Concorde Supersonic Airliner

BAC/Sud Aviation Concorde

Concorde - The World’s Only Successful Supersonic Airliner

Concorde Supersonic Jet Aircraft

Anglo-French Concorde remains one of just two supersonic airliners ever to have entered commercial service and the only one that remained in long-term use. Stretched across 27 years, its service period saw it redefine the air travel experience for passengers. While its contemporary, the Boeing 747, raised the capacity bar, Concorde took luxury, comfort and convenience into a new dimension: London-to-New York in three hours, 30 minutes was now not only possible but became routine.

Ultimately, several events conspired to end Concorde’s career but the type’s legacy endures, with next-generation supersonic passenger transport programmes now being studied by several aircraft manufacturers. Whether any new supersonic airliners actually transpire remains to be seen but, if so, it was Concorde that blazed their trail.

Concorde Take-Off

Concorde Origins

Air travel took giant leaps post-WW2. Formed in 1956, the STAC (Supersonic Transport Advisory Committee) gave one particular development area’s prospects a real boost. The committee’s report, released three years later, concluded that a delta-winged ocean-crossing supersonic airliner was achievable.

November 1962 saw Britain and France officially agree to jointly develop and manufacture this radical new aircraft design. Work on a pair of prototypes got underway in February 1965. Various manufacturers were responsible for various parts. BAC (the British Aircraft Corporation, succeeded by British Aerospace and now BAE Systems), which built the front fuselage, tail and engine intakes and Sud-Aviation (succeeded by Aérospatiale, now part of EADS), which manufactured the mid-fuselage, inner wings and wing leading-edges, got the lion’s share. Another French firm, Dassault Aviation, produced Concorde’s outer wing sections and Bristol Siddeley, SNECMA and Hispano Suiza also got involved.

The finished French Concorde prototype, ‘001’, was rolled-out at Toulouse before a 1,000-strong audience on 11 December 1967. It subsequently carried out the first Concorde flight on 2 March 1969, lifting off at 236 miles per hour after a 4,700-foot takeoff run. Meantime, ‘002’, the British Concorde prototype, had been unveiled on 19 September 1968 at Filton, Bristol. British Concorde’s first flight occurred on 9 April 1969. The first supersonic Concorde flight was on 1 October that same year. During it, 001 went beyond Mach 1, surpassing it for nine minutes while at 36,000 feet. The Concorde prototypes nudged the speed envelope ever-further during subsequent test flights, reaching Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound – on 4 November (001) and 12 November (002) respectively. In all, 5,000 hours’ flight testing took place between the first flights and Concorde’s entry-into-service. Foreign sales tours were also carried out around this time but then, in June 1973, the Soviet-origin Tupolev Tu-144 - Concorde’s ill-fated rival, nicknamed ‘Concordski’ – crashed at the Paris Air Show.

British Airways Concorde

Concorde Operators

The Paris Tu-144 crash shattered some would-be operators’ confidence in supersonic transport aircraft. Supplementing this feeling were ongoing concerns over Concorde’s potential noise and pollution levels and the OPEC oil crisis’ market impact, many airlines favouring 747-type economy of operation in its wake. 16 carriers, including American Airlines, Air Indian and Japan Airlines, had originally ordered Concordes. Ultimately, only two from that original list – British Airways and Air France - took it into service. Both launched commercial Concorde flights on the same day – 21 January 1976: the British Airways Concorde flying from Heathrow to Bahrain International and the Air France Concorde from Paris-Charles de Gaulle to Rio de Janeiro.

Noise constraints delayed the start of US-bound Concorde flights until 24 May 1976. That day, Washington Dulles International became the first US airport to receive Concordes. John F. Kennedy International would join it but not until 22 November 1977. Thereafter, Concorde flights would continue, unabated, until July 2000.

British Airways Concorde

Concorde Features

Many Concorde features helped the aircraft achieve sustained supersonic flight at high altitude, of which efficient engines, a slim fuselage and lift-optimised delta wings were just three. Concorde was powered by four Rolls-Royce/SNECMA Olympus 593 turbojet engines, similar to those fitted to the preceding Avro Vulcan ‘V-Bomber’. These produced maximum thrust when the afterburners were engaged but, at higher speeds, entered ‘supercruise’ mode: a more efficient means of power during extended Mach 2 periods. Concorde’s airframe employed aluminium in the main. Nine foot, six inches wide, its fuselage could accommodate passengers in four-abreast seating. Up to 128 passengers could fit inside but a more standard layout featured 100. Concorde’s drooping nose system was conceived to produce a sleek in-flight profile but ensure its pilots retained full forward vision when taxiing and especially during the landing phase. Its maximum drop angle was 12.5 degrees.

Concorde Nose

Concorde Operations

Combined, 14 Concordes made up British Airways’ and Air France’s fleets. Generally, all in-service Concordes were painted white to keep them as cool as possible when at Mach 2-plus. Even so, the heat factor still caused Concorde to actually lengthen in the air, its fuselage regularly extending by up to ten inches. Typical Concorde operations involved two pilots, one flight engineer and six cabin crew members. Take offs were normally carried out at around 250 miles per hour. Afterburner-enhanced, climbs to cruise altitude could be undertaken at 5,000 feet per minute. Thereafter, at around 60,000 feet, Concorde supercruised at Mach 2.02 (1,340 miles per hour – 2,158 kilometres per hour).

