This plane broke grounds with its technology, speed and looks. But it was a financial failure. What seemed to be the future of aviation instead became a luxury item for a select few. And though it was very safe for most of its history, one crash sealed an already bleak fate, as to how we fly changed. So, what happened to the Concorde? Let's find out.
After World War II, the world grew obsessed with flying supersonic. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 and, by 1953, experimental planes reached Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. So, for countries like the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, it seemed only natural to build a supersonic transport or SST for short. In fact, the UK started talks of an SST as far back as 1954.
By 1959, the Government had requested two companies, Bristol and Hawker Siddeley, to come up with designs for a plane that could carry 150 passengers across the Atlantic at Mach 2. No small task. Bristol won with its design, the 223: a delta-wing aircraft, carrying about 100 passengers and capable of speeds up to Mach 2.2. In theory, it could go faster, but at the time, the aluminum alloys available would soften at higher speeds. Not something you want when you’re flying at 1500 mph.
Meanwhile, the French were also coming up with ideas of their own but in another direction. France believed that a large, transatlantic SST was already in the minds of the British and the U.S., so they opted for a smaller, midrange SST to avoid competition. The winning design came from the now-defunct company Sud-Aviation and its Super-Caravelle.
But the French had no engines powerful enough to go supersonic. The British needed someone to split the bill with. And It would be a hefty bill. So, in 1960, the French technical director Pierre Sartre met with Bristol executives to talk about their respective ideas. The Super Caravelle and the Bristol 223 were both beautiful. But this wasn’t the only coincidence. When they met, the British were shocked to see that both designs were almost identical. Well, it turns out that Geoffrey Rippon, who worked at the Ministry of Aviation and was avidly in favor of European integration, just handed classified documents to the French.
Strangely enough, this turned out great! Both sides had come up with basically the same plane, which meant there was very little in the way of creative differences. But there still were some. The French insisted on the smaller, mid-range plane, while the British still wanted to cross the Atlantic, with at least 150 passengers. At least, both agreed on the speed: Mach 2.0.
Even if talks with the French moved forward, the British had shaken up their aviation industry. A major merger, including Bristol, created the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) in 1959, and BAC insisted on looking for other allies in the quest for an SST, like the U.S. But Boeing and Lockheed rejected the idea. The Americans opted to work on their own, rather than sharing knowledge with BAC. France was still the best bet. So, in 1962, both sides signed an initial agreement that would handcuff them until the project’s completion. Clauses within it made any cancellation far more expensive than finishing the plane. The name: Concorde.
Urban legend has it, as there’s very little evidence, that a BAC executive was having lunch with his family and someone, reading a thesaurus, suggested the word concord. All we know is that BAC proposed the name to the French, and they approved it. Well, not quite. The French word Concorde and the English word concord both mean agreement, harmony, or union. Ironically, neither side could agree, and a question came up: with or without an E?
The initial suggestion was Concorde (with an E) but Prime Minister Harold McMillan immediately changed it to Concord (without an E). But then, at the first roll-out in France in 1967, Minister of Technology Tony Benn went back to Concorde (with an E). And this really pissed the British. So, to douse the anger, Benn justified the E as standing for Excellence, England, Europe, and the Entente Agreements between both nations in 1904.
From the start, Concorde was a tough build. First, the engines. The initial idea was to use the Bristol Siddeley 22R engine, but it could only fly at Mach 2.2 for 45 minutes, which wasn’t enough. It took them up to 1968 to get to the final engine design, the Olympus 593 afterburning turbojet. With an extremely high thermal efficiency during supersonic flight, the 593 was powerful. But very, very thirsty.
Then came the fuel tanks. As a plane transitions from subsonic to supersonic flight, its stability and aerodynamics can change, and fuel plays a critical role in balancing the aircraft. Concorde had 17 tanks, including two trim tanks to balance the aircraft during transonic flight. So, engineers had to come with an entirely new system that would transfer fuel constantly from one tank to the other to help balance the plane. In the 60s. With pen and paper.
The heat was also an issue. As an aircraft flies faster, the air compresses and creates drag over the entire surface. This heats up and expands the aircraft, so much so, that gaps formed all around the cabin and cockpit. There’s even a picture of a flight engineer’s cap stuck once the aircraft shrunk back to its original form. To work around this heating, engineers had to design cooling mechanisms such as heat sinks and heat-reflecting visors in the cockpit. By the way, visibility was minimal, so they had to adapt a drooping nose to allow pilots to see when they took off and landed. It’s kind of important that pilots are able to see. All this meant one thing: costs skyrocketed from 70M pounds at the time to 1.3 BN pounds. But, hey, it crossed the Atlantic in three and a half hours!
Though Concorde was revealed to the public in 1967, it didn’t fly until March 1969 and didn’t go supersonic until October of that year. And for France and the UK, the pressure was on. Boeing had conjured an all-out SST, the 2707. Mach 3, 200 passengers. A promising sale, so much so, that 26 airlines had reserved deliveries for it. But, fortunately for Concorde, cost overrun, environmental concerns, and political pressure meant that the 2707 never took off.
Then, there was the Soviet Union. In 1968, six months before Concorde’s first flight, they flew their version of an SST, the Tupolev Tu-144, and shocked the world. I mean, it looks identical. What the hell? Everyone was just copying each other back then. It was so similar, the press dubbed it the Concordski. And yes, the Soviets were first. It even flew supersonic first. But again, fortunately for Concorde, the Tu-144 was a complete failure. And we’ll get to this later.
