Concorde: supersonic trip down memory lane

2013-10-24 14:21

Just mention the name Concorde and this icon of modern flight evokes images of glamour, style and fashion - both in the area of technological flight innovation and the exclusive bunch who took advantage of the world's fastest passenger plane.

Thursday, 24 October 2013, marks the 10th anniversary of this legend's final grounding. 

And with time being a key factor for airlines and passengers across the globe it raises the interesting question of whether there would ever be another operator prepared to take on supersonic flight.

The simple answer is, no.

Despite its spectacular speed, the Concorde was a financial disaster, without even factoring in any kind of fuel pricing crisis.

An analysis report by FlightGlobal.com states that back in 1962, IATA outlined 10 “imperative design objectives” for any viable means of supersonic travel, with a key requirement being that the "aircraft’s seat-mile costs needs to equal or better those of subsonic jets of comparable size and range", operating at the time of its introduction. Needless to say to Concorde failed dismally.

Even though we're faced with a commercial aviation industry, sans supersonic flight, it's still a worthwhile look back at this golden era of travel...

The beginning

The brainchild of British (BAC, now BAE Systems) and French (Aérospatiale) engineers, the Concorde entered commercial service in 1976, predominantly on British Airways' and Air France's trans-Atlantic routes. The name was something of a discussion point though, with thoroughly dry British and superfluous French suggestions being rejected before the compromise of "Concorde" (meaning harmony in French) was adopted.

The really exciting and popular feature of the Concorde was, however, the fact that it broke Mach 2 - around 2 140km per hour, which resulted in the legendary sonic boom. As the aircraft accelerated toward a speed of about 1 400km, the shockwaves it produced reached the ground to cause a thunderous sound which could be heard from around 80km away.

This enabled it to smash all travelling times of any other passenger plane which has ever existed. A flight from London to New York on the Concorde was a shade over 3-and-a-half hours, while on a modern-day jumbo it is 7-8 hours. During testing, Concorde cut the time between Paris and Dakar from 5-and-a-half hours to 2 hours and 52 minutes.

(Graham Bloomfield / Shutterstock.com)

With a total of 20 aircraft ever built (six for development and 14 for commercial use), specs included:

- Engine Model Olympus 593 Mrk610 turbojet, manufactured by Rolls Royce

- Wingspan of just over 25 meters

- Overall Length 61.66m

- Height from ground (ground to top of fin) 12.2m

- Fuselage max internal Height 1.96m

- Wing Span 25.6m

Cost

Time is obviously money, especially when it comes to commercial flight - so despite being super fast, the Concorde remained a pricey way to travel and generally out of reach for the average traveller.

We came across an concorde fare sheet dating to 1980 on Airliners.net's aviation forum which lists the lead-in ticket price for a one way London-New York flight at £604. Estimates put this at around £2 196 nowadays, which works out to approximately R34 718 one way (at R15.83/pound).

The beginning of the end

On 25 July 2000, an Air France Concorde departing Paris burst a tyre on takeoff - caused by debris that another departing aircraft had dropped. A piece of rubber from the tyre hit one of the fuel tanks (stored in the wing) which fractured it, and an electrical cable - the mixture of fuel and electrical current caused a fire and the crew swiftly responded by shutting down the engine. 

However, the other engine wasn't producing much power and the landing gear was still out, hampering the plane's ascent, so no altitude was gained. There was no way to recover from the situation, causing the Concorde to crash into a hotel, killing 100 passengers, 9 crew members on board and 4 people on the ground.

The Concorde was immediately taken out of service and a number of new safety measures were included:

- The fitment of Kevlar lining to key fuel tanks to reduce the flow of fuel from any leak which may have occurred, which together with the removal of electrical ignition sources would make sustained fire impossible.

- Michelin Near Zero Growth (NZG) tyres on all eight main wheels, designed to be more resilient to damage by foreign objects

- Armouring of electrical wiring in the undercarriage bay to eliminate additional fire risk.

But there was a significant slump in passenger numbers following the crash and just over a year later the 11 September attacks happened, compounding operations for the entire air industry. Rising maintenance costs for Concorde also meant that subsonic travel on a jumbo became much more cost-effective for airlines.

(Nordroden / Shutterstock.com)

The last flight

By October 2003, the Concorde was taken out of service. The grand legend had come to its end. Although it was not to be the end of luxury travel - today first class on modern long-distance aeroplanes is superb offering full double beds - it is sad day to no longer have the sonic boom lighting up our skies.

Flight junkies who would still like to take a look at the world's fastest jetliner will have to visit Concord at Filton in Bristol, UK or The Museum of Flight in Seattle, US (One of only four on display outside Europe).

Check out this BBC news coverage of this bastion of aviation history's very last flight:


Read more on:    flights  |  air travel  |  travel international  |  aviation

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