British Airways’ Concordes alone carried out almost 50,000 flights and took some two-and-a-half million passengers beyond the speed of sound. One of the most notable was Queen Elizabeth II, who flew on it several times, notably to Barbados in 1977 – her Silver Jubilee year.

Concorde x 4 Formation

Concorde Milestones

After the first supersonic, first Mach 2 and first commercial Concorde flights, there were many other milestones achieved during the type’s career. In July 1985, a British Airways Concorde and the RAF Red Arrows overflew the QE2 ocean liner during a special photoshoot. This was a sight perhaps only eclipsed when four British Airways examples flew in formation on 24 December 1985, to mark ten years of Concorde operations. Round-the-round Concorde flights, needing several refuels along the way, happened in 1986, 1992 and 1995, while the fastest Concorde flight occurred on 7 February 1996. This saw British Airways’ G-BOAD – helped along by a 175 miles per hour tailwind - fly between JFK and Heathrow in just two hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

G-Concorde at Paris-Le Bourget Airport

Concorde Crash

On 25 July 2000, Air France Flight 4590 should have departed Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in the usual way. Instead, it crashed shortly after take-off, with 109 passengers and crew members on board. None survived. Accident reports established that the airport’s preceding departing aircraft had left debris on the runway, puncturing one of Concorde’s tyres. This, in turn, sent debris spearing up into a fuel tank, igniting a massive fire. The very next day, all Concordes were grounded. The following months saw £17 million worth of safety improvements implemented – a new Kevlar fuel tank lining included. On 5 September 2001, Concorde was cleared to fly once more. On 7 November 2001, commercial operations were relaunched. 

Concorde Retirement

10 April 2003 saw British Airways and Air France jointly announce Concorde’s retirement. Passenger interest, they suggested, had been dropping anyway but now the air travel industry also had 9/11’s aftershock to handle. Furthermore, Concorde was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain.

Air France’s last commercial and last ever Concorde flights were on 30 May and 27 June 2003, respectively. British Airways’ last commercial Concorde flights were on 24 October and concluded with all three participating aircraft landing sequentially at London Heathrow Airport. The very last Concorde flight happened on 26 November 2003, when British Airways’ example, registered G-BOAF, reached its final resting place.

Where To See Concorde

Only 20 Concordes – pairs of prototype, pre-production and developmental airframes, plus the 14 into-service aircraft - were ever built. All bar two (F-BVFD, which was taken apart in the mid-1990s and F-BTSC, which crashed in Paris) have survived and are stored or on public display at the following locations:

  • Concorde 001 (prototype) – Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace, Paris-Le Bourget Airport, Paris, France
  • Concorde 002 (prototype) – Fleet Air Arm Museum, RNAS Yeovilton, Somerset, England
  • Concorde G-AXDN (pre-production airframe) – Imperial War Museum Duxford, Cambridgeshire, England
  • Concorde F-WSTA (pre-production airframe) - Musée Delta, Orly Airport, Paris, France
  • Concorde F-WTSB (development airframe) - Aeroscopia, Toulouse–Blagnac Airport, Toulouse, France
  • Concorde G-BBDG (development airframe) – Brooklands Museum, Surrey, England
  • Concorde G-BOAA (ex-British Airways) – National Museum of Flight, East Fortune, Scotland
  • Concorde G-BOAB (ex-British Airways) – Heathrow Airport, Greater London, England
  • Concorde G-BOAC (ex-British Airways) – Manchester Airport, Manchester, England
  • Concorde G-BOAD (ex-British Airways - Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, New York, USA
  • Concorde G-BOAE (ex-British Airways) – Grantley Adams Airport, Barbados
  • Concorde G-BOAF (ex-British Airways) – Bristol Filton Airport, Bristol, England
  • Concorde G-BOAG (ex-British Airways) – Museum of Flight, Seattle, USA
  • Concorde F-BVFA (ex-Air France) - Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Washington Dulles International Airport, USA
  • Concorde F-BVFB (ex-Air France) - Sinsheim Auto & Technik Museum, Germany
  • Concorde F-BVFC (ex-Air France) - Aeroscopia, Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, Toulouse, France
  • Concorde F-BTSD (ex-Air France) - Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace, Paris-Le Bourget Airport, Paris, France
  • Concorde F-BVFF (ex-Air France) – Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, France

Concorde Supersonic Airliner: Key Facts

Role: Supersonic airliner
Length: 203 ft 9 in (62.1 m)
Wing span: 83 ft 8 in (25.5 m)
Engines: Four Rolls Royce/SNECMA Olympus 593s, producing 38,000 pounds thrust each
Maximum speed: 1,354 mph (2,179 km/h)
Maximum range: 4,488 miles (7,223 km)
Maximum height: 60,039 ft (18,300 m)
Crew: 3 (two pilots, one flight engineer)
Passengers: 128 max
First flown: 2 March 1969

All images copyright/courtesy British Airways except Concorde nose: copyright Lucas0231 – courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Air France Concorde: copyright Pawel Piszczek – courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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