A 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.
A SUCCESS & A FAILURE
Historic 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.
Apart 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.
For 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.
The 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.
In 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 aerodynamics and control of aircraft flying beyond what was then erroneously termed the “sound barrier.”
Nevertheless, 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.
This originally British design concept was to remain essentially the same through the actual design and development phase.
This 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.
France 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.
The 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 version.
Anxieties 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!
The 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.
DESIGN & DEVELOPMENT
Numerous and more complex hurdles of a technological variety had to be overcome in the design and development of Concorde.
In 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.
The 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 descent.
The 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.
In 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.
In 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Japan 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.
Even 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.
When 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.
But 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 innovation.