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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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
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
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
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.)