The Majesty of Concorde — an Introduction to the World’s Fastest Airliner
“We’re going to take you to the edge of space, where the sky gets darker, where you can see the curvature of the Earth, we’re going to travel across the Atlantic twice the speed of sound, faster than a rifle bullet, 23 miles every minute, we’re going to travel so fast we’re moving faster than the Earth rotates and the world will be watching us.”
-Mike Bannister, Chief Concorde Pilot at British Airways
Concorde is perhaps one of the most universally recognised aircraft – Its appearance, sound, and speed are unlike anything in history.
Undoubtedly the most magical part of Concorde, however, was the elegance with which it was able to break the sound barrier – one could travel at 1300 miles per hour, feeling nothing more than a small vibration, whilst sipping champagne and indulging in a 5 star meal service. The aircraft was simply unlike anything which preceded it.
Development and Design
The Concorde gained its name from the French word ‘concord’, meaning agreement – a fitting name for an aircraft born of an Anglo-French partnership.
The concept of a supersonic transport (SST) first arose in the early 1950’s – the Royal Aircraft Establishment commissioned a study into supersonic aerodynamics, particularly surrounding wing design which at the time was limited to a traditional trapezoid shape. The properties of such a wing, however, meant that any SST which incorporated it would have to be impractically large, due to it producing extremely low lift at low speeds, and was therefore unviable.
A solution to this problem was the triangular delta wing which produced extremely high amounts of lift at low speeds due to it’s exploitation of vortex lift – essentially huge vortexes of low pressure which occurred above the wing at low speed and high angle of attack – this property allowed the Concorde to fly easily at low speed, whilst still retaining an optimum, narrow wing for supersonic flight.
Initially, many different types of Delta wing design’s were considered and tested, but designers settled on an ogival delta, a type with long, sweeping curves when viewed from above, it should also be noticed how the wing bends and twists along its length. These features all contribute to the instant recognisability of Concorde, both in flight and on the ground.
There were many other notable features of the Concorde, too many to cover in this story, each of which was engineered specifically to solve particular challenges. For instance, air breathing jet engines can only operate if the air they receive is subsonic. Of course, Concorde does not receive subsonic air – so, somehow, the air must be slowed down. This was done through ramps, in front of the engines, which could be varied in angle – causing the air to slow down as it bounces around within them.
There is also the iconic ‘droop snoot’ nose which could be lowered to a maximum angle of 12.5 degrees when landing in order for the pilots to see the runway. This was required as Concorde approached the runway at a high angle of attack, meaning that the long nose would obstruct vision if not moved out of the way.
Customers & Cancellations
16 Airlines initially expressed interest in purchasing the Concorde, including America’s largest airline at the time, Pan Am, which ordered six aircraft in 1963, only to cancel their order ten years later. All other Airlines who ordered the Concorde also later came to cancel. This left BOAC (British Airways) and Air France as the sole operators.
There were many reasons that Airlines backed out of their orders – the crash of one of the Soviet Union’s supersonic aircraft, worries about environmental and noise pollution and cost of purchasing and operating the craft, just to name a few.
The Concorde faced many technical problems within its life, but perhaps the most overriding problems with the aircraft were economic and social – after all, a technical problem can be solved with clever design, economics is much harder to crack.
Concorde, being a supersonic aircraft, produces a sonic boom when travelling above the speed of sound. These booms are incredibly loud, and even pose a threat to property on the ground such as windows or other glass products. Interestingly, the aircraft was prohibited from overflying the Middle East for fears that the booms would disrupt the breeding of camels.
What resulted from this was a ban on overland commercial supersonic flight in the US and around the world – Concorde was limited almost exclusively to trans-oceanic routes such as the Atlantic crossing if it wanted to stand any chance of remaining profitable.
The four Rolls Royce SNECMA turbojets also burned terribly high amounts of fuel, both in cruise, and even more so when the afterburner was engaged during takeoff and supersonic acceleration. During the acceleration period, which typically lasted 15 minutes, 28,800 litres of fuel was burned, or 115,200 litres per hour, and during the cruise period, 25,265 litres per hour was burned. Now, in comparison to a Boeing 747–800 (admittedly a much more modern plane) which burns 10,000 litres per hour in cruise, the sheer amount of Jet Fuel which Concorde consumed becomes apparent, she was most certainly not an environmentally friendly form of transport, and the huge volume of fuel required was a large contributor to the high price of a ticket. And thus, the inability of the average person to fly supersonic.
