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The Concorde: Faster Than Sound

For the Traveler in a Hurry, 20-year-old Concorde is Still the World's Fastest Way to Fly
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 2)

Bannister loves to spout trivia about his airplane. Name a category--like friction, for example--Concorde flies so fast that friction heats its wings to 100 degrees Centigrade, or 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and its nose to 127 degrees, or 260.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat is so great that the aircraft expands between six and 10 inches in length during flight. The heat boils off all moisture inside the nooks and crannies, virtually eliminating corrosion and lengthening the airframe's once-modestly projected life span into the next century. Friction also makes the windows hot to the touch, and once much of the jet's fuel (which helps act as a coolant) burns off, even the interior begins to get a little stuffy.

"The Concorde project," Bannister continues, "was the British/French equivalent to the moon landing." Though he's talking about the engineering aspect, there was a more powerful political aspect as well. In the early 1960s, every nation that wanted to be a player on the world scene had to have under development several highly expensive muscle-flexing projects of global one-upmanship, such as a space program, a brushfire war or a thermonuclear bomb project; an SST program was just one of the costs of admission into the World Powers Club. The Soviet Union had its Tu-144, and the U.S. government was pouring more than $500 million into the 234-passenger Boeing 2707, which was designed for flights of up to Mach 2.

French President Charles de Gaulle wanted such an airplane for his country. But the price tag for France alone would be too high, so he convinced the British to enter a joint SST partnership in the early 1960s. Its very name would connote harmony: Concorde. Still smarting over the failure of the Comet, England signed up for the project, thus beginning a nearly decade-long research and development program that spawned the hot and fast Concorde. The Brits began by building a small research jet called the BAC 221, on which they tested a scaled-down version of the projected airliner's futuristic drooping delta wing. To travel so fast and so far, the airliner would have to have a needle shape, which naturally meant it needed a long needle nose. That wouldn't be a problem during the flight, but the pilot wouldn't be able to see over it for the high-angled landings and takeoffs. So engineers fitted the BAC 221 with a nose cone that would droop downward when the pilot needed to see the runway but swivel upward to help the airplane blast through the Mach numbers. Next, the engineers had to develop and test a new engine, the Rolls-Royce Olympus 593, which could develop at least 15 tons of thrust. Each Concorde would need four of those engines, and they all ran like Rolls-Royces.

During the 1960s, before deregulation, airline travel remained a glamorous affair, and the soon-to-be Concorde promised a mere three hours from New York to London in luxury. A dozen airlines lined up to buy Concordes for their own fleets. Aeronautically, at least, the sun was rising again on the British Empire. But with the 1970s came the oil embargoes. Those dozen airlines canceled their options for 70 highly expensive, gas-guzzling Concordes, and ultimately only 12 were built: seven for Britain and five for France. Most were given to their respective airline for a song.

As for the other SST players, well, after beating the Soviets to the moon in 1969, a new sobriety settled over the United States, and Congress refused to continue funding the 2707's development with taxpayer dollars. "[The SST's fate] should be decided in the marketplace, not in the councils of government," lectured Sen. William Proxmire. As for the Soviet SST, the Tu-144 (nicknamed "Concordski" by the press) was the first to fly, but during a demonstration at the 1973 Paris Air Show it pulled up to avoid a passing fighter jet, pulled off a wing in the maneuver and crashed into a Paris suburb. Six people died inside the Tu-144 and eight on the ground. From there the USSR's SST program quietly faded away like a good soldier.

But Concorde bravely flew on alone, having overcome all engineering obstacles only to slam straight into environmentalists. Scientists alleged that the high-altitude Concorde flights would contribute to the erosion of the ozone layer and increase incidences of skin cancer. And then there was the noise. Supersonic flight produces a shock wave, the result of which is a double boom that tends to shake buildings, break glass and burst eardrums if you're close enough. Flying supersonic over populated areas makes those down below angry, so in many nations it's allowed only over oceans. Concorde's miraculous engines, even at subsonic speeds, are among the loudest on the planet. After having been in operation for 19 months, Concorde was finally allowed into the major U.S. airports in 1977. Since then, the two-nation Concorde fleet has logged more supersonic hours than all the fighter jets flown by all the world's air forces.

Heathrow's British Airways terminal is exceedingly busy, but that makes its Concorde Lounge feel even more placid. The decor is Old English plush, and you're pampered to within an inch of your life. After boarding there is a sense of hushed excitement--the electricity of a celebrity sighting. Tall, dark-clad Irish actor Liam Neeson steps aboard. Dissatisfied with his sixth-row seat, he walks to a flight attendant and asks to be moved forward once we climb into the air. Everyone around plays it pretty cool until he returns to his seat, then the attendant turns and in a very proper British accent quietly squeals, "I'm in love." Her eyes cross a little and her knees buckle when she says it.

Another attendant leans over me. "The captain was wondering if you'd like to come up to the flight deck for takeoff," he says. (Don't even think about coaxing a similar invitation on a U.S. airliner--the Federal Aviation Administration takes a dim view of having non-airline employees up front with the flight crew.) Walking toward the front, the already cramped fuselage narrows into the gradual but ever-tightening needle tip that forms the nose and gives shape to the cockpit. It's tighter up here by modern airliner standards, and the instruments and levers all scream of 1960s-era design sensibilities. Bannister says that when BA refurbished the fleet in 1994, the airline contemplated upgrading all of Concorde's flight instruments to include modern, high-tech electronic screens and the like. "In theory we could have done all that--install TV screens and better computers," he says. "The benefit would be in weight savings. The disadvantage? Well, if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Actually, to install today's latest cockpit instrumentation would mean that the entire aircraft would have to be recertified for safe flight--an expensive, time-consuming proposition.

Inside the hallowed ground of the flight deck, Peter Carrigan, the flight engineer (a position obsolete on those new, computer-heavy airliners), introduces himself and helps me strap into the jump seat, which is positioned in such a way that an observer (most often a governmental aviation agency official) can peer over the pilot's shoulder. Carrigan introduces me to copilot John Graham and pilot Adrian Thompson; both shake my hand, and Thompson offers me a pair of headphones through which I can listen to them and the takeoff proceedings. I'm cautious about peppering the crew with questions because I don't want them to miss anything on their pre-takeoff checklists. As we taxi, undelayed, into position on the runway, Captain Thompson says, "Things seem to be going too well."

"Give it time," says the flight engineer.


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