In 2003, three years after the crash of Air France Flight 4590, one of the greatest aircraft ever designed and built touched down for the last time. After 27 years of service, the world's most famous aircraft, the Concorde, was retired. Air France was the first to ground their Concorde followed quickly by British Airways, putting an end to supersonic passenger flight, at least for the time being.
To some, it was a graceful and beautiful aircraft, to others, it was noisy, polluting chunk of aluminum. The real question, though, is whether it was a great plane and whether it was grounded by politics and fears over its safety or because it was an expensive luxury for the super-rich?
Concorde: A great airplane
Technically speaking, there can be no doubt that the Concorde was a revolutionary aircraft.
As a joint program between the United Kingdom and France, it 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 allowed the plane to slow the air flowing into its engines down to 1,000 mph in as little space as 4.5 meters. The designers weren't just showing off as this prevented the engines from exploding.
The Concorde aircraft featured carbon-fiber brakes and fly-by-wire controls. This might not sound impressive as they are the norm today, but during the 1960s this was a technological marvel and decades ahead of Airbus who made this technology mainstream.
Concorde aircraft's signature feature, apart from the wings, is probably its long, drooping nose. This innovation allowed the aircraft to be streamlined during flight but could be dropped lower to give the pilot a good field of vision during takeoff and landing. This interesting design feature made the Concorde airplane and its company instantly popular among media and passengers.
With all these improvements you were able to fly long distances in half the usual time. Soon enough, passengers started to visit New York and other places across the Atlantic ocean in larger numbers, traveling at the twice the speed of sound (2.04 Mach).
Selected events in Concorde's history
Concorde's history begins in 1962 when France's Geoffroy de Courcel and UK's Julian Amery signed the Anglo-French supersonic airliner treaty. Seven years later Brian Trubshaw made his first flight in the British-built prototype. The same year the Concorde’s first supersonic flight takes place 1st October 1969.
The Concorde’s first commercial flights take place on the 21st January 1976, when the British Airways Concorde flew from London to Bahrain and Air France’s Concorde flew from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. Between 1976 and 2000, the Concorde continued to service the wealthy traveler and the aircraft fanatic alike, until a tragic crash in Paris in 2000 kills 113 people.
The Concorde returned to active service in November of 2001, after £71 million was spent on safety improvements, but just two years later, in 2003, British Airways and Air France announced that they were retiring the Concorde. The final flight of the Concorde occured in October of 2003.
Why was Concorde retired?
Despite its innovations, the Concorde wasn’t a monument to efficiency. The Concorde was designed well before the oil-price shock of the 1970's, so even though it was a masterpiece in engineering, it was effectively a fuel to speed converter. Its high energy consumption simply made it unprofitable in an era of high fuel prices.
The Concorde put prestige over efficiency, a principle that was possible in an era when passengers 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.
The 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, while the 747 could fly twice as far and had four times the passenger capacity. The Concorde was also incredibly noisy.
You may think that the crash in 2000 was reason for the Concorde’s retirement, but in reality, Air France and British Airways were already planning to phase it out of service.
Loved By Many
For some though, the grounding of the Concorde was a tragedy. Ben Lord of the Save Concorde Group said, "it was probably more advanced than Apollo 11, which put the first men on the Moon."
The longest-serving Concorde pilot Jock Lowe, also the former president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, said "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."
Lowe recalled a time when air traffic controllers instructed the pilots of an SR71 Blackbird, a high altitude spy plane, to get out of the way because a Concorde was coming through for a landing. The two spacesuit-clad pilots were made to give way to a passenger jet full of celebrities and champagne-sipping businessmen. Such was the esteem given to the Concorde, a plane who had fewer pilots than the United States has had astronauts.
The inefficiency of the Concorde was ultimately responsible for its grounding, though the shaken consumer confidence after the Paris crash in 2000 didn’t help. This doesn’t change the fact that the Concorde was a fantastic feat of engineering, designed in and built for a less cost-conscious era. Its focus on speed, glamour, and luxury was both its great strength but also its downfall. Will it ever fly again or will it remain an exhibit in an airport museum? Only time will tell.
Written by Christopher McFadden