Goodbye Concorde! Hello What?

People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 46


Concorde! Hello What?



FORTNIGHT ago, the world witnessed a momentous event in aviation history: the
retirement from service of the world’s first, and for long the only, civilian
supersonic airliner, the Concorde. Five Concordes of the British Airways fleet
touched down for the last time at London’s Heathrow airport within minutes of
each other, arriving from different places. The attention of most of the
personnel who, despite having other duties to perform at one of the world’s
busiest airports, was riveted to the spectacle of the majestic aircraft taxiing
to their resting place, even though they must have seen the Concordes day in and
day out over the years, knowing that they were part of a historic moment. Fire
tenders gave a ceremonial salute to the Concordes as they entered their hangar
under cross plumes of water, much like victorious soldiers marching under
crossed swords. As the live telecast showed, there were tears in many eyes and
lumps in the throats.




moments such as these are always emotional, no doubt. But, as a commentator on
the spot noted, one wondered whether the emotions would have had quite the same
quality if the Concorde had not been as beautiful an aircraft as she was.
Indeed, the word beautiful recurred most often in descriptions of the Concorde
by former pilots, crew, passengers and commentators. Those who saw Concorde
land, on this and on previous occasions, would have endorsed the sentiment
seeing the swan-like grace of the big bird, tilting upwards at an angle far
greater than any other aircraft landing, with her swept-back delta wings curving
at their tips, her long slim body and the most famous nose in the world dipping
down as if ready to peck at the ground.


from its grace and beauty, the Concorde was also a great technological
achievement, a product of perhaps the most ambitious, some would say audacious,
project undertaken in civil aviation. Four decades ago, supersonic air travel
was meant only for super-fit fighter pilots. Concorde brought supersonic travel
to everyday civilian passenger traffic, at least to those who could afford its
expensive ticket! The Concorde’s is one of the great stories of technology,
speaking of innovation, breaking new ground, inter-disciplinary team work,
corporate mergers, multi-national collaboration and inter-national rivalry, and
finally of the limits put on technology by society and by economics.


when all is said and done, the Concorde was a glorious technological success but
a commercial failure in its working life because its costs could not be
sustained. The retirement of the Concorde is a rare occasion in history when an
advanced technology has been given up without a more advanced technology not
taking its place. Supersonic passenger travel has come to an end and, rather
than taking the next step forward, civil aviation is back to humdrum sub-sonic
travel. Concorde has been celebrated and is now mourned. This article seeks to
understand it.  




usual pattern of innovation in civilian aviation is that promising ideas flowing
from experimental research are taken up for development as military aircraft and
then, after safety, reliability and operating economics are improved, commercial
aircraft follow about ten years later. However, the gap between the first
supersonic fighter, the US-made F-100 Super Sabre in 1953, and the entry of the
Concorde into service in 1973 was more than twenty years. The additional time is
an index of the complexity involved in the design and development of a
supersonic airliner.


the early years of conceptualising transonic flight towards the end of World War
II, flying at speeds greater than that of sound was considered risky for the
pilot. In 1946, the famous test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland, co-founder of the
pioneering civil aviation company Douglas-de Havilland, which built the hugely
successful Dakota and other aircraft down to the DC-10, was killed while
attempting to set a new air-speed record below the speed of sound. The British,
who had initiated a programme for supersonic fighters in 1943, abandoned it
later that year, after which it was the US, which continually led the field. At
that time, even among aeronautic engineers, there was considerable uncertainty
and lack of knowledge about the
and control of aircraft flying beyond what was then erroneously termed the
“sound barrier.”


in 1956 Britain set up the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee on which all
the major British aircraft and engine companies, airlines and concerned
ministries were represented, building on the experience of government-led
multi-agency collaborations during the war years. In 1959, after considerable
study and examination of different possibilities, the committee recommended two
types of supersonic passenger aircraft: first, a 100-seat aircraft with a
cruising speed of Mach 1.2 (800 mph) and a maximum range of 1,500 miles and,
second, a 150-seat aircraft cruising at Mach 1.8 (1,200 mph) with a
trans-Atlantic range of approximately 3,500 miles. (The speed of sound is termed
Mach 1 after the German scientist who first calculated it.) After further design
studies, the longer range version was selected but with capacity of 100
passengers and cruising speed of Mach 2.


