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Adieu Concorde

This fall, the icon soared for the last time. Air France’s fleet has already retired, and British Airways flew its last New York-London route on Oct. 24, 2003

How should we remember the Concorde? The answer depends on whether you’re an environmentalist, accountant, artist or engineer. The latter two will likely see it as an iconic, supersonic sculpture by its French and British design team, who married function and beauty into a technological creation that still turns heads more than 30 years after it first lifted off.

Less charitably, however, it could become a thesaurus entry as a synonym for “white elephant” to the accountants, a beautiful loser that cost too much to develop and consequently, never made one dime in real economic return. For environmentalists, the Concorde was a noisy, flatulent gas-guzzler, an ozone-destroying novelty ride of convenience for the rich and powerful.

But what a novelty ride! Bob van der Linden, curator of the Smithsonian Institute’s Concorde exhibit in Washington, D.C., was aboard the final flight of a Concorde from Paris to Washington. The plane will become part of the Smithsonian’s collection. He sipped champagne and watched the cabin’s digital display climb to a speed of 2,173 kilometres per hour or Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. By coincidence, he has a brother-in-law in the U.S. Air Force who flies F/A-18 Hornets, which have a top speed of Mach 1.8+. “You’ve spent more time supersonic than I have,” the brother-in-law told van der Linden. Even an experienced jet fighter pilot spends less time outrunning sound than someone with one trip on a Concorde — and that passenger will only be above Mach 1 for about two-and-a-half hours. (Military fighter crafts only go supersonic for tactical reasons, and only for short bursts.)

This fall, the icon soared for the last time. Air France’s fleet has already retired, and British Airways flew its last New York-London route on Oct. 24. That was just a few months shy of the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ inaugural motorized flight over the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on Dec. 17, 1903.

Prelude to the Dream

The jet-powered era of aviation began in 1939, when the Germans flew the world’s first turbojet plane, the Heinkel He-178. But it was an American with the “right stuff,” test pilot Maj. Chuck Yeager, who first blasted through the sound barrier in a Bell X-1 experimental aircraft in 1947. Work to exceed the sound barrier would continue through the 1950s by the militaries of every major power.

Aircraft pioneers also tried pushing the limits of distance. In 1950, two U.S. military aircraft, Republic F-84-Es, flew the first nonstop jet crossings of the Atlantic but it would take them three in-flight refuelings to do so. Two years later, British Overseas Airways Corp. would begin a turbojet airline service between London and Johannesburg, South Africa. Trans-Atlantic jet travel for the masses, however, really arrived with the Boeing 707. It rolled off the assembly line in late 1957, beginning a regular Paris-New York route on Oct. 26, 1958. Its cruising speed would average around 885 km/h.

Throughout the 1950s, the British and French aircraft industries saw themselves losing ground to the U.S. powerhouses of Boeing and MacDonnell-Douglas. With that and the industry’s conventional wisdom that higher raw performance is better, talk about a supersonic passenger jet first began in Britain in 1954. The technological community was convinced by 1959 that it was indeed possible; not only that, it would again push them ahead of the Americans in aviation technology. The French were thinking the same thing. The two realized by 1961 that they had reached almost identical conclusions, and started the task of formally joining forces. In that same year, U.S. President John F. Kennedy issued an audacious challenge to his country’s technological elite: To land a man on the moon before the decade ended, and before the Soviets did. The U.S. spurned the British offer of a partnership in developing an SST and launched its own program, which died in 1971 without so much as a prototype. On Nov. 29, 1962, a deal was signed between the French and British, paving the road for the remarkable engineering odyssey of the Concorde.

Building a Supersonic Plane

First, a quick physics lesson. The speed of sound is a relative thing; at sea level on a relatively temperate day, it is about 1,239 km/h. Zoom up to the 16,700 to 18,000-metre cruising altitude of the Concorde where it’s a frigid -40 to -80 degrees Celsius, and that drops to around 1,046 km/h.

When you start to approach the sound barrier, air behaves differently. As it flows around an object such as an aircraft’s wing, it speeds up, so the air can actually be moving faster than the object. That creates a pressure differential which results in shock waves known as sonic booms. These can be powerful enough to break glass windows on the ground.

