The Concorde: Faster Than Sound

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

Concorde, the world's first and only supersonic airliner, looks as if it came out of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Back when Concorde was under construction it was a compliment, then a cliché, to remark that anything with a futuristic look seemed as though it had come out of Stanley Kubrick's landmark film. Now when you compare 2001 with more recent movies, such as the Star Wars trilogy, the once-futuristic motion picture seems slightly dated. Likewise, needle-sharp, shiny and sleek on the ground, Concorde, now in its third decade, still can't help appearing slightly anachronistic, trapped in the 1960s. That's a risk about the future: the present is always passing it by.

Still, when the captain of this rocket ship firewalls the throttles on takeoff, you forget about appearances. There's more noise generated by Concorde than by the encore of a Who concert, and a display of force sufficient to topple a small dictatorship. For the duration of takeoff, you are shoved with complete and utter authority into your comfortable seat, your head and shoulders pinned to its fragrant gray leather and your cheeks stretched back far enough that you look a little younger. Supersonic travel: it cuts hours off your flight time while it takes years off your face.

There are two ways to fly faster than the speed of sound. The first and more traditional way is to sign up for the Air Force or Navy for the better part of a decade and spend a few grueling years drawing slave wages while trying to survive the cuts in flight school, all while doing so well that you can garner a cream assignment to a fighter squadron. This is also the hard way.

The second method of flying faster than the speed of sound is to simply book a flight on Concorde. This method assures that someone else gets to squander his youth learning all the dangerous and technical high-skills stuff, while all you have to do is pay for the ticket, sit back in luxury and stuff yourself on lobster.

This is the easy way.

It hardly seems possible, but it has been a quarter century since Concorde (as those truly in the supersonic set know, it's never, ever the Concorde) first shot through the world's upper atmosphere at twice the speed of sound--Mach 2, in pilot parlance--in search of customers and profits. For passengers and crew alike, flying in Concorde still smacks of an event. Less auspiciously but perhaps even more significantly, Concorde remains a firm link between the future of air travel and its past.

After liftoff our captain cuts power, banks toward the Atlantic, then hits the gas again and climbs. Though we're climbing at 570 miles per hour, New York's Long Island seems to float by placidly below. Despite Concorde's postcard-size window, we have a good view of the Garden City area, where nearly 80 years ago, in May 1919, the history of transatlantic flight began. Not surprisingly, it was a big, expensive government project, involving three huge custom-built, open-cockpit, bi-winged flying boats that took 42 hours and six stops, spread out over 19 days, and resulted in the loss of two of the airplanes. Then, less than three weeks after the sole survivor limped into Plymouth, England, a two-man British expedition flew a converted First World War bomber across the gap between Newfoundland and Ireland in 17 hours nonstop (which was a necessity, since the bomber was equipped to set down only on land). There was, by the way, no formal food service on those flights.

Aboard Concorde, the digital readout at the front of the cabin proudly clicks to "Mach 1, 770 mph," the only sign that we've crossed the sound barrier. Not everyone is impressed. One passenger simply writes down "bobbysocks" on his crossword puzzle. His interest level seems to be stuck exactly where it was when the flight attendants went through the safety procedures.

By the time we blow past Mach 2, 1,420 mph, drinks and dinner are being served. In the time it takes the steward to pour a glass of Champagne, we fly 10 miles. Passengers in all of the approximately 100 seats on board receive first-class treatment; seat-back tables are covered with white linen tablecloths, and the pumpkin cannelloni from the menu is served on a tray with fresh flowers and small bits of fruit.

We're flying above 50,000 feet now, almost 10 miles high. At this altitude you're supposed to be able to discern the curvature of the earth, but for whatever reason, it's not apparent. Maybe the windows are too small or, hey, maybe that guy from the Flat Earth Research Society was right after all. It does seem to be getting dark out there, and downstairs there's a storm brewing over the North Atlantic.

