I mentioned Concorde in a post a couple of months ago following my visit to the Museum of Flight in Seattle, but I’ve felt since that it deserves its own separate entry. Starting with my initial remark: this is the future, and it’s in a museum.
This really bothered me the entire time I was there, still does. The Concorde was retired in 2003 after only a brief 27 of years of service, marking the official end of an era of supersonic air travel. Three hours. That’s all it took a fully-loaded Concorde to get from London to New York and virtually any other ocean, while most jetliners struggled (and in 2019, still do) to get across in seven hours. I mean, think about it: modern jetliners have a cruising speed of about 600 miles per hour -Concorde cruised at Mach 2 (1,300-plus miles per hour). Nothing today comes even close.
Why did mankind step backwards and hasn’t bothered to give it another go in the last 20 years? The answer, sadly, lies in the very reason why Concordes are now museum pieces.
Backstory & The Aircraft
Concorde was the child of two rival nations: France and Great Britain, who, in the mid-1960s, were both obsessed with developing supersonic airliners. But instead of going at it alone, they decided to combine forces and make it a reality; thus Aérospatiale (known as Airbus today) and BAC (British Aircraft Corporation) was born.
Its development was beyond revolutionary, and a great example of international cooperation. Engineers settled on a Delta wing design, which had long been panned as unstable for commercial flight, yet extensive tests proved everyone wrong. Questions then remained on the powerplant supposed to push the aircraft to Mach 2. After a long search, everyone settled on the Rolls-Royce Olympus jet engine, plucked straight out of the British Avro Vulcan supersonic fighter jet.
This was an insane idea, considering supersonic aircraft were still in their infancy, and the only ones that utilized such technology were military aircraft. But engineers from both sides pressed on, in what became the Rolls-Royce/SNECMA 593 turbojet, a highly-modified version of the original Vulcan engine. After successful tests, the Concorde became (and was, until 2003) the only commercial aircraft to use turbojet engines with afterburners.
In 1969, both Concordes on each side of the channel successfully stunned the world with its grace, power and otherworldly appearance, supposedly paving the way for a supersonic future. Or so, everyone thought.
I’ll briefly mention Concorde’s Soviet sister, the Tupolev 144, or “Concordsky” as its role in Concorde’s story is equally important. The Tu-144 was the USSR’s response to the world’s thirst for supersonic air travel, and even managed to beat the West’s Concorde to the skies on December 31, 1968 (two months before Concorde) and achieved supersonic speed in June 1969, again beating Concorde, this time by four months.
Mind you, Concorde had the last laugh. While larger and more powerful, the Tu-144 was plagued by mechanical failures (including a fatal accident during the 1973 Paris Air Show) and was extremely noisy, inside and out. Ironically, despite the Tu-144 being faster, Concorde was much better at sipping its fuel, rather than chugging it down like Vodka, hence it could fly longer distances. Consequentially, the Tu-144 mostly flew short-range flights throughout its entire career before being completely retired in 1984, and achieving its final flight in 1999.
Mind you, Concorde’s career didn’t look super great either. Its development was hilariously over budget, bringing costs to more than $1 billion, and the planes didn’t enter service until 1976, which was in the midst of a major oil crisis. It soon became apparent that if Concorde was going to keep flying, it had to attract the elite. And it did. The big names trickled in, one after another: Phil Collins, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor, among countless others.
This is where the whole Concorde story takes a turn though, so let’s backtrack a little bit. In the 50s and 60s, everyone’s infatuated with supersonic travel. Suddenly there’s this race to make it a reality, with every major aircraft manufacturer in the world drawing up designs and proposing ideas. “In a few years, we’ll all be flying supersonic,” the press kept cheering at a (highly optimistic) general public; yet in less the a decade, no one, apart from the very rich, could afford to fly on it. Or operate it. Despite a swath of orders from multiple airlines, only British Airways (and very briefly, Singapore Airlines) and Air France flew Concordes.
Boeing, who was among the top bidders for an American-build and designed supersonic airliner (Boeing 2707) at the time, went the other way. They realized that the future of air travel doesn’t depend on speed, but capacity. So, they ditched the Boeing 2707 and got to work on the 747, a widebody jet capable of carrying 300 or more passengers between vast distances around the globe; not in three or four hours, but seven or more. Thing is, the gamble paid off; the 747 raked in billions of dollars for Boeing, meanwhile the Concorde was a continuous money pit that, even with the wealthy behind it, still couldn’t turn a profit.
