientists were able to "chase" a solar eclipse across the globe for 74 minutes from the Canary Islands to Chad. As fast at the Concorde is, an eclipse - at 25,000 mph - is even faster.

Showoff!

Still trying to convince the public and, more importantly, the airlines, of the superiority of Concorde, Air France officials staged a race between one of their 747s and one of their Concorde. The 747 took off from Orly Airport in Paris at 8:22 am EST on June 17, 1974, bound for Boston while the Concorde took off from Boston's Logan Field at the same time bound for Paris. When the Concorde passed the 747 (at about twice the altitude), it had already traveled over 2400 miles while the 747 had barely covered 600. The Concorde landed in Paris, spent an hour on the ground, then took off again and beat the 747 back to Boston by 11 minutes! Officials from other airlines, noting the Concorde carries 300 less passengers and yet burns 20% more fuel, remained unimpressed.

Louder than a The Who Concert

We are all familiar with the noise of an airplane flying overhead. So what was so special about the noise from a supersonic transport like Concorde? With a normal, sub-sonic aircraft, you can hear it coming; the sound reaches you before the plane itself does because the plane is traveling slower than the speed of sound. In supersonic flight, the noise is contained within shock waves which surround the airplane but are unable to outrun the plane. So when a plane traveling at supersonic speeds heads towards you, you hear nothing until all at once the collected noise hits you. And when that happens, instead of getting a continuous rumble of noise, you get a very sharp boom.

Banned!

Environmentalists had complained about the Concorde's noise for years and on December 18, 1975, the Congress agreed - barely. In a 199-198 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban the Concorde for U.S. airports for six months.

First Commercial Flight

Although several years behind schedule and without a market outside of Britain and France, the Concorde made its first commercial flights on January 21, 1976. The Air France flight was from the new Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to Rio de Janeiro. Simultaneously, a British Airways Concorde took off from London's Heathrow for Bahrain. The era of commercial supersonic travel had arrived at long last.

See You In Court!

Then on February 4, 1976, U.S. Transportation Secretary William Coleman gave Air France and British Airways permission to make three flights per day to New York and Washington D.C. for a trial period of 12 months. This angered local officials and the New York Port Authority unilaterally banned the Concorde from its airports on March 11. Air France then sued the Port Authority for the landings rights.

Washington's Dulles Airport, on the other hand, belongs to the Federal Aviation Administration and, with Secretary Coleman's permission, the first two Concorde flights landed there on May 24, 1976. New York eventually gave in and the first Concorde landed on October 19, 1977.

Concorde

G-BOAD, a Concorde with Singapore Airlines colors but operated by British Airways (BA colors are on the other side). Seen at London's Heathrow in August 1978.

Image courtesy of AirNikon. Find more of his photos at Airliners.net

All Dressed Up And Nowhere To Go

While it may appear that the anti-Concorde lobby in New York lost their battle, they may well have won the war. The Concorde looked great and performed well but without the ability to fly into New York, no one was going to buy the plane and by the time permission was granted, the window for success had probably closed.

Nevertheless, the Concorde - if only operated by Air France and British Airways - was here to stay and remained, ironically, a welcome sight in the New York skyline for the remainder of the century.

The Choice of Supermodels and Rock Stars

When it finally did clear all the bureaucratic hurdles and was issued its airworthiness certificate in the late Super70s, it was an instant star. In fact, it captured the imagination of American's so thoroughly that it starred in the third Airport sequel, Concorde Airport '79. It's sleek good looks, incredible speeds (three-and-a-half hours from Paris or London to the East Coast of the United States), and incredible fares (round-trip fare was about $9000 in 2000) made it the perfect mode of transport for $7000-an-hour supermodels and $30M-a-year chief executives.

While stories of Paul McCartney playing his guitar for fellow passengers and Rod Stewart sending for his hair stylist for an "emergency" haircut before a US concert have achieved a small amount of currency, the most widely remembered episode involved Phil Collins. He performed at the worldwide-televised (and lengthy) 1985 Live Aid charity concert in London, then hopped on Concorde and performed at Live Aid again - this time in Philadelphia a mere four hours later!

Over the years the Concorde, which crossed the Atlantic in half the time of any other commercial jet, had developed a niche market for the super-rich and both Air France and British Airways claim to have operated the plane on a profitable basis for years (neither releases specific figures proving or disproving this notion). Of course it helps that the British government absorbed the enormous bill for developing the aircraft (British Airways was privatized in the mid-Awesome80s after development costs were ingested by the state).

