It is the year 2003 and one of the greatest aircraft ever designed and built touches down for the last time. After 27 years of service, the world’s most famous plane, Concorde, was retired. Air France was the first to let this graceful jet go swiftly followed by British Airways. This signaled the end of supersonic passenger flight, at least for the meantime.
To some a graceful and beautiful aircraft, to other a noisy, polluting chunk of aluminum. The real question is was it a great plane grounded through politics and fears of safety or was it just an expensive luxury for the super-rich? Let’s have a quick look.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Concorde: A great plane
I loved this plane as a child. Many hours were spent building and lovingly, if not poorly, painting Airfix models and admiring the lines. Sadly, I never got the opportunity to fly in one but have fond memories of seeing them at air shows. Technically speaking there can be no doubt it was revolutionary.
She was well ahead of its time in many ways. It was the first aircraft to have computer-controlled engine air intakes. A very significant leap in aviation at the time. This innovation allowed the plane to slow the air down to 1,000 mph in as little a space as 4.5 meters. The designers weren’t just showing off, this prevented the engines from exploding.
This great plane actually had carbon-fibre brakes. She also had fly-by-wire controls. This might not sound impressive today as they are the norm today. During the 1960’s this was a technological marvel. The use of this technology was decades ahead of Airbus who made this technology mainstream.
Concorde’s signature nose
Concorde’s signature feature, apart from the wings, is probably its drooping nose. This innovation meant the aircraft was streamlined in flight but it could be dropped to allow the pilot a good field of vision during take-off and landing.
It’s an interesting fact that there are more US astronauts than Concorde pilots, quite a legacy.
Selected events in Concorde’s history
Concorde’s history begins in 1962 when France’s Geoffroy de Courcel and UK’s Julian Amery sign the Anglo-French supersonic airliner treaty. Seven years later Brian Trubshaw makes his first flight in the British-built prototype. The same year the first supersonic flight of Concorde gets completed on the 1st October 1969.
Its first commercial flights take place on the 21st January 1976. British Airways flies from London to Bahrain and Air France flies theirs from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. Between 1976 and 2000 Concorde entertains the super-rich and aircraft fanatic alike. The tragic crash of Concorde in Paris, that kills 113 people occurs in 2000.
Concorde returns to service in November of 2001 after £71 million spent on safety improvements. In 2003, British Airways and Air France announce that they will be retiring the mighty Concorde. This wonder of engineering is grounded for perpetuity in October of 2003.
Why did Concorde fail
Despite its innovations in engineering Concorde can be thought of as a monument to efficiency. Concorde’s conception occurred well before the oil-price shock of the 1970’s. Although it was a masterpiece in engineering and, dare we say, beauty, it was effectively a fuel to speed converter.
This beautiful plane put prestige over efficiency, a principle that was sound in a time when nations were willing to pay for it. From a modern day business point of view, the whole project should probably have been grounded well before the 1980s. Its profitability simply doesn’t add up for airlines.
Concorde could barely fly from the UK to US East Coast, indeed it lacked the range to make it the US West Coast. The aircraft had a total passenger capacity of 100 but consumed the same amount of fuel as a Boeing 747! The 747 could fly twice as far and 4 times the passenger capacity. Concorde was also incredibly noisy.
You may think that the tragic crash in Paris in 2000 was the death knell of this plane, but in reality, this didn’t trigger a paradigm shift in Concorde’s illustrious history. Air France and British Airways were already planning to phase her out of service. This simply sped up her inevitable demise. Whether for good or ill only history can judge.
Loved by many
Some fans believe its grounding was just politics but their love for the plane is unquestionable. Ben Lord of Save Concorde Group states:- “It was probably more advanced than Apollo 11, which put the first men on the Moon.”
The longest serving Concorde pilot Jock Lowe is also the former president of the Royal Aeronautical Society. Jock loved Concorde, “No military plane came anywhere close. It was so maneuverable and there was so much spare power, even ex-fighter pilots weren’t used to it.”
“The time we took it to the Toronto International Airshow, 750,000 people turned out to watch. I’ll never forget that sight.” Jock remembers with barely contained pride. Jock also recalls a time when he chatted to some SR71 Blackbird pilots. The SR71 was another fantastic plane that flew way beyond the reach of other planes. Its modus operandi was faster and higher than anything in the sky, subsequently hidden away, serving as a spy plane.
Jock was amused to hear that one-day air traffic control told the pilots to get out of the way because a Concorde was coming through. They were lost for words. You can imagine the scene, two pilots wearing spacesuits making way for a passenger jet full of celebrities and businessmen sipping champagne. Quite a contrast.
Whether you loved Concorde or hated it, actually did anyone hate this plane? Anyway, its inefficiency certainly contributed to its inevitable grounding. The safety concerns after the crash in 2000 certainly shook consumer confidence but it seems she would have been grounded sooner rather than later anyway.
Concorde was a fantastic feat of engineering, designed an built in a less cost conscious time. Its focus on speed, glamour and luxury was both its great strength in its day but also its fatal flaw. Will it ever fly again? Time will indeed tell.