There was also the sonic boom issue. Supersonic aircraft generate sonic booms, which can be severely loud, even shatter glass. Concorde was never immune to these forces, and part of its lack of popularity among the general public was the noise it generated. As such, Concorde’s routes were reduced over water, and was restricted from going supersonic until well after leaving landmass.
The End of Concorde
Concorde’s future looked very shaky by the end of the 90s, as mounting maintenance and fuel costs left Aérospatiale/BAC executives struggling to justify its purpose to British Airways and Air France shareholders. The end was near, but nothing finalized Concorde’s fate more than a fatal accident in July 2000, where a fully-loaded Air France Concorde crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all on-board and four others on the ground.
After years of well-documented investigations, the tragedy of Flight 4590 was the result of a series of freak occurrences which ultimately resulted in the crash; including a bursting tire caused by a piece of metal left behind on the runway by a DC-10, a ruptured fuel tank and poor judgement in overloading the plane. To this day, controversy around the accident continues, with multiple sides pushing their own theories of what happened.
In the end, it didn’t matter anyway. Despite some modifications to the aircraft’s design (such as Kevlar-wrapping the fuel tanks) public perception of Concorde’s stellar safety record was tainted, causing ticket sales to plummet even further.
Alas, after years of financial turmoil and controversy, Concorde’s last flight was under British Airways livery, in October 2003, bringing with it the end of an era.
But it was more than just the end of an era. As a civilization, we took two steps backwards, returning to conventional air travel. Concorde wasn’t perfect, nothing ever is, but it was revolutionary in how we got around the world, and how fast. Not a single airliner has come close since.
“It symbolized optimism. It was everything that the 20th century could’ve stood for. It felt a bit like if one of your family had died. Pretty sad.”Sir Terence Conran, Concorde Designer
When I looked at G-BOAG in Seattle, I was amazed how complete it looked. It wasn’t chopped up and gutted like G-BOAD, which is on permanent display in New York; it’s a complete Concorde.
And that’s why it was even more heartbreaking to look at it. It’s an aircraft that you could refuel, push out on the tarmac and have take to the skies today. Only equivalent analogy I can think of is you buy a brand-new car right now, drive it up to a museum and put it up on permanent display. But why would you do that? It’s a perfectly-good, reliable car. Could the same logic apply to Concorde? Perhaps, perhaps not. It really depends on what one decides to see it as; a commercial flop, or the future? I pick the future, because we proved to ourselves that we can do amazing things when we try and focus on our strengths rather than only our problems.
So, What’s Next?
Even without Concorde’s presence, the aviation industry continued to grow and evolve. Turboprop and jet engine technology has improved significantly, both in power and efficiency, and today’s airliners are much lighter and more aerodynamic due to modern improvements in manufacturing, implementation of lightweight materials such as carbon fiber and other plastics, as well as titanium. Yet one thing hasn’t changed, and still serves as the ultimate force in our universe: money. Any aircraft has to be economically viable as well, not just technologically advanced. That’s the gamble Concorde lost when it was released; that it could maintain profits with its innovation alone.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen the flip side of that coin as well, when too much emphasis is put on profit and not enough on the technology or the safety. The financial disaster that has become Boeing’s controversial 737 MAX 8/9 series jetliners is a perfect example of when financial decisions are made at the expense of the flying public.
There is a glimmer of hope, even if it’s very tiny. Supersonic technology has improved, and its feasibility in modern commercial air travel is being weighted in the aerospace industry once again; though not to the scale of the Concorde. Boeing partnered up with Aerion to create the AS2, a 12-passenger supersonic jet earlier this year with development expected to start in the coming years.
I should stress, this is a business jet; not a commercial airliner capable of handling 100-plus passengers. Loading up 12 of the richest people in the world in a state of the art supersonic airliner is great I guess, but where does that leave the rest of us? Stuck in economy-class jetliners with cramped seats and hours-long travel time.
Then there’s the “Flying-V” which KLM recently announced it will help fund in the next few years. It’s not supersonic, but it’s at least different then what we’ve seen recently.
Reality is, civilian supersonic travel remained in 2003. There are no big dreams or plans to bring it back with the same ferocity and determination as it was abundant in many decades ago. No one really misses the Concorde either, as very few could afford to fly on it even when it was around.