Contrary to perception, the Concorde is not luxurious - it is all about speed. In fact, your $9000 ticket will not get you an in-flight movie (the projectors would have made the plane too heavy back when it was designed).

Inside the Concorde

The Concorde could carry 100 passengers, 9 crewmembers, and 1,300 pounds of cargo up to 3,740 miles at cruising speed of 1,336 mph (Mach 2) to an altitude of 55,000 feet. The 203 foot long, 37 foot high aircraft takes off at 250 mph carrying up to 26,286 gallons of fuel, consumes an average of 5,638 gallons of fuel per hour, and lands at 187 mph. The average British Airways Concorde (there were seven in service) was flown 2.34 hours per day.

Tragedy: July 25, 2000

An Air France Concorde crashed shortly after takeoff near Paris on July 25, 2000 killing all 109 passengers and crew as well as four on the ground. Air France immediately grounded their Concorde aircraft and British Airways followed suit a few weeks later. The supersonic aircraft suffered catastrophic damage to fuel tanks underneath the wings during takeoff which caused a fire which diminished the performance sufficiently to make a successful departure and emergency return to the airport impossible. Investigators have stated the damage to the fuel tanks was caused by pieces of the Concorde's own tires. The tires were apparently damaged on the runway by a piece of metal which had broken off of a Continental Airlines DC-10 which had previously departed from the French airport.

During the ensuing months, there was much talk in the industry about whether the Concorde would ever fly again. Modifications to the design of Concorde to prevent another tragedy like the crash near Paris were completed on the remaining fleet from both airlines.

Aftermath

November 7, 2001 was witness to a site than many New Yorkers predicted they would never see again: An Air France Concorde carrying 92 passengers, which had departed Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris four hours earlier, landed at New York's John F. Kennedy airport. This flight marked the Concorde's return to commercial flight. British Airways officially resumed service on November 9th, 2001, but flew an invitation-only flight from London's Heathrow to JFK which landed an hour after the first Air France flight. Among the invitees were pop star Sting and British TV host David Frost (famous for his interviews with former president Richard Nixon in the late Super70s).

Retirement

Air France had second thoughts about continuing Concorde service and flew their last passenger flight on May 31, 2003, leaving British Airways the sole flyer of this aircraft. That too changed on October 24, 2003 when the final scheduled Concorde flight ever took place between New York and London's Heathrow Airport, where a retirement celebration was held.

To "celebrate" and to give those of us who had been putting off a supersonic trip across the pond (for one reason or another), British Airways spent the final weeks of Concorde service on special "last chance" flights. Alas, yours truly wasn't able to pony up the $13K for one of the once-in-a-lifetime final trips aboard BA's last week of flights. One man who did get on the final trip was David Hayes of Toledo, Ohio. He "won" a ticket on eBay (where else?) in an auction for charity (Boys & Girls Club of America, the Fred Rogers Fund, Reading is Fundamental, and UNICEF) sponsored by British Airways and NBC's Today Show.

   
 

Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic, offered $7.5M each for all of British Airways Concorde aircraft but was ignored. In a statement on July 16, 2003, he said; "We believe that grounding Concorde and ceasing commercial flights is an act of industrial vandalism. BA forgets that it was the nation and not BA that built and paid for Concorde."

 
   

DOD photo by Charles Diggs.

   
 

Both airlines claim weak demand since September 11 is at least partly to blame for the SST's demise. However, Airbus, which is responsible for providing spare parts for these aircraft, announced that it would not certify Concorde after December 2003. (Whether Airbus would have made this momentous decision without a encouragement from BA and AF is debatable.) With all the remaining aircraft in the process of being donated to museums (despite a standing offer of several million dollar per aircraft from Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson to continue flying them), it seems unlikely we will ever see it fly again. BA, however, has left open the possibility that it will fly a Concorde on December 17, 2003 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first powered flight at Kitty Hawk.

In any case, the cachet is gone. Note to Air France and British Airways: You can safely climb down from your pedestals. Each of you are once again "just another airline." Indeed, Air France is busy courting KLM as a merger partner while BA once again has the urge to merge with a US partners, most likely American Airlines.