For now, back to Concorde. The first two units, F-001 and F-002, appeared in the 1969 Paris Air Show. They were to become selling points because both countries needed buyers fast. So, in 1971, F-001 embarked on a sales tour across the Atlantic, marking the first-ever SST flight across the Atlantic. One year later, F-002 took to the East. And initial interest was very high, as Boeing’s 2707 was canceled, but short-lived.
A total of 18 airlines, at some point, placed orders for Concorde. American Airlines did so as far back as 1964 and the potential buyers spanned the globe: Iran Air, Qantas, Japan Airlines, and Air Canada, just to name a few. But the early seventies weren’t kind to Concorde. The spike in development costs caused prices to go from $20 million per unit to $40 million or even $60 million per unit.
Then came the 1973 Paris Air Show. Both Concorde and the Tu-144 were on hand, showing off their prowess, but the Russian airplane plummeted to the ground and crashed. Why it happened still debated today. But this made potential buyers of an SST skeptical. It didn’t stop there. The Oil Crisis spiked fuel prices in the middle of Concorde’s promotion and, as you might remember, the 593 engines drank fuel like crazy. These engines were good at very high speeds, but at low speeds and during taxiing, they were ridiculously inefficient.
I want to set just one example. Jim O’Sullivan, the former chief engineer at British Airways, explained that a Boeing 737 could burn two tons of fuel from London to Amsterdam. Concorde burned those same two tons while taxiing from the gate to the takeoff point. Think about that. Two tons. Just taxiing. Plus, it flew at 60 000 ft., higher than any other commercial plane, which meant possible irreversible damage to the ozone layer. No wonder environmental protection groups protested Concorde’s existence. And most airlines took notice, mainly because there were other options. It only carried 100 passengers but burned the same amount of fuel a 747 used in a flight twice as far with three or four times the passengers. And, unlike the 747, Concorde couldn’t fly anywhere.
When an aircraft flies faster than the speed of sound, it generates shockwaves that release a lot of energy in the form of noises similar to explosions. These are called sonic booms and can be heard for miles. Concorde was no exception. Noisy takeoffs and deafening fly-bys immediately raised red flags and many countries forbid the plane from flying above them altogether. In fact, the United States had initially prohibited the aircraft from landing in the U.S., so the coveted North Atlantic route seemed useless.
Eventually, the U.S. did grant permission, but it couldn’t fly supersonic over land. So, in flights such as Paris to Mexico via Washington D.C., Concorde had to fly subsonic from Washington to the Gulf of Mexico. Only then could it go back to supersonic. BAC and Aerospatiale, the company that merged with Sud Aviation, were faced with a hard sale: too thirsty, too few passengers, limited range and it couldn’t fly supersonic over land. By 1973, 12 airlines had canceled their orders, and others would follow.
Still, both France and the UK needed to push the plane into operation. British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), later British Airways, and Air France both ordered 6. With 2 more units added later. These 14 units would be the only commercially operational Concordes. After its first commercial flight, on January 21, 1976, some alliances did appear, with Singapore Airlines and Braniff, for example. But paltry ticket sales and land restrictions eventually made them useless.
Other interesting routes included London-Bahrain, London-Barbados, Paris-Caracas, and Paris-Rio de Janeiro. But it was just too expensive; tickets doubled the most expensive first-class tickets in subsonic alternatives. By 1982, Air France had canceled all flights except New York-Paris; British Airways held on for a bit longer, but by 1994, it too canceled all its routes except New York-London. All wasn’t lost, though. Charter flights operated regularly, and one particular group loved Concorde: the rich and the famous.
Champagne, caviar, and crossing the Atlantic in just three and a half hours lured Sting, Elton John, Cindy Crawford, and plenty of other rich and famous individuals. It was usual to see businessmen travel from NYC to London and back in one day. This gave Concorde some life and, from 1976 until its retirement in 2003, the Concorde flew 2.5 million passengers in 50 thousand flights. It brought some of the luxuries of flying and national pride to two nations. But its high operating costs gradually rendered it impractical. And it wasn’t invincible.
In July 2000, Air France flight 4590 crashed just after takeoff, killing 113 people. A metal strip from a previous airplane punctured the left main wheel and when it burst, it sent fragments into the fuel tank. The fuel ignited, the plane was inoperable and crashed two minutes after takeoff. The remaining operational Concordes were grounded until reinforcements to their structures were made, with lasted one year and cost British Airways and Air France $150 million.
It flew again, coincidentally, on 9-11, and landed just before the attacks. It carried 100 British Airways employees as a symbol of its return. Then it flew commercially in November 2001. But aviation had changed, and the first-class market collapsed. Cost-cutting and safety restrictions meant airlines now looked to save even more money, something Concorde wasn’t good at. The crash only damaged an already weakened reputation. And, just two years after its return to service, both Air France and British Airways retired Concorde, and with, traveling supersonic
Excluding the tragedy in 2000, it was a very safe aircraft, having no other accident involving human life. Plus, Concorde was designed and built before the advent of mainstream computer use in aircraft design. So, why hasn’t there been another supersonic transport?
Well, it’s not easy. A profitable SST needs to have the technology to lessen sonic boom, fly at Mach 2, carry plenty of passengers and have enough range to fulfill multiple routes. But, if engineers came up with Concorde decades ago, then certainly they can do it in the near future. So, if you want your own SST, just copy someone else’s idea. That’s what everybody did back then, and it seemed to work.