originally British design concept was to remain essentially the same through the
actual design and development phase.






basic design concept, drawn up by the Bristol Aircraft Corporation, which was
subsequently merged into the nationalised British Aircraft Corporation (BAC),
which later became British Aerospace (Bae), also incorporated the need for
international collaboration, which was specifically mandated by the British
government in the design study contract. As the design unfolded, the necessity
for such collaboration became even clearer, given the complex tasks involved and
the consequent heavy demands on finance, research infrastructure and human
resources. The BAC approached the USA, Germany and France. The US differed on
the design concept, believing that a supersonic transport plane should be based
on its B-70 bomber, which flew at Mach 3 or three times the speed of sound.
Germany felt diffident about embarking on such an ambitious project.


responded enthusiastically. The morale and self-confidence of its own aircraft
industry was at a peak with the success of Sud Aviation’s Caravelle passenger
jet with, for its time, the highly innovative rear-mounted engines. In France,
as in Britain, the process of corporate consolidation in the aviation industry
saw Sud Aviation merge into the SNIAS, popularly known as Aerospatiale, which
became the BAC’s partner to develop a supersonic airliner.


French, however, had a different design concept which they had named
“Super-Caravelle” not only because of their justifiable pride in the
Caravelle aircraft but also because they favoured a medium-range supersonic
airliner which, they felt, would be easier to develop with longer range
capability being added subsequently. While, initially, the Anglo-French team
decided on two versions for long and medium ranges with common external
dimensions but different internal configuration, commercial reasons such as
trans-Atlantic traffic and socio-environmental reasons such as problems caused
by the sonic boom over inland routes, saw the team converging on the long range


about nationality and language problems were soon found to have been
overestimated, despite the traditional rivalry and sometimes even mutual dislike
between the British and the French. French engineers’ international exposure
with the Caravelle had brought English with it, while the collaboration itself
saw the team soon being able to work bilingually. A major difference, with the
British working in feet and inches and the French in the metric system, was
overcome by having all drawings in both dimensional systems. As may have been
expected, though, it was the name that caused the most trouble!


French “Super-Caravelle” was rejected by the British since it made the
aircraft appear to be a derivative of the Caravelle, which it was not. The
British, after an informal dinner session thumbing through a Thesaurus, came up
with Concord, suggesting partnership and consensus. The French acceptance of
this name came when president de Gaulle spoke of the new supersonic airliner
during a famous speech in which he, ironically, rejected British membership of
the European Common Market with an emphatic “Non”! But, of course, it
had to be Concorde with an “e” at the end as the French spelt it! This
proved to be a major irritant for several years, with the British government
ordering that the name be spelt without an “e” in British documents
till, finally in 1967 when the first prototype rolled out in Toulouse, France,
the then British minister for technology Tony Benn decided to put behind them
what he described as the biggest hurdle in Anglo-French collaboration and
accepted Concorde as the aircraft’s name.




and more complex hurdles of a technological variety had to be overcome in the
design and development of Concorde.


aircraft design for supersonic flight, various features commonly used in
sub-sonic aircraft have to be eliminated because they would cause too much drag
or resistance at higher speeds. At the same time, the aircraft must have good
controllability at lower speeds. In order to tackle the conflicting demands of
subsonic controllability and supersonic minimum drag, Concorde was designed with
a fixed delta wing (a wing which forms roughly a triangle on either side of the
body rather than two arms and which was fixed rather than being variable, i e,
which can change shape and angle during flight in what are known as swing-wing
aircraft quite common in military applications) but with a complex geometry to
make up for the absence of flaps and similar control surfaces.


