From January 21, 1976 to October 24, 2003, we had a commercial supersonic passenger plane called Concorde. Today it takes 7 hours to fly from New York to London. On the Concorde, it took
about 3:30 (just under 3 hours if it was record time). A journey, that would have taken the Titanic
137 hours, had become just barely long enough to watch Titanic while crossing the Atlantic. The Concorde came to represent class, style, and the miracle of engineering. We had commercial supersonic flight and in 2003, we just let it go. Why did the Concorde become a museum exhibit? The curator who flew on the Smithsonian’s Concorde said, “I did see the color of the sky at 60,000 feet. It’s this most gorgeous deep, deep purple.” How did a breakthrough become a piece of memorabilia? The answer says something about how innovation really sticks.
And it’s complicated. “I’ve got a personal interest in the SST, and I’d like to tell you about it.” SST equals Supersonic transport, any transportation that’s faster than the speed of sound. It became a dream after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. And a technological race, in the 1950s and 1960s, combined Cold War competition with a classic mid-century faith in engineering. Americans, Russians, the British and French governments dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into supersonic R&D. The then Seattle-based Boeing won the American design contract in 1967. But development stopped after a 1971 funding cut. Russia’s effort, the Tupolev Tu-144, flew, but it was grounded after an extraordinarily spotty record of over just 55 flights.
But there was a winner, Concorde. From the beginning, Concorde was a marvel of design. It wasn’t designed with computers, but, through math and trial and error. They had to innovate constantly to make a supersonic passenger plane possible. The airplane needed to be very long and narrow to go supersonically comfortably. The paint was twice as reflective as other jets just to compensate for the heat from air friction. Because you’re traveling at Mach II, twice the speed of sound, even though you’re at 60,000 feet, the airframe would actually heat up, dramatically. Fuel flowed around the plane, during flight, to adjust its center of gravity for takeoff, cruising, and landing. But it was the beautiful wing that distinguished the Concorde for its greatest fans. It’s a Delta Wing, but it’s called
an ogival delta wing because of its unique shape.
Delta, because it was triangular, like the Greek Delta; ogival to reference its curve. The Delta Wing helped the Concorde get lift at takeoff and limit drag while in flight. The rest of the plane compensated. The one compromise in it, it required a very high angle of attack at takeoff and landing. Since pilots couldn’t see out of the plane because of angled landing, engineers put together a solution. The Concorde featured a droop snoot. The snoot drooped. The reason being that it was a Delta wing design and had a very high angle of attack on landing. So, in order to see, they were able to lower the nose. It flew at Mach 2, more than 1300 miles per hour, faster than the earth spins. You couldn’t tell, the only way you knew your were doing Mach Two was that they had a Mach meter up on the bulkhead. Everybody was focused on that, because it would creep up.
As soon as it went to Mach One, everyone would break out into applause. To minimize drag, it soared so high you could see the Earth’s curve. The Concorde defined the glamor of high speed flight. It’s always exciting flying Supersonic and it’s always exciting to get to New York before you’ve left. It was a stratospheric cocktail party. Normally, people complain about how bad the airline food is. But, in this case, that was not true. It was one of the best meals served. It worked beautifully.So, what went wrong? On July 25, 2000, the Concorde punctured a tire during takeoff for Air France Flight 4590. 113 people died. Though failure happened shortly after takeoff, it was due to a problem specific to Concorde tires. The plane was grounded, until November of 2001. By that time, the September 11th attacks had already depressed the industry.
But, while both tragedies did affect Concorde, they’re only a couple of pieces of the fundamental challenges for the plane. Noise levels on takeoff were high. However, massive sonic booms had no comparison. In the 60s, the Air Force a ran a test of sonic booms over Oklahoma City, and residents reported hundreds of damaged windows and noise disturbances. All that meant limiting supersonic flight to above the ocean, there would be no New York to LA Concorde. That’s part of what quashed the American supersonic experiment with Boeing, and it limited demand for supersonic planes from
the beginning. Noise concerns were paired with environmental concerns. There would be severe environmental damage to the ozone layer. The plane’s high flight pattern made scientists think its exhaust gas could be more threatening to the ozone than normal jets. What was noticeable was that you kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing.
They were flying much higher than a normal airliner. A massive fleet of supersonic planes probably would have caused real damage, setting red flags for a supersonic future. Fuel requirements also limited range to Transatlantic journeys, without any Transpacific cash cows. It guzzled enough fuel that price fluctuations could hit particularly hard. With ticket prices as high as $12,000 a seat, that was a significant risk. And, tickets had to be expensive, since at most only 120 passengers could fit on the plane. It couldn’t distribute the price tag. That was compounded by the need for specially qualified crew members and maintenance that came at a premium. And it was all for a very demanding crowd. Air France and British Airways had to position a spare Concorde in New York in case the flight had any problems. So, there are airplanes sitting on the ground, not making any money, just in case. Because, Concorde passengers expect to walk onto a Concorde because they paid a lot of money to it.
None of these factors stopped the Concorde, but they all boxed it in until it had nowhere to go but down. When Air France and British Airways announced the Concorde’s closing on April 10, 2003, it wasn’t about past, but the future. The manufacturer, Airbus, decided supporting the Concorde was impossible. An aging Concorde, it still had analog controls and a flight engineer, both of which newer planes had lost, would cost too much to upgrade or redo. All the factors that boxed in Concorde, kept its scale so small, it would be wildly unprofitable to service, rebuild, or revive. The best option was to land for good. We like to think breakthroughs only end because of disaster, with a crash. But they can fall short without disaster, despite a breathtaking wing or a jaw-dropping droop snoot. They have to come with a business model and supply system, a political resolve, and a plan to expand. Even as future dreams for Supersonic transport still simmer, all those business model questions remain unanswered. They don’t exist unless they make money, some people don’t like that idea, but it’s
a fact of life. They’re there to make money. If they’re making a product that doesn’t make money, they’ll stop making it or go out of business. Or both. You never know. So, the flight time to London can return to a double feature slog. But we lose something with the drudgery. Progress slows.
We have to wait for something else to look up at. Something worth pointing at. So, I have fallen completely in love with the Concorde, but it was not that comfortable of a ride. What are your opinions? Comment to let us know.