For many years, the human race had wondered if it would be possible for mere mortals to fly at the speed of sound. Would it be possible for those not in the air forces of the world to fly in an airliner that could break the sound barrier? Not many people thought it was possible. That was until the British and the French came up with an aircraft that would soon be the most recognizable airliner in the world. That aircraft is of course Concorde.

Concorde to this day remains one of just two supersonic airliners to enter service, and the only one to achieve real commercial success. The other was the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144. Not even America could get its own Boeing 2707 SST off the ground. But Concorde managed nearly 30 years of commercial service, from 1976 until 2003, and since its retirement nearly 20 years ago no other airliner has been built that has the same supersonic capabilities. Concorde is an aviation icon. It had innovations that were still cutting edge upon its retirement, and pioneered technology not seen on an airliner at that point. It may never fly again, but it will always be an icon of the aviation world.

Development And Design Of Concorde

Concorde 001 First Flight March 1969
via AeroTime Hub

Concorde’s design and development program was long and protracted. Supersonic research had gone on for years in Britain and France, especially in the former. One of the biggest challenges was coming up with a wing shape that was aerodynamically efficient enough for the aircraft to fly at not just Mach 1, but Mach 2 as well. The design team eventually settled on a form of delta wing, the slender delta. The delta wing concept had been pioneered by Britain on aircraft like the Avro 707 and Avro Vulcan. Then there was the matter of the engines.

Concorde 002 On Its 1969 Sales Tour
via Concorde SST

Concorde’s powerplants would be four Rolls-Royce Olympus 593 turbojets, with reheat. Engines seen on both the Vulcan and the BAC TSR.2. Reheat on an airliner was certainly a novel concept. Supercruise would allow Concorde to fly at Mach 2 with reheat off, keeping noise levels down and saving fuel, something the Tu-144 could not do. Concorde also became the first airliner in the world to have fly-by-wire flight-control systems, and then there was the droop nose, to aid visibility during take-off and landing. The program did suffer massive cost overruns and delays, but Concorde would first fly on March 2nd 1969 in France, with the British flying their first Concorde just a few weeks later.

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Concorde In Service

British_Concorde Parked Up At Airport
via Wikipedia

It would be lying to say Concorde had the best commercial life of any jet airliner. Concerns over the noise, sonic boom and the spiraling costs meant only Air France and British Airways ever flew Concorde in commercial service. And ultimately, a total of just 14 production aircraft plus six prototypes would be built. However, when in service with the two national airlines, Concorde would rack up an enviable safety record and serve a niche market flying from London and Paris to New York, plus a few other destinations such as Bahrain and Barbados.

Four Air France Concorde's In Flight
via Concorde SST

The sheer novelty of flying supersonic in an airliner meant that, for a while, Air France and British Airways were actually able to make a profit with the aircraft. British Airways famously undersold the ticket prices for the aircraft, asked passengers what they were paying who assumed the price was much higher. Thus, BA upped the prices and the aircraft suddenly made the airliner money! Being able to fly across the Atlantic in around three hours, and not eight, was a remarkable achievement. But Concorde’s glory days would sadly not last forever, and they would ultimately end somewhat prematurely.

Air France Flight 4590

Air France Flight 4590 Concorde Crash
via Concorde SST

On July 25th 2000, Air France Concorde F-BTSC crashed in Gonesse, France, after departing from Charles de Faulle Airport. All 109 on-board were killed as were four people on the ground. A piece of rubber on the runway, from a Continental Airlines DC-10, had hit the fuel tank on Concorde, causing a fuel leak that led to a fire. The pilots tried to get the aircraft to a nearby airfield but it was to no avail and the airliner crashed into the Hotelissimo Le Relais Bleus Hotel.

Air France Concorde Parked Up
via Airways Magazine

Concorde’s perfect safety record was gone. But the tragic thing was the accident could have been avoided. There was a known issue with the fuel tank design and its strength, as well as the tires themselves. A new crash at Dulles Airport in June 1979, involving another Concorde, also saw a tire blowout damage the aircraft fuel tank. Major modifications were conducted on Concorde after the 2000 crash, and the aircraft was out of service until late 2001 while the changes were made. But following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, which also killed a lot of Concorde’s regular passengers, the demand for the airliner started to drop.

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Rising Costs And An Early Retirement

Air France and BA Concordes parked up in the 1970s
via Airways Magazine

The refurbishment of Concorde, which also included a major interior upgrade, cost millions. But that wasn’t the problem with Concorde post 2000 crash. The world have moved on following the crash, and air travels appeal plus business travel to New York dropped massively following the 9/11 attacks. With costs to fly the jet rising, and flights running nearly empty, Britain and France announced in early 2003 that the aircraft would retire that year. Ironically, this caused every flight to be sold out and extra flights had to be added to keep up with demand.

Concorde Sunset Landing
via Pinterest

On October 24th 2003, the final British Airways Concorde flight landed at Heathrow Airport. This was the final ever commercial landing of Concorde, marking the end of the supersonic era. Other than ferry flights to museums, Concorde would never, ever fly again. And to this day, no other supersonic airliner has ever taken flight. And it's unlikely, despite efforts in America, that there will ever be another Concorde. Many believe that Concorde was retired too early. The aircraft certainly had many years left in it, despite the cost of operating it. But sadly, Concorde wasn’t able to control what was happening around it. And thus the supersonic era came to an early, and very sad, end, in October 2003.

Sources: Airlines Rating, AeroTime Hub, Concorde SST, Wikipedia, Airways Magazine, Pinterest

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