Concorde: The Void in Modern Air Travel

Concorde was the hallmark of the modern jet era when it was first introduced in 1976. Able to fly more than twice as fast as a traditional airliner; Concorde could make the journey from London to New York in just over three hours. While this new-found speed would forever change the way the world sees air travel it was, in many ways, too good to be true. When the last Concorde was retired in 2003, prematurely bring an end to the age of supersonic commercial air travel, it symbolized the end of a era of pushing the known boundaries of flight and air travel (McWhirter). This sobering reality makes Concorde the admiration of aviation enthusiasts around the world. Had it not been for high development and production costs, environmental concerns and changes in fuel price in the ’80s, and an unfortunate series of events in air travel in the early 2000’s, Concorde, and the concept of supersonic air travel would still be a reality today.

Plagued with an extremely long and expensive development, Concorde required not only a complete rethink of how to build aircraft, but also what to build it out of. Never before had a aircraft this large, and carrying this many passengers, been asked to fly faster than the speed of sound.

The heat and stress demands on the airframe caused the plane to stretch 12 inches while in flight (Kelly 29). With such demands on the airframe a completely new metal would need to be used to build Concorde. The aluminium alloy RR58 was chosen for its strength, ability to cope with the stress and heat of flying, and its light weight (Kelly 28). This heat also meant that a new form of paint had to be developed to accommodate with the surface temperatures caused by the air friction at supersonic speeds (Kelly 29). Using aerodynamic innovation derived from WWII allowed it to travel faster than the speed of sound using swept delta wings to provide the lift needed for such a large aircraft. The Delta wings found on Concorde would be the largest ever fitted to an aircraft and required extensive internal wing structure design to make them light enough for use (Kelly 26). Concorde’s engines, derived from those used on the British Avro Vulcan nuclear bomber (Kelly 34), were completely new to use in a civilian aviation setting. These Rolls-Royce Olympus 593 turbo-jet engines were also the first, and only, fitted to a commercial airliner which required the pilot to adjust the engine air intakes depending if the plane was landing, taking off, or cruising at supersonic speeds. The drop-nose on Concorde was also unique to commercial aviation. Lowering the nose on Concorde was necessary for the pilot to see ahead during low speed flight, such as landings, where the high angle of attach was needed to maintain lift.

The assembly process, like the technological innovations necessary for the design, were extremely complex due to parts being sourced from hundreds of companies across France and the United Kingdom. Final product assembly of each aircraft would bring all the parts together in either Toulouse France, or Filton England. A complete full-scale mock-up of the airframe was also built out of wood to make sure that every individual part fit as expected before any individual parts were produced (Kelly 41).

All of these complexities meant that, by the time it went into service in 1976, Concorde had already been in development for 14 years at a cost to the British and French governments of a Billion Pounds, worth 7.3 Billion Pounds in 2014 (Kelly 86).

Pressure on the Anglo-French consortium, as well as British Airways and Air France, meant that dozens of sales would be needed to just break even on the development cost of the aircraft.

Unfortunately this would prove harder than anticipated. Only a year or two after its introduction, the fuel crisis of 1979 meant that airline operational costs sky-rocketed, causing plane tickets to jump in price, and passenger numbers to plummet. Airlines responded by cutting routes, and looking for inexpensive options to carry more passengers for less money, the opposite of what Concorde offered.

After the cancellation of the American attempt at a supersonic airliner, the Boeing 2707, there was much resentment over the British and French having a supersonic airliner while the Americans did not (Kelly 61). This resentment, while ultimately insignificant, played into the hands of environmentalists who took great objection to Concorde. With the rise of environmental awareness in the ’60s and ’70s there was much debate over the effects Concorde would have on the environment due to its unique operating environment. Degradation of the ozone layer when flying at the unconventional height of 50-60 thousand feet was considered a serious concern. The large, low-bypass, military-sourced engines meant that they were less efficient than the high-bypass turbo-fan engines of the day. The serious noise issues posed by the engines when in use caused throttle use to be restricted on take-off and landing, and overland flight to be reduced to sub-sonic speeds.