The Passenger’s Experience
The cabin itself is somewhat reminiscent of the modern budget airline – a single class, small, unadorned, narrow seats, and limited legroom. Despite this, complaints and dissatisfaction were not common aboard Concorde. Passengers paid for the Speed of the Aircraft, not its luxury. After all, comfort is not a concern on a 3 hour flight. What was required was impeccable service, and on this, Concorde definitely delivered. Everything from exclusive airport lounges, Five star meals in the air, to visiting the flight deck in flight and talking to the crew.
This all added to the allure of Concorde – before its introduction, and indeed in the modern day, the only way to travel at Mach 2 is whilst strapped into a hard ejector seat, wearing a g-suit and helmet, and breathing oxygen through a mask. During its service, one could travel at Mach 2 in a business suit, whilst enjoying fine dining and reading the morning paper: it was truly the most glamorous way to travel.
And this Glamour meant that the aircraft appealed to the Rich and Famous. From Elton John, to Mick Jagger, to The Queen, it was the first choice when travelling. In fact, the Queen Mother was even reported to have taken the controls once during a test flight. When reviewing the passenger list for their flight, a Captain would be almost certain to see some recognisable names.
In fact, sometimes, whole aircraft would be chartered by the rich and famous. These charter flights allowed the Concorde to embark on some unusual and commercially unviable journeys such as a 1992 Air France charter flight lasting 32 hours, 49 minutes and 3 seconds. It set off from Lisbon, Portugal with refueling at Santo Domingo, Acapulco, Honolulu, Guam, Bangkok and Bahrain on its return to Lisbon. The sun didn’t set for the entire trip – the Concorde beat the sun.
This was because when travelling East to West, Concorde was able to outrun the darkness. The Earth rotates at approximately 1000 mph, whilst the Aircraft flies at 1350 mph. New York is 4 hours behind the UK, so, with a Concorde flight taking 3 hours, going faster than the Earth rotates, a flight would arrive, depending on delays, up to an hour before it left, essentially buying the passengers extra time in their day – the ideal businessperson’s transport.
Concorde served with distinction between 1976 and 2003 during which time it carried hundreds of thousands of passengers beyond the speed of sound. So, what caused it to stop flying?
It is a common misconception that the 2000 crash of Air France flight 4590, which killed 113 people, was the sole cause of the Aircraft’s retirement, and the Concorde was unsafe, however, this simply isn’t the case, as it actually had up until that point a perfect safety record – meaning it was one of the safest aircraft of its time. Even the crash of 4590 was the result of an error of the Captain, not mechanical fault.
The aircraft was retired due to a whole host of factors. The crash, while not directly responsible, contributed to a huge decrease in passenger numbers as faith in her safety declined. This safety concern was only magnified after 9/11 which hit the whole of the aviation industry particularly hard.
Also, by the turn of the Millennium, new avionics technology meant that the Concorde’s analogue cockpit, and designated Flight Engineer were a relic of the past in an aircraft too old to warrant an update. Add to that the rising price of Jet Fuel, and Airbus withdrawing their provision of spare parts and maintenance support, and the plane was destined to be retired.
And so, the decision was made that in late 2003, both British Airways and Air France would retire their fleets. Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic attempted to purchase the Aircraft for £5,000,000 each, hoping to operate them for several more years, but he was sadly unsuccessful.
On the 24 October 2003, Concorde flew for the last time.
Concorde was an unconventional, and revolutionary machine in so many ways such that this article only scratches the surface of its history and design. It was and still is the pinnacle of commercial aviation – a product of a period in time in which we weren’t afraid to push the boundaries of technology and make the world a smaller place. I believe that breathtaking is only way to describe Concorde.
As I mentioned above, this article truly does only scratch the surface of the Concorde – if you were intrigued or interested by this, I will be publishing some more specific and detailed articles about Concorde and aviation very soon, so please look out for those. Thankyou.