The Last Of the Superfast Planes

What finally grounded the Concorde?Segments of this post first appeared in the April 2014 issue of Braintainment produced by Rik Kuiper

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The Concorde has not flown in a decade.  What clipped the wings of this technological wonder that flew around the planet at twice the speed of sound?

 

The Last Ride Home

There are flames a few metres long and a roaring noise.  The pilot pushes the throttle forward and the Concorde starts to accelerate. The pilot pushes the throttle forward and the Concorde starts to accelerate.  The plane points upwards after a 1500 or so feet.  Then the unique triangular wings of the plane lift off the runway at 27T at Heathrow Airport in London, U.K.  A large crowd observes the retracting wings of the aluminum plane as it climbs ever higher.  “There goes a technological thing of beauty.” think many in the crowd. “For the last time.”

That was 11/26/2003.  The Concorde 216 struggled to a height of 9.3 miles in to above Earth.  Other planes do not go up that high.  So high that the sky blends into the atmosphere and the passengers can see the curvature of the blue marble below.  Here is where the Concorde really “stretches its wings”, flying at supersonic speeds of up to Mach 2.04 – over two times the speed of sound.    It is at 1,339.2 miles per hour that the Concorde glides through the skies.  From the passenger window one could look down and see jumbo jets flying  miles below seemingly crawling through the clouds at the “slow” speeds of 0.85 times the speed of sound.

Concorde_Ending_Takeoff

On that particular fall day in 2003, the Concorde did not reach its top speed.  It did not ever cross an ocean or a continent.  It simply flew over the North Sea off the coast of the U.K. towards the Channel Islands.  Then it turned right and headed towards Bristol.  This was not a passenger voyage, it was a symbolic voyage.  The Concorde was returning to the city of its original construction.

An Amazing Feat Of Technology

It was in the 1950s that commercial airlines began considering carrying passengers through the sky faster than the speed of sound. Airforces of various militaries had already broken the sound barrier, so the concept had already been proven. In the U.K. the government put together a Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee in 1956. The committee was made up of airline industry heavyweights, government employees and aviation industry people. The purpose of the committee was to put together a plan, if one could be put together, for creating supersonic passenger jets.

It only took a few years for the committee to come up with a viable plan to build a supersonic passenger plane that had room for 150 travelers. According to their calculations such a plane could travel up to speeds 3 times that of sound. That speed presented some significant challenges regarding how to keep the passenger cabin cool while the body of the plane rose to 635 degrees Fahrenheit. The challengers were met in two ways. Way one was to plan to build a plane that had a maximum speed of Mach 2.2. Way two was to use titanium, rather than aluminum for the plane body. Titanium had properties that allowed it to remain cooler but was a more expensive building material.

Concorde_Ending_FBPost

It was not just titanium that would distinguish this passenger plane from ones that had come before. The speeds at which this plane could fly meant it would have to withstand conditions that regular passenger aircraft just did not have to entertain. Even at Mach 2 the plane hull would reach the temperature of boiling water. The shock waves that would hit the plane would the sound finally caught up to it would put incredible pulling tension of any of the plane joints. At Mach 2 speed, the pilots would still have to be able to manage the plane when two engines stopped working on the same side of the plane.

The French and British engineers worked together to find innovative solutions to all of the challenges.

The Concorde Was A Joint Country Effort

It was not just the building material that was going to make this plane an expensive one to produce. The U.K. government decided they wanted to share the financial risk involved with such a revolutionary aviation project. So in the 1960’s the U.K. began wooing France to be a partner in building the plane. A treaty was signed by the U.K. and France in 1962. The treaty stated that they countries would split the cost of building the plane, split the manufacturing production of the plane to areas in both countries and split all the profit from sales of the plane. The treated was written as to be irrevocable by future governments in order to insure that the project would not be halted by a change in administration in either country. The treated guaranteed that any decisions regarding the project would have to be agreed upon by both countries. When the treaty was signed the thought of both governments was that a prototype plane would have an initial flight in 1966 and would be cleared for passenger flights by the governments of major countries by 1968. There was one, very significant aspect of production that the treaty completely left out which came back to haunt the project. It did not require the countries to do a thorough survey in advance of how many airlines would commit to actually buying a supersonic plane. The spirit of innovation and national pride overrode the spirit of good business.

The first test flight took place in 1969. But it was nearly another decade before the Concorde flew commercially.

National Jealousy Keeps The Concorde Out Of the U.S.

The commercial flights did not take place until January of 1976 due to setback after setback. On that first commercial flight day things went quite well in the flights from London to Paris and from Bahrain to Rio de Janeiro. But the setbacks continued.

One of the setbacks was access. At first, Concorde was denied permission to land in the United States. There was an “official” reason regarding sonic booms over majorly populated areas as the planes landed at big airports like JFK. But the suspicion was that the U.S. government, and the U.S. airline lobbyist influencing them, just did not like the foreign competition a superfast luxury airplane would bring to U.S. airlines’ overseas travel business.