Another early problem was designing a wind tunnel that could test designs for supersonic flight. Air doesn’t like going through a tube when it’s at supersonic speeds. That had implications later in designing air intakes for Concorde’s jet engines, says John Hansman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautical engineering professor. The engineers had to devise ways to decelerate air so it could flow into the engines.

There is an aerodynamic penalty for exceeding the speed of sound as the resistance increases. Fly high, where the atmosphere is less dense, and you aren’t penalized as much. The cruising altitude of the Concorde is up to 7,620 metres higher than a Boeing 747.

Subsonic aircraft can cheat on profile; they can go for the wide-bodied look, but a supersonic aircraft has to be streamlined and needle-like. But even with a streamlined profile, you’ll still need wings capable of lifting everything. Hence the delta-wing design: They are thinner than conventional jet wings and the swept-back design ensures the wings’ tips miss the shock wave generated at the plane’s nose. The Concorde’s wings also offer something called “vortex lift.” On normal wings, a vortex is created at the tips. A Concorde wing generates the vortex along its entire edge at low speeds, which provides lift, but the drag is still low at supersonic speeds. Besides that, the delta wings boost stability at low speed and eliminate the need for stabilizers on the tail. Ken Larson, now retired, flew Concordes subsonically in the U.S. for Braniff Airlines in the 1970s. He said it was a very stable plane at lower speeds and a joy to fly.

Friction at twice the speed of sound is another issue. Even in the thin, frigid air of the troposphere where the Concorde roams, the external temperature of the aircraft’s skin averages about 90 Celsius, with the nose cone hitting about 127 degrees Celsius. This heating also stretches the plane by up to 25 centimetres during the flight. Concorde’s trademark white colour is from a specially developed paint that accounts for this constant expansion and contraction and helps dissipate heat.

Another slight difference with Concorde is that the engines are built into the wings instead of being mounted on struts as with other jet airliners. This is both to reduce turbulence and ensure they aren’t sheared off. Concorde’s four Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 Mark 610 turbojet engines produce 38,000 lbs of thrust each, or about 156,000 lbs in total. That’s about two-and-a-half times what a 1970s-era Boeing 747’s engines can produce. They also have afterburners, which means fuel is injected and re-ignited in the exhaust. Military aircraft are the only other aircraft that use afterburners.

One trademark of the Concorde is its droopy nose, which has led some cartoonists to compare it to an anteater. The nose is long and tapered to better cut through the air. For the delta wings to work properly, a steep “angle of attack” is required, meaning the plane’s nose must be kept much higher for take-offs and landings than conventional jet aircraft. The nose drops down up to 12.5 degrees to allow pilots to see the runway. The airframe itself is a stretched-out version of the old British Vulcan bomber, says John Lampl, vice-president of communications for British Airways North America.

Once you get supersonic, the aircraft’s centre of gravity shifts, so the fuel load has to be redistributed throughout the aircraft to rebalance it. Besides the two pilots, there was an engineer on board to monitor those sorts of functions. The automated systems on board were ahead of their time. Larson described their importance this way: “You can’t fly that airplane without computers.”

These problems were all worked through, and on March 2, 1969, the first Concorde prototype took to the skies over Toulouse, France (the moonwalk occurred about five months after that). It wouldn’t be until 1976, however, that the first regular Concorde routes began flying.

Flying in a Concorde

Here’s what you get for a typical London-New York $12,672 (US) round-trip ticket: When the plane gets the all-clear to commence takeoff, the pilot puts the figurative pedal to the metal, says Ken Larson. When the plane starts leaving the runway, you’ll be doing about 407 km/h, roughly 20 per cent faster than a conventional jet.