The deregulation of air travel in the US and Europe in the 1980s, which flooded the aviation market with low-cost airlines, meant that large expenditures like Concorde were infeasible for most airlines (Kelly 70).

These factors all played into the result that only the seven planes each in service with British Airways and Air France were ever bought for commercial use.

While Concorde did manage to recover from the majority of its issues, and enter profit generating commercial service, a series of untimely events of the early 2000’s would eventually be identified as the cause of Concorde’s eventual downfall.

On September 25, 2000, as part of a charter flight to New York, Air France flight 4590 took of from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris (“Accident on 25 July 2000…” 174). Debris left from a Continental Airlines DC 10 that departed immediately prior to Concorde had left a titanium alloy wear strip from its engine cowling on the runway. This debris was not identified prior to Concorde’s take-off due to a skipped runway inspection. This strip was picked up by one of the wheels on Concorde and flung at high speed into the underside of the left wing. This ruptured the fuel tank, causing fuel to leak out onto the landing gear assembly. The shorted out wiring, starting a fire which rendered the left side landing gear, and the inside left engine inoperable. With less than ideal lift from having to take-off early, only three of four engines running, and a extended landing gear causing extra drag, Flight 4590 was unable to attain a positive rate of climb and crashed into a hotel only minutes after take-off. Flight 4590 was only 20 seconds short of a safe landing at Le Bouget airport (Kelly 109).

The removal of the airworthiness certificate and the grounding of the entire Concorde fleet left them in storage while the underwent modifications to be allowed to re-enter operation. Normal operations resumed over a year later in November 2001.

The unfortunate events of September 11, 2001 drastically changed the landscape of air travel around the world. With the threat of terrorism looming there was a sharp reduction in global air travel passenger volume (Kelly 140). This left British Airways and Air France with very little possibility of recuperating the bill for the expensive upgrades when Concorde restarted service.

Concorde was finally retired on November 23, 2003 due to the airlines’ inabilities to maintain a safe level of airworthiness (Kelly 151). Airbus, the company who made the spare parts for Concorde, announced that they would be stopping production of the spare parts needed to keep Concorde flying.

The premature retirement of Concorde brought to an end 30 years of supersonic commercial air travel. It is also one of the few examples of a technological advancement which, when retired, had no successor. The jet-set era, the days of boundless innovation, and travel in the lap of luxury had finally come to and end. The high development and production cost, the environmental concerns as well as changes in fuel price in the ’80s, and an unfortunate series of events in air travel in the early 2000s meant that Concorde was retired nearly two decades before it was capable of flying till. Concorde was developed by a world that ceased to exist, and for a world that never came to be.

Concorde might be retired, but the advancements it brought can still be found all around us. Advanced check-in and flight planning and scheduling we see today originated from the need to tightly manage the use of such a small fleet of aircraft operating over such a wide service area (Kelly 104). Due to weight concerns Concorde was the first airliner to be fitted with a fly-by-wire system for engines and control surfaces due to weight concerns of traditional hydraulic systems (Kelly 31). This technology is now found in every commercial airliner.

Works Cited

Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses pour la securite l’aviation civile. Accident on 25 July 2000 at La Patte d’Oie in Gonesse (95) to the Concorde registered F-BTSC operated by Air France.Le Bouget. January 2002. Print.

Civil Aviation Authority. Progress Report 2001: Responses to Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) Safety Recommendations. London. 2001.

Kelly, Neil. The Concorde Story: 34 years of supersonic air travel. Surrey: Merchant Book Company Limited, 2005. Print.

McWhirter, Alex. “Supersonic slowdown: with Concorde’s retirement on this year’s calendar, executives will have to find alternatives if they are looking to make a fast transatlantic trip. (Fare comment).” Business Traveller July-Aug. 2003: 28+. Academic OneFile. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

Roxburgh, Gordon. Concorde SST. Web. 22 October 2014.

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