British Airways announced the final plans for each of its Concorde aircraft on October 30, 2003. In an ironic twist, one of the seven was lent on permanent loan to the Seattle Museum of Flight at Boeing Field. The Northwest finally got their own SST! (And we were there.)

What To Tell Your Grandchildren

With no other civilian supersonic transports flying nor in serious development, it seems likely our generation will be able to tell stories to our grandchildren about how it once only took three hours (instead of six) to fly across the Atlantic! (This notion of back-stepping so disturbed MSNBC.com's Michael Moran that he asked, "Have we peaked as a species?" in his look back on the Concorde.) 

BAC/Aerospatiale Concorde at a Glance
Engines4 Rolls-Royce/SNECMA Olympus 593Mk 610 turbojets
Cruising Speed1350 (Mach 2.04)
Passengers100 (144 two classes)
Range4090
Span83ft 10in
Length203ft 9in
Height37ft 5in
Weight408,000
Built16

 

Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about the BAC/Aerospatiale Concorde? Were you a member of the flight crew on one? Have you any interesting stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"My wife and I flew the Concorde in late August (BA flight 002 from New York to London). It counts as one of the greatest experiences of my life. The take off was the most incredible part about the ride. Driving 250 MPH down the runway before take off was quite a thrill! Obviously, I've never traveled so fast on the ground before. Then, after take off, we banked sharply left and the plane was climbing at what seemed like a 45 degree angle (I'm sure it wasn't that steep, it just felt like it).
I was struck, at first, by the interior of the cabin. It's cramped and the seats, although very nice, didn't have much more room than a typical coach seat. The windows were very small. About the size of a slice of American cheese. It made me a little bit claustrophobic. That didn't matter however, because the flight attendants were great, the food was great, the wine was fantastic, and best of all, we were in London in time for dinner! Once airborne (Mach 2 at 55,000 feet!), you can't really tell the difference between the Concorde and other airliners, except there is no turbulence and you can tell you're pretty high in the air. The clouds seem to be moving pretty fast underneath you as well. I really didn't feel much when we broke the sound barrier. Just a tiny bump. I'm scared of flying normally, and I was worried before the flight, but this was a fantastic experience!"

--Anonymous

"A few years ago because of various world crises British Airways ran some low, low priced fares which included , one way on Concorde and return on QE2. My wife and I, retired working stiffs, said, "what the hell can't take it with us.", let's do it. It was a supreme thrill for both of us but more so for my wife who had watched the development of its building in U K many many years ago and had always been a big booster for Concorde. It was such a near orgasmic experience but now it looks like it will never happen again since the SSTs will become history at the end of this year. But, at least we can say,"been there, done that." Vive La Concorde! But where oh where can we find a frameable print of our darling? [Editor's note: Check eBay via our link at the bottom of this page!]"

--Bill & Joyce Smith

"Oh man! From the day I first sat on Concorde, I knew I was going to get an exceptional flight. This was the first time I flew in a Concorde. From the moment I sat in it's neat interior I felt like I was on top of the world flying inside a piece of machine capable of taking me more than twice the speed of sound at almost twice the altitude than regular subsonic planes. The greatest part was when the plane took off the Heathrow Airport at a 20 degree angle, my whole body pushed me back hard as if I was taking off a Space Shuttle. The takeoff was much noisier than the 747-400. But once the plane reached 60,000 feet, the plane all of a sudden hushed, and it made this weird serene noise which gave me an indication that the plane is going twice the speed of sound. It felt great. The flight was exceptionally fast. I reached New York during the whole time by watching everything outside the window. When I reached New York I had a weird feeling of flying the world's fastest supersonic jetliner."