Thoughts turn to Charles Lindbergh's storm-tossed, sleep-deprived 33 1/2-hour solo flight in 1927 between New York and Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis, a small airplane with one engine. (The aviator had little appetite during the flight, practically disregarding the four sandwiches and canteen of water he had packed.) It was little more than an impractical endurance stunt--what good is it to fly solo for a day and a half to anywhere?--yet it sparked the public imagination, which in turn fueled an era of airliner development.

The first international liners were flying boats, since airports were expensive to build and therefore nearly nonexistent, and most major cities had sprung up around harbors anyway. If an airplane lost an engine in flight, well, the pilot could safely land an unsinkable flying boat just about anywhere.

There was another way before the Second World War to cross the oceans by air: the rigid airship. Operators offered opulent service at a luxury boat's pace and price tag. Still, these tended to break apart in storms or explode mysteriously, as in the case of the Hindenburg in 1937, which spelled the end of dirigible travel.

It took the Second World War to give rise to the next great step in transatlantic travel--the development of long-range intercontinental bombers. As ominous as it sounds, take away the bombs, put in a few seats and windows, and you have a fairly modern airliner. The postwar fleets were renowned for such luxurious appointments as roomy cabins, sleeping berths (breakfast in bed!), dining rooms and cocktail lounges. Forget that the transatlantic flying time for a 1949 Lockheed Super Constellation was 14 hours. Everybody got dressed to the nines, drank Martinis, smoked cigars and had a great time.

Then the British built the Comet.

The Comet, all 36 seats of it, was the world's first jet airliner, and when it began regular service in 1952 it could cross the Atlantic in just six to seven hours. It was sleek and looked engineless, since the propellerless engines melded smoothly into the wings at the points where they attached to the fuselage. It had big square windows, too--and they proved to be the Comet's undoing. Less than a year after they were introduced, Comets began exploding and falling out of the sky. After examining the wreckage, safety officers discovered microscopic cracks in the corners of those big square windows--cracks that formed when the jet's interior was pressurized to allow passengers to ride in warm, oxygen-rich comfort while the airplane itself flew in the rarefied, subzero air of 33,000 feet.

The jet set had arrived, but without the British; the Comet never recovered its reputation. In 1955, BOAC (British Airways' predecessor) even went so far as to purchase Boeing 707 jetliners from the American aerospace manufacturer. It was the beginning of dark times for the British aerospace industry. Soon enough airline deregulation followed, and the jet set went the way of the three-Martini lunch. Flying at 30,000 feet took on all the romance of riding a Greyhound at sea level.

The captain announces that we're preparing to land, and London appears below through patches of fog. We land fast and nose-high, a characteristic common of superfast delta-wing aircraft. (If you want to land slow and shallow, book passage on something with long, narrow wings, such as a glider.) In no time, we're waiting at the baggage carousel. And waiting. And waiting. The Supersonic Age has been around for 20 years, which seems about the average wait for luggage; ground crews the world over travel at Pony Express velocity. But at least there's no jet lag, according to most passengers and pilots. There's a scientific reason for this: Concorde moves too damn fast for your brain and your body to figure out that they've just been shot across several time zones.

The next day it's a trip to British Airways' Heathrow headquarters, which occupies a newly built "stealth" building designed not to interfere with airport radar, to meet Capt. Mike Bannister, chief Concorde pilot for British Airways. A friendly-looking, round-faced chap, Bannister sits behind a desk in a small office crowded with Concorde ephemera, mostly models of varying sizes. Concorde pilots display an affection for their machine that is unlike that of any other airline pilots, and Bannister is perhaps more enthusiastic that most. "Concorde is like a fighter," he gushes like a 10-year-old after his first airplane ride, only in a deep, resonant voice reminiscent of Richard Burton's. "It's so responsive; it's such a delight to fly. I personally believe any carrier pilot would like to fly Concorde."

