Supersonic - Concorde

The Supersonic Era

Tim Takeoff
1 picture
6 minutes

Asking most small boys which plane they would one day most like to fly in used to result in the same, rapid-fire answer: Concorde!

Style, elegance, power, exclusivity … just a fraction of the words we subconsciously associate with the Concorde name. Only the very few could afford the privilege of hopping “across the pond” in just three hours. Even fewer, however, can imagine what an incredible achievement it was to get the Concorde off the ground at the time.

After a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, the race for the first supersonic civilian plane resulted in Concorde taking off on 2nd March 1969. It’s almost inconceivable that this milestone of aviation was designed entirely from scratch on paper, using manual calculations and genuine engineering skills. But it flew – and more than reliably – for over 34 years!

The rocky road to supersonic speed

Due to the tragic accident in which a chain of miscellaneous incidents culminated in Air France’s Concorde AF4590 crashing into the small Parisian suburb of Gonesse on 25 July 2000, the entire program had to be reconsidered. If, however, we take a step back and look at the topic from a somewhat broader perspective, it becomes obvious how unprofitable the Concorde programme must actually have been for both its operators, British Airways and Air France.

Not only was Concorde’s operating radius limited by its short 7,000 km range, but the socially unacceptable “boom” produced when the aircraft entered the supersonic range meant that it could fly only the prestigious transatlantic route. It also had to operate in altitudes which placed absurd demands on its structure. Flying at approximately twice the speed of sound generates external skin temperatures of over 150 degrees Celsius, making falling asleep with your head against the window an ill-advised idea …

The aircraft’s efficiency was naturally very limited, due to the low number of paid seats that fit inside the small cabin. The result, tickets that could cost upwards of € 10,000, underlines this in no uncertain terms. Comfort, however, could not be expected, with passengers crowded closely together on their short trip to New York City. Where else, though, would you get the opportunity to cosy up to famous artists and other VIPs? The sheer exclusivity made up for any inconvenience.

Replacements ready to roll

As experiencing a technical problem shortly before takeoff was simply not an option for such a prestigious flight, a 100-percent-cost-incurring replacement aircraft had to be kept on the ground ready for takeoff at all times. It was a mammoth undertaking.

Today’s “off the peg” commercial aircraft make things tremendously easier, due to the sheer number of mass-produced replacement parts available. Nowadays, most airlines have agreements which allow them to assist one another with technical problems occurring in similar-model planes. Given the low number of flying Concordes, the cost was simply astronomical.

The Concorde also offered hardly any potential for major development. In an era when on-board flight engineers were being eliminated in favour of the “two-man cockpit” and airlines were switching from inertial to satellite-supported GPS navigation, the Concorde’s complexity made it impossible to update without extensive redevelopment.

The Concorde project comes to a close

Woulda, coulda, shoulda …

The fact is that development costs would be considerably lower with today’s know-how, modern computer simulations, materials, and test options. Whether in medicine, research technology or air travel, we are now capable of technological feats that were long considered impossible. Due to the negative experiences with the Concorde programme, however, the obstacles to realizing this type of project are now considerably higher.

Several companies are currently working on drastically reducing (or even eliminating) many of Concorde’s negative economic effects, as well as on preventing the sonic boom occurring over land. Until now, however, no-one has made a breakthrough. Simply developing an aircraft that fulfils most of today’s requirements is, unfortunately, not enough. If we consider the launch of the A380, the challenges facing manufacturers are clear. No airport was equipped to handle the superjumbo, and challenges such as extreme stress on the infrastructure and check-in process, high security restrictions and constraints on general airline operations (including the creation of new wake turbulence categories to prevent smaller planes being affected during takeoff and landing) could only be overcome by a major corporation. Very few manufacturers other than Airbus or Boeing are currently in a position to tackle this kind of project and make it profitable.

Affordable supersonic flights?

Is this type of venture even necessary? Isn‘t it enough that we are already capable of flying nonstop halfway around the world? Is it even reasonable to expect humans to make these kinds of leaps between time zones so often? Concorde catered for an incredibly tiny market. What if supersonic travel surpassed conventional flying and suddenly became affordable?

Perhaps it would be better if people continued to view flying around the world as something special, something that takes time. Unfortunately, we humans have a tendency to take erstwhile experiences for granted. Taking tea in Tokyo and dining with colleagues in LA later the same day, however, is probably not something most people would be interested in doing often.

Given, on the other hand, a sophisticated and economically efficient basis, it would be possible to gain a great deal from such a project. Higher profits for companies, shorter transportation times for goods, maybe even an extra vacation day. There are many things that motivate us to achieve supersonic flight in future – including, perhaps, a certain hankering for the kind of prestige once offered by Concorde.

The fascination supersonic is still alive and several companies are currently working on supersonic planes. Amongst others the NASA ordered a Concorde successor. It remains thrilling…

Cover picture © SFS intec GmbH

by Tim Takeoff

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