About 19 minutes and 110 km out from Paris, you’ll be travelling Mach 0.75 at around 7,260 metres in elevation. The crew will be transferring fuel to account for the aircraft’s centre-of-gravity shift as you move towards the sound barrier. This process takes about six minutes, over which time you accelerate to Mach 0.95. When the fuel transfer process is completed, you push past Mach 1 and 35 minutes into the flight, you’re at Mach 1.7. Over the next 25 minutes, you gain speed until you hit Mach 2. Strangely enough, you will feel nothing as you move through these milestones. One passenger commented after the inaugural flight that Mach 2 felt no different than subsonic travel. “Yes, that was the difficult bit,” was the reported reply of Sir George Edwards, chairman of the British Aircraft Corporation and a co-director of the Concorde project.

For the next two hours, you’re moving at a height and speed normally reserved for astronauts and military pilots. You’ll slowly gain altitude as the plane consumes its fuel load and becomes lighter. The sky above will be a deep indigo. You’ll be able to see the curvature of the earth. Feel the windows: Unlike a regular aircraft, they’ll be warm to the touch, despite an outside temperature that could be as low as -80 degrees Celsius. The turbulence that can prompt panicky grabs for paper bags on subsonic flights doesn’t happen on a Concorde.

All this occurs in pampered (albeit cramped) luxury with fine wines and gourmet meals de rigeur. You’ll be flying with the beautiful people, the world’s movers and shakers – and on one unfortunate trip for Pevsner, Barbara Streisand. “She’s a pretentious fool,” he spat. She insisted on a private room for herself and James Brolin in the already-exclusive Concorde lounge and travelled under the pseudonym of Ruderman. “She was wearing a veil and some sort of tremendous get-up. She looked like an 80-year-old Brooklyn housewife. You couldn’t see her face — as if anyone gave a shit.”

Around two hours and 41 minutes into the flight, it’s time to slow down. More fuel is transferred again as your speed falls to Mach 1. As you drop down to subsonic speed, another fuel transfer process takes place. Once that’s completed, just past the three-hour mark, you will spend the next 18 minutes dropping from 10,668 to 914 metres. Twelve minutes later, you’ll touch down in New York.

By way of comparison, a Concorde once left Boston in 1974 en route for Paris. At the same time, a 747 left Paris for Boston. The Concorde went to Paris and returned to Boston before the 747 finished its one-way journey. In 1979, a record was set, with a New York to London trip completed in less than three hours.

“It’s the ultimate way to fly,” says Pevsner. But that begs the question: If it’s so great, why is Concorde being mothballed, and why is there no second-generation SST ready to take its place?
Why Bean-Counters Hate the Concorde

The first Boeing 747 went into commercial service in 1970. On the sexiness scale, it’s a minivan to the Concorde’s Ferrari. Like a mini-van, however, it can carry a lot more passengers, up to 524 for current models, compared to the Concorde’s original 100. An original 747 also used about half the fuel per passenger, and has since become even more efficient. The importance of fuel efficiency became crystal-clear when the first oil price shock hit the global economy in 1973. Part of the economic plan for the Concorde included selling hundreds of them. Lampl said all the major carriers of the time had placed orders. According to the website, Air Canada had placed an order for four. But in the end, other airlines balked at the operating costs. Twenty were built, including four pre-production aircraft. Fourteen were available for service. British Airways initially bought five and Air France four; the two airlines picked up the five surplus aircraft in the early 1980s for a token pound/franc each.

Development costs were in excess of $3 billion (US) in late 1960s dollars; a bargain compared to the $25 billion (US) cost of the Apollo program. Nifty things like the drooping nose cost big bucks to invent. It took a year after Concorde took to the skies before it was allowed to fly into New York over noise concerns; it was only allowed to go supersonic over uninhabited areas.

The maximum range of a Concorde is about 4,500 miles, or 3,900 nautical miles. The most lucrative air route in the world is Tokyo to Los Angeles. How unfortunate for the Concorde that those two cities are about 5,470 miles apart. New York-London is 3,460 miles.

Numerous British cabinet documents were released about the Concorde recently (such documents are kept secret for 30 years). Many of them warned it was a looming commercial disaster.

But don’t tell Capt. Brian Walpole that the Concorde was economically flawed.

“Economically flawed for who?” the former Concorde pilot and head of British Airways’ Concorde division asks rhetorically. “British Airways has made a fortune out of operating the Concorde.” He said yearly operating profits ranged between 30 million and 50 million pounds (about $66 million to $109 million) up until 2001.