Another setback was sales. France and the U.K. had not received contracted commitments from airlines to purchase the Concorde. All they had received was interest. Well, when it came down to it a lot of those “interested” airlines did not end up buying a Concorde.

The United States eventually relented. The Concorde landed at Washington airport in 1976 and at a New York airport in 1978. But the sales damage was already done. Because the U.S. had at first denied entry to the plane, no U.S. airline and many international airlines never placed an order. Air France and British Airways were the only airlines to actually by Concordes. Lack of orders caused the U.K. and France to announce in 1981 that they were not going to continue to manufacture the Concorde. This was an enormous blow to the U.K./French alliance which had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into development.

Crash Signals The Beginning Of The End

That money was never wholly recouped. Which is not to say that the Concorde did not make money. The Concorde was profitable from the start and extremely profitable in good years. During economic boom times the Concorde really filled a market need. High paid executives could dash from New York to London and back in one day. The time in the air for a New York to London trip was just under three hours. The Concorde also had a good safety record. Millions of passengers were flown over the Atlantic without incident.

That ended on 07/25/2000 during an Air France flight. While leaving a Paris airport the plane wheels rolled over a piece of metal that had fallen off a previous plane. The plane tire erupted, sending metal flying. One piece of metal weighing 11 pounds hit the fuel tank. The fuel tank burst, there was an explosion and the plane crashed into a hotel in a Paris suburb. All 109 passengers burnt to death as did four people who had the misfortune to be where the plane crashed. After that all Concorde travel was stopped.

An investigation was conducted by British Airways and Air France. In response the tires were re-engineered and the fuel tanks got a Kevlar coating. The same type of Kevlar that is now used in Jeep parts like brakes and street fire wire.

Concorde crash

After these improvements the Concorde was given permission to fly again. That permission was granted on 09/06/2001. Well, before the newly refurbished Concorde could get off the ground 9-11 happened in the United States and people were not flying anywhere for a while. In November 2011 when flights resumed, seating was only at 50% capacity, making for an economic loss on each take off.

But it was not just the attacks. There was an economic downturn and wealthy people simply were not taking luxury flights as much. In addition the Concorde experience technical problems with the rudder and the engine. These problems, though eventually solved, got a lot of play in the media since the public still remembered the fiery crash back in 2000. In 2003 both Air France and British Airways announced that the Concorde would go into early retirement.

In the end, a worldwide fleet of 20 Concordes conducted 85,000 flights over the course of 27 years.

Planes That May Replace The Concorde

While the Concorde is no more, the vision of supersonic passenger flight not only lives on but evolves. Here are some of the concept planes in the works right now whose manufactures hope will take the place of the once illustrious Concorde.

ZEHST: The Zero Emission Hyper Sonic Transport will be able to fly at an altitude of 19 miles above the surface of the Earth.  Traditional passenger planes fly at 1/3rd that height.  This plane will be capable of reaching a speed of Mach 4 without roasting the passengers inside.  European Aeronautic Defence And Space Company hopes to debut this plane in 2050.  Instead of using jet fuel it will run on biofuel.  It could cut the time between Paris and Tokyo to 2.5 hours.

ZEHST: The Zero Emission Hyper Sonic Transport will be able to fly at an altitude of 19 miles above the surface of the Earth. Traditional passenger planes fly at 1/3rd that height. This plane will be capable of reaching a speed of Mach 4 without roasting the passengers inside. European Aeronautic Defence And Space Company hopes to debut this plane in 2050. Instead of using jet fuel it will run on biofuel. It could cut the time between Paris and Tokyo to 2.5 hours.

SonicStar: The SonicStar aims to put supersonic passenger planes back on the map with a green footprint.  The vision for this plane comes from Hypemach CEO Richard Lugg.  He hopes this plane will be flying by 2021 with an engine that is 30% more fuel efficient than the Concorde.  It would glide 12 miles above the Earth at a speed of Mach 4.  A trip in this plane from New York to Sydney would take 5 hours.

SonicStar: The SonicStar aims to put supersonic passenger planes back on the map with a green footprint. The vision for this plane comes from Hypemach CEO Richard Lugg. He hopes this plane will be flying by 2021 with an engine that is 30% more fuel efficient than the Concorde. It would glide 12 miles above the Earth at a speed of Mach 4. A trip in this plane from New York to Sydney would take 5 hours.

Quiet Supersonic Transport: Supersonic Aerospace International at first wanted to make a small business jet carrying 12 passengers at a time.  But they changed their plans.  Now the model has room for 20 passengers and flies at the relatively slow speed of Mach 1.8.  What is unusual about it is that when it breaks the sound barrier, there is no sonic boom.  This makes it a lot more airport friendly.

Quiet Supersonic Transport:
Supersonic Aerospace International at first wanted to make a small business jet carrying 12 passengers at a time. But they changed their plans. Now the model has room for 20 passengers and flies at the relatively slow speed of Mach 1.8. What is unusual about it is that when it breaks the sound barrier, there is no sonic boom. This makes it a lot more airport friendly.

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