--Concorde Lover

"I was lucky enough to win a "joyride" on Concorde with Hewlett Packard. We took off from London Heathrow at approx 17:30 GMT on 2nd Dec 1999. Because it was a short trip (an hour and a half out and back to Heathrow) we had half a tank of fuel and no baggage making the plane quite lite.
Take off was unreal, full throttle with reheat (afterburner). Rotation was at 250knts about half way down the runway and rate of climb was 11,000 feet per minute until leveling off and throttle back at 8,000 feet for noise abatement. The angle of climb was so high that I actually had to look back (as opposed to down) to see the lights of London. When they pulled off the power some of the cushions actually "floated" off the seats.
Flew west to Bristol and straight past south coast of Ireland. As we passed Cork they pushed full power and hit reheat on all four engines. They had warned us that they normally hit them in pairs so as not to frighten the passengers but seeing this was a pleasure trip, and the plane was lite, they decided to show off. Prior to this they had also asked the cabin crew to stow the trolleys for the transition and put on seat belts.
Being a frequent flyer and having some two seat flight time I of course thought I knew better and ignored the warning. I mean how much acceleration are you going to experience when you have 710knts indicated? Answer: The tray full of food they had given me landed in my lap.
We accelerated from 710 to 1415knts while climbing from 45,000 to 65,000. It didn't take long. While the level of acceleration did ease off, the initial kick was like a 737 on a take off roll. I looked out the windows and the distant lights of Cork city gave a little kick and then started moving backwards very fast.
The rest of the flight was relatively uneventful except for the western sunrise. When we left Heathrow it had been dark for more than an hour but as we moved rapidly west the sky became pale and then the sun rose.
The landing back at Heathrow felt normal enough although Concorde lands lands at a much higher speed than normal airliners. The striking thing is that Concorde has very powerful brakes, far stronger relative to the aircraft weight than usual (or so they told us) and it certainly stops very quickly.
A very enjoyable and totally unforgettable experience."

--IanB Dublin, Ireland

"I live in Canarsie Brooklyn, and my biggest memories of Concorde is the spectacular takeoffs and landings, and (LOL) the Belt Parkway coming to a dead stop for people to look up and watch the spectacular bird . The first time I heard her was in my friends Howard Beach garage, them afterburners echoing of the buildings and walls, the loudest damn thing I ever heard. I often loved to drive to my Late Aunts Rockaway apartment and watch from her porch on the 16th floor which over looks JFK airport. Now I live in New Jersey and I used to see her daily coming over the Atlantic Highlands where I work. After the Air France crash, I miss watching Concorde after being grounded. As a Limo driver, a job I love because I am big plane watcher I always looked foward to the early morning JFK trips to watch the splendid bird. I hope Concorde to return to the Brooklyn Skies soon !"

--Sonic Boomer

"I remember being on at the JFK airport on the day of the maiden voyage of the Concord. I was only four at the time I remember seeing the people dressed "strangly" and the funny looking robot that rolled up and down the concorse and all of the excitement that was in the air. Everyone was happy and in the mind of a four year old that had to be a good thing. While I may never be able to afford a ticket ont this wonderful bird I hope the the powers that be will find a way to keep this most majestic creation of mondern science in the air."

--Mekkeda

"Braniff International flew both Air France and British Airways Concordes. One of the most famous pictures of the Concorde is an Air France and British Airways Concorde nose to nose at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport taken in 1979.
The First Concorde ever to fly to the U.S. was in 1973, at the invitation of Braniff, to open the new D/FW airport."

--Brooke Watts of the Braniff Pages

"In the late sixties my dad did some business with BAC in Bristol. He also had a habit of taking me on business trips with him, so one day an 11 year old boy was ushered into a very big hangar (the Brabazon hangar) and given a guided tour of the outside of Concorde (1)01 - the British pre-production aicraft. Even with the airframe surrounded by scaffolding, the experience defined my concept of engineering elegance and beauty. Nothing before or since has even come close. Every time I heard those engines, I'd look up, and be rewarded with the sight of a piece of fine art. Then, in the Awesome80s, a Concorde flew low over my house on the way to a flypast of the Shrewsbury Flower Show (!) and I got the best view ever (the wheels need to be up to get the fully graceful effect). That reminded me that she wouldn't last forever, so in 1991 I managed to join the supersonic set with a trip from London to Paris using the scenic route - a blast around the Bay of Biscay at Mach 2 and 55000 feet. Last November, I was compelled to go back to Bristol to watch a few minutes of the last flight ever, as G-BOAF returned to the factory. Silly emotional reaction to a piece of machinery? Absolutely, but that's what made Concorde special - she achieves that impossible feat in thousands more people than just me. The world is a poorer place without these aircraft in the skies."

--Graham Skeats


 

FLYING FACTS

Courtesy of Air France

Model: Concorde

Manufacturer: BAC/Aerospatiale

Country: Britain/France

First Flight: March 2, 1969

First Passenger Flight: January 21, 1976

Launch CustomerAir France and BOAC


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