fuselage or body was slim, with the upper surface being almost horizontal and
the lower surface sweeping up from the belly towards the tail for streamlining.
Material used was copper-based aluminium alloy to overcome creep, i e combined
mechanical and heat stress, a particularly serious issue in Concorde since
supersonic flight involves massive heat stresses due to huge fluctuations in
surface temperatures of aircraft: cool initially, rapidly heating up to high
temperatures during acceleration to supersonic speeds, maintaining relatively
high temperatures during supersonic cruise then rapidly cooling down during


power plant or engine posed its own problems. In Concorde, the payload or added
weight (i e weight of passengers, crew, luggage etc) is about 7 per cent of the
total takeoff weight compared to a 24 per cent payload of a typical modern
subsonic airliner. This means that even a small drop in engine efficiency in
Concorde could convert operating profit into loss whereas the margin for error
in subsonic transporters is somewhat larger. The Olympus series of engines
developed by Britain’s Bristol Siddeley Corporation (later merged with Rolls
Royce) was seen as the best bet since a supersonic version was already developed
and the Olympus 593 Mark 602 was selected for the Concorde. The story of the
Olympus is a major sub-plot in itself, but details could quickly get too
technical. So suffice it to say that the Olympus story brings out an important
aspect of aircraft engineering, namely, that engine designs have longer life
spans than air-frame designs, with up-rated and modified versions being
developed over many decades to meet requirements for which airframe designs have
to be radically altered or made afresh.


this case, the Olympus was much older than the Concorde, having seen service on
the Comet passenger airliner of the early 1950s. Later versions were used on
supersonic military aircraft and marine versions on submarines and aircraft
carriers! One can appreciate the progress made in the different Olympus versions
by comparing the 9000 pounds of thrust of the earliest Mark 100 version with the
40,000 pounds of thrust of the Olympus 593, which powered the Concorde.




1972 when BOAC (later to become British Airways) signed a contract for 5
Concordes at a total cost of 125 million pound sterling (then around Rs 200
crore), its chairman poetically declared it as “the end of the
beginning.” Six months later, when the world’s leading airlines, Pan Am and
TWA, cancelled their options for Concorde, people saw it as the beginning of the
end. And in some sense it was.


only airlines to operate Concorde were the national carriers of Britain and
France — BOAC and Air France. And the only routes in which Concorde flew
commercially were trans-Atlantic ones, between the USA and Britain or France.


international sales and promotional campaign covering over 50 countries, mounted
by Britain and France, was hugely successful if one went by the admiration
Concorde evoked and the attention it attracted. Huge crowds gathered to see her
wherever she went. In Boston, over 1,00,000 people turned out to watch
Concorde’s maiden landing and a 10-mile traffic jam was reported near the
airport. Concorde showed its capabilities in a much-publicised race against a
747 Jumbo Jet. While a 747 left Paris for New York, a Concorde had taken off
from New York at the same time, flown to Paris and back, landing 30 minutes
before the Jumbo! But none of this translated into orders or even into viable
commercial operations.


not only did not buy Concorde, it did not allow the aircraft to land in Japan,
citing environmental and noise considerations which were also the reasons cited
by the US in abandoning their own Supersonic Transport (SST) Project. This put
paid to the polar route to Asian ports from London or Paris. The US allowed
landings only on the eastern coastal towns of New York, Boston and Washington
DC. Supersonic flights over continental Europe, Asia and Africa were similarly
disallowed due to the sonic boom caused by supersonic flight.


across the Atlantic, Concorde became a symbol of luxury for the super rich,
celebrities, top corporate executives, media personalities, etc, and for the
very few for whom making the usual 8-hour flight in 3-and-a-half was worth the
4-times premium ticket. The British gained more on this route due to greater
commercial and celebrity traffic between the US and London rather than Paris,
and the French desire for flights between France and South America to tap into
the latter’s close links with continental Europe proved to be a non-starter for
price reasons.


Concorde had its first crash two years ago, it really was the beginning of the
end. There were simply not enough persons willing to pay the huge premium prices
for supersonic travel to make it a viable proposition. And there were never
enough buyers to make Concorde a commercial success.


its journey has been remarkable nonetheless. Was it though a foolish adventure,
embarked upon by two European nationalised entities while the private American
manufacturers looked on? The Soviet attempt at copying the Concorde in its
short-lived TU-144 was never a serious one and was given up almost as soon as it
started, with a disastrous crash at one of its early international air-show
appearances. Will the concept of a hyper-plane, which goes up like a rocket and
comes down somewhat like the space shuttle, become a reality any time soon? In
these times, hardnosed commercial rationale is likely to dictate answers to
these questions. Yet history will record Concorde’s great achievement, her sheer
beauty and the resurgence she brought to the romance that will always be
associated with aviation and indeed with scientific and technological