The Concorde Timeline
1954: The SST concept is born
In the early 1950s, Arnold Hall, director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) asks Morien Morgan to form a committee to study the supersonic transport (SST) concept.
The group meet for the first time in February 1954 and deliver their first report in April 1955.
1956: Work begins
On 1 October 1956, the Ministry of Supply asks Morgan to form a new study group, the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee (STAC), to develop a practical SST design and find industry partners to build it.
At the first meeting, on 5 November 1956, the decision is made to fund the development of a testbed aircraft to examine the low-speed performance of the slender delta concept (a contract that eventually produces the Handley Page HP.115). This aircraft will go on to demonstrate safe control at speeds as low as 69 mph.
1960: Two almost becomes one
French company Sud Aviation Super-Caravelle and British company Bristol Siddeley come together on the Concorde project. It is later revealed that the original STAC report (marked “For UK Eyes Only”) had secretly been passed to the French to win political favour. The French make minor changes to the paper and present it as their work.
Unsurprisingly, the two teams find much to agree on.
The French have no modern large jet engines and have already concluded they would buy a British design, as they had on the earlier subsonic Caravelle. The teams continue to meet through 1961, by which time it is clear that the two aircraft would be similar, despite having different ranges and seating arrangements. A single design then emerges that differs mainly in fuel load. More powerful Bristol Siddeley Olympus engines also allow either design to be powered by only four engines.
1962: It’s sort of all about Europe
A draft treaty between Great Britain and France is signed on 29 November 1962 to proceed with the project. When the STAC plans are presented to the UK cabinet, a negative reaction ensues. The economic considerations within the proposal are considered highly questionable, especially as these are based on development costs, now estimated to be £150 million, which are considered critically, as such cost proposals tend to over-run in the industry.
After considerable argument, the decision to proceed is ultimately down to unlikely political expediency. At this time, the UK is pressing for admission to the European Common Market, which is being controlled by Charles de Gaulle (who feels the UK’s “Special Relationship” with the US makes the country an unacceptable candidate for Common Market membership).
The UK Cabinet concludes that signing a deal with Sud Aviation Super-Caravelle would pave the way for Common Market entry and this becomes the main deciding factor in moving ahead with the deal.
It is this belief that had originally leads the original STAC documents to be leaked to the French. However, De Gaulle comes to focus on what he sees as the European origin of the design and continues to block the UK’s entry into the Common Market anyway.
1967: Yes, Minister
Reflecting the treaty between the British and French governments that lead to Concorde’s construction, the name “Concorde” is selected for the project, taken from the French word Concorde, which has an English equivalent, (concord). Both words mean agreement, harmony or union.
The name is officially changed to Concord by Harold Macmillan in response to what he sees as a slight by Charles de Gaulle to the UK’s attempt to enter the European Common Market.
At the French roll-out of the project aircraft in Toulouse, in late 1967, the British Government Minister of Technology, Tony Benn, announces that he is to change the spelling back to Concorde.
This creates controversy in Great Britain that dies down when Benn states that the suffixed ‘e’ represents “Excellence, England, Europe and Entente (Cordiale)”.
1969: Concorde takes to the skies
Construction of two Concorde prototypes had begun in February 1965: aircraft 001, built by Aérospatiale at Toulouse, and 002, built by BAC at Filton, Bristol.
Concorde 001 makes its first test flight from Toulouse on 2 March 1969, commanded by André Turcat (this aircraft goes supersonic on 1 October 1969).
The first UK-built Concorde flies from Filton to RAF Fairford on 9 April 1969, piloted by Brian Trubshaw (who also piloted alongside Turcat on the 001 test flight).
Both prototypes are presented to the public for the first time in June 1969, at the Paris Air Show.
1971: Hello, world!
Concorde 001 embarks on a sales and demonstration tour on 4 September 1971, which is also the first transatlantic crossing of Concorde.
Concorde 002 follows suit on 2 June 1972, with a tour of the Middle and Far East.
Concorde 002 makes its first visit to the United States in 1973, landing at the new Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport to mark that airport’s opening.
1976: Passenger flights begin
Scheduled flights begin on 21 January 1976 on the London-Bahrain and Paris-Rio de Janeiro (via Dakar) routes, with British Airways flights using the Speedbird Concorde call sign to notify air traffic control of the aircraft’s unique abilities and restrictions.
Air France uses its normal call signs. Its Paris-Caracas route (via the Azores) begins on 10 April.