Asked to comment on its demise, Walpole says, “I think there’s been a conspiracy, and I don’t mean that in a malevolent way, of circumstance against the airplane.”

The factors which converged are:

  • 9/11: As a function of the acts of super-terrorism that day in 2001, the Concorde became a potential terrorist target
  • The fiery July 25, 2000, crash of an Air France Concorde, killing all 109 aboard and four on the ground, and leaving Concordes grounded for 15 months
  • The global economic downturn: People are travelling less and are turning away from Concorde and other luxury modes of transport for cheaper options
  • As Concorde ages, its maintenance bill is going up

Airlines the world over are in financial trouble; witness our own Air Canada. British Airways is “in the shit,” as Walpole puts it. The company made a profit last year, but only after brutal cost-cutting. First-quarter revenues reported in July were down almost 11 per cent. BA wrote off over $196 million rather than keep Concorde going. It’s a cruel time to be an aging, expensive plane. “It’s like trying to make money with an antique car,” Hansman sums up.

What the Future Holds

Walpole likes to give brief, precise answers. Asked if he sees a future SST, he says: “I did. I don’t.” Projections indicate a potential market size of about 200 to 250 SSTs to service the global business and celebrity elite. “The R&D costs to get that into the air and then sell a maximum of
250 make that almost a self-defeating objective.” Some have pegged those costs at $30 billion (US).

Hansman says a future SST would have to hold 250 passengers and have sufficient range to cover the Los Angeles-Tokyo route. Alternatively, some are exploring the possibility of supersonic 10- to 15-passenger executive jets, he said. Boeing had been trying to develop a Mach 0.95 jet called the Sonic Cruiser, but shelved it last December, announcing it would instead focus on building extremely cost-efficient jets.

While the climate isn’t conducive to building an SST (perhaps never had been), it’s worth considering some things that don’t show up on a balance sheet. Hansman says, and Walpole concurs, that the European aerospace community talks about Concorde in the same reverential tones that their American colleagues use for the Apollo program. The consortium that built the Concorde eventually morphed into Airbus, which is now Boeing’s major global competitor.

“Sad. Upset. Disillusioned. Distressed,” are the words Walpole uses to describe his reaction to the disappearance of Concorde from the skies. For Pevsner, it means he’ll fly less: “The thrill is gone.” The two are obviously not accountants.

Concorde Timeline

  • 1945: Swept wing is developed to overcome “shock wave” effects.
  • 1947: Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in the experimental Bell X-1.
  • 1953: A. Scott Crossfield becomes the first to go Mach 2.
  • 1955: British work begins on design of an SST.
  • 1962: Britain, France sign deal to develop the Concorde.
  • 1967: First Concorde prototype 001 unveiled in Toulouse.
  • 1969: First Concorde test flight within France; first supersonic flight later that year.
  • 1971: First Concorde transatlantic flight; U.S. announces it will stop efforts to develop an SST.
  • 1976: First Concorde regular routes begin: London-Bahrain for BAC, Paris to Rio de Janiero for Air France.
  • 1977: London-NY Concorde service begins after a noise-related ban on the plane is overturned.
  • 1979:A record is set for the NY-London run by a Concorde; the trip is made in under 3 hours.
  • 1981: Concordes burst tires on four separate occasions in the U.S. The US National Transportation Safety Board warns the aircraft’s landing gear should not be retracted if the tire has blown.
  • 2000: Air France Concorde crashes after take-off, killing a total of 113, the first such crash in the plane’s history; Preliminary report indicates a tire burst, damaging fuel tanks under the wing; Second report says the tire burst was caused by running over a strip of titanium that fell from a DC-10’s engine.
  • 2001: Air France and British Airways resume trans-Atlantic flights after a 15-month repair and modification program on their Concorde fleets.
  • 2002: Air France procedures come under criticism in final report on Concorde crash.
  • 2003: Air France and British Airways jointly announce that the Concorde will be retired from service by the fall; Air France’s last flight flies May 31 and British Airways’ last was on Oct. 24.

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