|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 thereafter.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.)