The US Congress bans Concorde landings in the US, mainly due to citizen protests over sonic booms, preventing Concorde’s launch on the coveted North Atlantic routes. The US Secretary of Transportation, William Coleman, permits a Concorde service to Washington Dulles International Airport and Air France and British Airways simultaneously begin a thrice-weekly service to Dulles on 24 May 1976.
British Airways Concorde eventually makes just under 50,000 flights and flies more than 2.5 million passengers supersonically. With a take-off speed of 220 knots (250mph) and a cruising speed of 1350mph (more than twice the speed of sound), a typical London to New York crossing takes a little less than three and a half hours, as opposed to approximately eight hours for a subsonic flight.
1981: Concorde, money-loser
By the start of the 1980s, the future for Concorde looks bleak.
Since 1976 the British government (the state owner of British Airways at this point) had lost money operating Concorde year on year, and there was speculation in and out of government that the Concorde service would be cancelled.
At this point, a cost projection suggests greatly reduced metallurgical testing costs because the test rig for the wings had already built up enough data to last for 30 years and this could be shut down. Despite this potential saving, however, the British government is not keen to continue and discussions take place about the future of the Concorde passenger service.
1983: Concorde, money-maker
British Airways managing director, Sir John King, convinces the government to sell Concorde outright to British Airways (still state-owned at this point) for £16.5 million, plus the first year’s profits.
A customer pricing and marketing review follows and ticket prices rise substantially in line with customer expectations. Concorde then moves into healthy operating profit (once development costs are removed from the equation) until the end of the century.
2000: Paris crash
In the only fatal Concorde accident during its 27-year operational history, on 25 July 2000, Air France Flight 4590, an Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde on a charter flight from Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris to John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, crashes outside Paris.
The flight had been chartered by the German company Peter Deilmann Cruises, and the passengers were on their way to board the cruise ship MS Deutschland in New York City, for a 16-day cruise to Manta, Ecuador.
The aircraft runs over debris on the runway during takeoff and blows a tyre, which sends debris flying into the underside of the aircraft’s left wing and landing gear bay.
The fuel tank inside the left wing is unusually full, and the resulting lack of air space in the tank causes a rupture, sending fuel pouring out with great force when debris from the tyre strikes the wing, creating a shock wave that weakens the tank.
Debris, which flies into the landing gear bay, severs power wiring for the landing gear, making it impossible to retract the gear as the aircraft climbs. Sparks produced by this broken wiring ignite fuel from the ruptured fuel tank and the accident also causes a reduction of thrust from Engines 1 and 2.
This lack of thrust, the high drag caused by the inability to retract the landing gear, together with fire damage to the flight controls, make it impossible for the crew to control the aircraft, with the result that it crashes into a hotel near Gonesse two minutes after takeoff, killing all 109 people on board and four people in the hotel (with another person in the hotel critically injured).
2003: Wheels down
On 10 April 2003, Air France and British Airways simultaneously announce they would retire Concorde later that year.
They cite low passenger numbers following the 25 July 2000 crash, the slump in air travel following the September 11 attacks and rising maintenance costs: Airbus (the company that acquired Aerospatiale in 2000) had also made a decision in 2003 to no longer supply replacement parts for the aircraft.
Although Concorde was technologically advanced when introduced in the 1970s, 30 years later its analogue cockpit was outdated. There had been little commercial pressure to upgrade Concorde due to a lack of competing aircraft, unlike other airliners of the same era such as the Boeing 747.
By its retirement, Concorde was the last aircraft in the British Airways fleet that had a flight engineer; other aircraft, such as the modernised 747–400, had eliminated the role.
On 30 May 2003, Air France makes its final commercial Concorde landing in the United States, after a New York City to Paris flight.
Air France’s final Concorde flight takes place on 27 June 2003, when F-BVFC retires to Toulouse.
British Airways retires its Concorde fleet in October 2003.
In a week of farewell flights around the United Kingdom, Concorde visits Birmingham on 20 October, Belfast on 21 October, Manchester on 22 October, Cardiff on 23 October and Edinburgh on 24 October.
On 22 October, Concorde flights BA9021C (a special from Manchester) and BA002 (from New York) land simultaneously on both of Heathrow’s runways.
On 23 October 2003, the Queen consents to the illumination of Windsor Castle, an honour reserved for state events and visiting dignitaries, as Concorde’s last westbound commercial flight departs London.
On 24 October 2003, British Airways conducts a North American farewell tour.
The final flight of a Concorde in the US occurs on 5 November 2003, when G-BOAG flies from New York’s JFK Airport to Seattle’s Boeing Field, to join the Museum of Flight’s permanent collection.
The final flight of a Concorde worldwide takes place on 26 November 2003 when a Concorde lands at Filton, Bristol, UK.