Bannister has been with the program since 1977, its first full year of service. Like other Concorde pilots, he worked his way up to the SST through British Airways' ranks. The drill was pretty much the same then as now. British Airways puts out the word that it needs pilots who want to fly fast; pilots apply, seeking the prestige of being one of the elite few who fly Concorde--the cutting edge of airline flying--and are chosen on the basis of seniority and flying skills. Once they're accepted into the program, they complete a transition course that takes the better part of a year. "There's more that goes into flying Concorde than in other airliners," says John Lampl, a British Airways spokesman. "It's a much more detailed, sensitive aircraft."

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.

The captain turns to me and asks, "Is this your first Concorde takeoff?"

"Inside the flight deck, yes."

Then he adds, "This is actually only my sixth unsupervised takeoff." I think he's just being proud of having made it through all the wickets, but when you're a passenger on any airline you always want the pilot who's about six landings short of retirement.

Sixth unsupervised takeoff notwithstanding, again the rush of power is unbelievable--but then so is the speed at which we blast toward the precipice at the end of the runway. Miraculously, the laws of aerodynamics are not repealed in this particular instance, and the long nose lifts off, followed oh so eventually by the tail. Once we're airborne, though, London, and then the English countryside, quickly recede.

"The visor's coming up," says Carrigan. "It's going to get a lot quieter now." Indeed, when the droop nose rises and its visor covers the windscreen, it's like being in a luxury car commercial when the driver rolls up the window. Now the captain explains how they transfer fuel within the aircraft to balance and cool it. "That's why the engineer's so busy throughout the flight," he adds.

"And it's not reflected in my pay," Carrigan jokes.

"We fly at a block altitude of between 50 and 60,000 feet," Captain Thompson says. "It's unlikely for there to be anybody out there--unless you're watching 'The X-Files' at the moment."

Climbing over the Bristol Channel, we blow past supersonic and keep building speed; too soon, the engineer kindly recommends that I go back to my seat and enjoy my meal. "There's really nothing more to see after we reach Mach 1.7," he says, and indeed the action seems to have decreased as we've flown faster. "Come back anytime," the captain adds.

Returning to my seat, I note that a lot of seats on this flight are vacant. That is one of the longtime tender spots at British Airways. The program has been profitable from the first year, Captain Bannister had said almost defensively before the question was even asked--but rumors persist to the contrary.

"Does it make a profit? If you write off the cost of development, then it seems to," says aviation analyst Bill Wagstaff. "But I have been on a street in London when Concorde flew overhead, and people stopped in their tracks and applauded. As a symbol of national pride, I've never seen anything surpass it."

How long Concorde will enjoy this status is anybody's guess; it's possible to find airliners still flying that are 50, 60, even 70 years old. Concordes are still relatively young airplanes. And, given that each Concorde only has the miles of a three-year-old 737 and the hours of a five-year-old 747, Bannister and others say that Concorde service could foreseeably continue until 2025.

Typically, when an airliner grows too old and fatigued to fly, its owner sells it for scrap. From there, it can end up melted down into aluminum and hammered into pots, mobile homes or even new airplanes; in some instances people have bought an old fuselage and converted it into a restaurant or even a nice lakefront home.

Concorde's fate promises to be radically different. Though the French have cannibalized one to use for spare parts, the remaining few will undoubtedly end up in aviation museums such as the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. One of the pre-production prototypes has already been donated to a Royal Air Force museum.

Flying east to west, Concorde flies so fast that you arrive an hour earlier than you depart; it's like flying into the future. As for the future of mass supersonic transportation, the crystal ball remains hazy. Deciding there may be a fortune in the far-flung Pacific Rim, Boeing is once again studying the feasibility of an SST, but this time one with a range from Los Angeles to Tokyo--and in less than five hours, slicing the normal trip time in half. Concorde simply can't do that distance nonstop. A few years back, Gulfstream Aerospace announced plans to build a supersonic business jet, although that seems to have been placed on the back afterburner. And then there's Ronald Reagan's much-touted Mach 25 (18,000 mph) Orient Express, which hasn't left the artist's concept stage. The future of supersonic flight, then, rests on the gossamer wings of Concorde for a long time to come.

Phil Scott is the author of Canvas, Steel and Wire: A Documentary History of Early Flight, to be published this fall by Princeton University Press.