PHOTO: Ryan Hemmings

It might seem strange lamenting the passing of a supersonic aircraft in a magazine devoted to transport alternatives, but as with our first Transport Icon (British Rail’s High Speed Train) Concorde helped to change the way we view travel, genuinely making the world a smaller place. If the supersonic dream really is now at an end, what does it say for the hopes and aspirations of mankind? In 1969, more than thirty years ago, we put a handful of men on the moon, but it seems we’ll never go back, let alone reach for the stars.We also looked forward to commuting around the globe by supersonic aircraft, but today that vision of cheap, convenient transport is looking increasingly unrealistic. Is it all downhill from here?

‘Green’ it Was Not

Concorde is one of the most expensive and polluting modes of transport ever invented, but it’s strangely comforting that a handful of spoilt wealthy folk can take day trips to New York. Perhaps it upholds our dwindling faith in technology; in our ability to do whatever we want if we really want it. In reality, of course, it was Concorde’s very exclusivity that made it viable, even on a limited scale, for had we all been able to travel supersonic, the environmental consequences would have been nightmarish.

Concorde consumes fuel at the rate of one gallon per 17 passenger/miles, squandering anything up to 95 tonnes during a typical flight. If that sounds a lot, it is, but fuel consumption of this order is actually only slightly higher than the cattle-class transporters criss-crossing our skies.

…directly beneath the flight path, windows would shatter and chimney pots quake…

Fuel consumption is greatly increased by reheat – normally found only on jet fighter aircraft – an injection of neat fuel into the exhaust, that (once clear of land) blasts Concorde from its take-off speed of 250mph to Mach 1.7. Cruising speed is around Mach 2, twice the speed of sound or some 1,350mph.Yes, Concorde really does cruise on the edge of space, way above the belt and braces airliners, and 60,000 feet above terra firma. As British Airways likes to put it: ‘Only astronauts fly higher – but they don’t enjoy the same quality of entertainment and luxury…’ They don’t pay their own fares either: A standard return trip to New York on Concorde costs around £8,000 (hurry, there aren’t many seats left). For that, you get rather limited legroom, as much pampering as the crew can achieve given the space constraints, and an arrival time at JFK before you left Heathrow…You will also have done something that only two and a half million others have done in the history of aviation, and you may be one of the last ever to do it.

This all sounds wonderful, but supersonic travel has brought many problems. It’s all well and good accelerating the occupants of a plane to twice the speed of sound as they sip their cocktails and leaf through the in-flight magazine, but for those under the flight path things can get a bit bumpy.

A personal recollection: Living near Weymouth on the Dorset coast, we’d wait every night for the french windows to quake – a barely discernible rumble perhaps, but we lived many tens of miles from those lucky sods slipping effortlessly through the sound barrier above the English Channel. Directly beneath the flight path, windows would shatter and chimney pots quake – sonic booms are tricky things.

Those living near Heathrow will know all about reheat during takeoff too. At low speed Concorde makes a spectacular racket: far louder than anything else in the skies (although the plane is claimed to be no noisier than other first generation jets). But somehow we forgave Concorde all of these sins, because she was a beautiful plane and a deliciously effective A to B machine – a true icon of transport. Mind you, we might have viewed things differently if supersonic airliners were passing every ten minutes bound for the unfinished hotels of the Costa del Sol.

Entente Concordiale?

Concorde began life as a germ of an idea in 1961, when French and British aviation companies pooled their resources to investigate the supersonic option.Then in November 1962 – for all sorts of reasons that had nothing to do with aviation – the politicians came on board and Concorde was off the drawing-board and into the prototype phase. As this was the height of the Cold War, it was perhaps inevitable that President Kennedy should announce the start of a US project seven months later, probably because the Russians had starting work on the Tupolev Tu-144, or ‘Concordski’ as it became known to everyone else.The era of supersonic flight was just around the corner, or so we thought.

‘Concord’ was one of the few names that worked well in both French and English, but the name was to cause major problems as the two countries bickered over that final ‘e’. Eventually, British technology minister Anthony Wedgewood Benn caved in, announcing that the British planes would adopt the French spelling, preserving a sliver of national dignity by adding that the ‘e’ stood for ‘excellence’, ‘entente’, ‘Europe’, or a little tenuously, ‘England’.

…escalating fuel costs and security fears… the world no longer wanted or needed a supersonic plane…

Despite such differences, and the slightly uneven 60/40% airframe construction split in favour of France (we knew more about engines, you see), the race was soon on to launch the first Concorde. Rather disappointingly the laurels went not to France or Britain, but to the Russians, whose hastily assembled, and rather lethal, Concordski took to the skies on 31st December 1968. Concorde 001, the French plane, followed on 2nd March 1969, with the British 002 undertaking a first test flight on 9th April.

It seems hard to believe now, but the Concorde we know today was expected to be no more than a prototype for a family of supersonic airliners, offering improved range and payload with reduced fuel consumption and quieter take-off and landing – a thoroughly modern commercial airliner, in other words.

With the experience gained from the first machine (Concorde ‘A’), it was predicted that relatively modest changes to the engines and the shape and size of the wings would produce some major efficiency benefits, giving a maximum range of some 5,000 miles, making numerous long-haul destinations viable. One thing supersonic aircraft don’t like is floating around slowly, and for Concorde, less than 500mph is a walking pace.This helps to explain its roaring engines and strange nose-up attitude at low speed, necessitating the ‘droop-snoot’ nose to maintain pilot visibility. Unfortunately, low speed flight has become increasingly common as planes stack up to land at busy airports.

Concorde ‘B’ promised an improvement of no less than 41% in the lift/drag equation at low speed, but with sales languishing, and costs escalating, the French and British governments refused to provide further funding, putting Concorde on the long and lonely flight to commercial extinction.The prototype machine never was, and never could be a commercial proposition in the long-term.

Into Profit

The rest, as they say, is history.The fuel price shocks of the early 1970s convinced the Americans to concentrate on more prosaic airliners, and the Russian plane turned out to be impracticable. For Britain and France, so much money and prestige had been sunk into the project, there was no turning back. Concorde eventually entered service with British Airways between London and Bahrain in 1976 – hardly an economic route, but the Americans wouldn’t let it land.The following year, the plane finally gained landing rights at New York, giving at least one viable and cost-effective route, largely over open water. Concorde was making money at last, but only 14 examples ever entered revenue-earning service, and the developments costs were quietly written off.

For the next 23 years the plane performed almost faultlessly, without a single casualty, despite the odd tyre failure and occasional excitement with the engines. In 2000 that all changed, when a punctured fuel tank led to the loss of an Air France plane and all on board. Despite a clever fix that got the remaining planes back in the air, it soon became clear that Concorde’s days were numbered.With escalating fuel costs, and security fears causing a general loss of confidence in air travel, the world no longer seemed to want or need a supersonic plane. Perhaps the long-anticipated communications revolution – video-conferencing and email – has had an effect too? Whatever the reason, the world is certainly a very different place.

The End

Concorde is certified to fly until 2009, but after 27 years of front line service, British Airways and Air France have decided to retire the planes early.Virgin boss Richard Branson has offered to take the planes on, but A to B readers will hardly need reminding of the way his organisation treated our first transport icon.We trust that Concorde will be allowed to fade quietly and with dignity from the transport scene. Concorde. Gone, but not forgotten.