We had it.
From January 21, 1976 to October 24, 2003,
we had a commercial supersonic passenger plane called Concorde.
Today it takes 7 hours to fly from New York to London. On the Concorde it took
About 3:30 (just under 3 hours if it was record time).
A journey that would have taken the Titanic 137 hours had become just barely long enough
to Watch Titanic while crossing the Atlantic.
The Concorde came to represent class, style,
and the miracle of engineering. Here’s a normal plane landing and here’s
the Concorde landing. Which one are you looking at?
With Concorde, we all looked up and pointed. And then in 2003… it stopped.
We had commercial supersonic flight and just let it go.
Why? Why did the Concorde become a museum exhibit?
This is the Smithsonian’s Concorde, and the curator who got it flew on it, too.
“I did see the color of the sky at 60,000 feet. It’s this most gorgeous deep, deep
purple.” How did a breakthrough become a piece of memorabilia?
The answer says something about how innovation really sticks. And it’s complicated. “I’ve got a personal interest in the SST,
and I’d like to tell you about it.” SST equals Supersonic transport, any transportation
that’s faster than the speed of sound. It became a dream
after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947,
And a technological race in the 1950s and 1960s, combined
Cold War competition with a classic mid-century faith in engineering. Americans, Russians,
and the British and French governments dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into supersonic
R&D. (Think rooms full of engineers in short sleeves
and ties.) The then Seattle-based Boeing won the American
design contract in 1967, (that’s where a certain basketball team got its original name). “Seattle Supersonics win the game!” But development stopped after a 1971 funding
cut. Russia’s effort, the Tupolev Tu-144, flew,
but it was grounded after an extraordinarily spotty record over just 55 flights.
But there was a winner. “Concorde. The paper dart jet liner conceived
jointly by Britain and France to shrink the world and cut air journey times in half.” From the beginning, Concorde was a marvel
of design. It wasn’t designed with computers, but through math and trial and error.
They had to innovate constantly to make a supersonic passenger plane possible.
“The airplane needed to be very long and narrow to go supersonically comfortably.” And the paint was twice as reflective as other
jets just to compensate for the heat from air friction. “Because you’re traveling at Mach II,
twice the speed of sound, even though you’re at 60,000 feet…the airframe would actually
heat up, dramatically.” “I actually touched the window. It wasn’t
warm, it was hot.” Fuel flowed around the plane, during flight,
to adjust its center of gravity for takeoff, cruising, and landing. “So these pumps are working the whole flight,
but you can’t tell.” But it was the beautiful wing that distinguished
the Concorde for its greatest fans. “It’s a Delta Wing, but it’s called
an ogival delta wing because of its unique shape.” Delta because it was triangular, like the
Greek Delta; ogival to reference its curve. The Delta Wing helped the Concorde get lift
at takeoff and limit drag while in flight. The rest of the plane compensated. “The one compromise in it, it required a
very high angle of attack at takeoff and landing. Since pilots couldn’t see out of the plane
because of angled landing, engineers put together a solution. “The Concorde featured a droop snoot.” Droop snoot? “The snoot would droop.” The snoot drooped. “The reason being that it was a Delta wing
design and had a very high angle of attack on landing. So, in order to see, they were
able to lower the nose.” It flew at Mach 2 – more than 1300 miles per
hour — faster than the earth spins. “You couldn’t tell — the only way you
knew your were doing Mach Two was that they had a Mach meter up on the bulkhead. Everybody
was focused on that, because it would creep up. As soon as it went to Mach One, everyone
would break out into applause.” To minimize drag, it soared so high you could
see the Earth’s curve. The Concorde defined the glamor of high speed
flight: “Now this is a very important part of the
seven piece wardrobe, this washable dress that she wears in hot climates”
And the admiration of celebrities like…Sting. “It’s always exciting flying Supersonic
and it’s always exciting to get to New York before you’ve left.”
It was a stratospheric cocktail party. “Normally people complain about how bad
the airline food is…I will attest, in this case, that was not true. This was one of the
best meals I ever had. It worked beautifully — a normal French meal takes 2.5, 3 hours
— by the time dinner was over, we were here.” So what went wrong? On July 25, 2000, the Concorde punctured a
tire during takeoff for Air France Flight 4590. 113 people died.
Though failure happened shortly after takeoff, it was due to a problem specific to Concorde
tires. The plane was grounded, until November of
2001. By that time, the September 11th attacks had already depressed the industry.
But while both tragedies did affect Concorde, they’re only a couple of pieces of the fundamental
challenges for the plane. Noise levels on takeoff were high. But massive sonic booms had no comparison.
In the 60s, the Air Force a ran a test of sonic booms over Oklahoma City, and residents
reported hundreds of damaged windows and noise disturbances.
All that meant limiting supersonic flight to above the ocean — there would be no New
York to LA Concorde. That’s part of what quashed the American
supersonic experiment with Boeing, and it limited demand for supersonic planes from
the beginning. Noise concerns were paired with environmental
concerns. “There will be severe environmental damage
to the ozone layer.” The plane’s high flight pattern made scientists
think its exhaust gas could be more threatening to the ozone than normal jets.
“What was noticeable was that you kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing. We were flying
much higher than a normal airliner.” A massive fleet of supersonic planes probably
would have caused real damage, setting red flags for a supersonic future.
Fuel requirements also limited range to Transatlantic journeys, without any Transpacific cash cows.
It guzzled enough fuel that price fluctuations could hit particularly hard. With ticket prices as high as $12,000 a seat,
that was a significant risk. And tickets had to be expensive, since at
most only 120 passengers could fit on the plane. It couldn’t distribute the price
tag. That was compounded by the need for specially
qualified crewmembers and maintenance that came at a premium. And it was all for a very
demanding crowd. “Air France and British Airways had to position
a spare Concorde in New York in case the flight had any problems. So there’s airplanes sitting
on the ground, not making any money, just in case. Because Concorde passengers expect
to walk onto a Concorde because they paid a lot of money to it.”
None of these factors stopped the Concorde, but they all boxed it in until it had nowhere
to go but down. When Air France and British Airways announced
the Concorde’s closing on April 10, 2003, it wasn’t about past, but the future.
The manufacturer, Airbus, decided supporting the Concorde was impossible.
An aging Concorde — it still had analog controls and a flight engineer, both of which
newer planes had lost — would cost too much to upgrade or redo.
In a way, Concorde economics were similar to this toy model’s economics.
I got it for ten bucks because the manufacturer could distribute the cost of factory workers,
tooling, and distribution over thousands of cute planes.
Airbus loves doing the same with its family of jets. Even if a flight were profitable
for an airline, the airline couldn’t afford a new small batch of planes.
All the factors that boxed in Concorde kept its scale so small, it would be wildly unprofitable
to service, rebuild, or revive. The best option was to land for good. We like to think breakthroughs only end because
of disaster. With a crash.
But they can fall short without disaster, despite a breathtaking wing or a jaw-dropping droop snoot.
They have to come with a business model and supply system, a political resolve, and a
plan to expand. Even as future dreams for Supersonic transport
still simmer, all those business model questions remain unanswered.
“They don’t exist unless they make money…some people don’t like that idea, but it’s
a fact of life. They’re there to make money If they’re making a product that doesn’t
make money, they’ll stop making it or go out of business. Or both. You never know.”
So the flight time to London can return to a double feature slog.
But we lose something with the drudgery. Progress…slows. And we have to wait for something else to
look up at. Something worth pointing at. So I have fallen completely in love with the
Concorde, but it was not that comfortable of a ride. Bob told me that while the legroom
was pretty good, the headroom was not and neither was the seat width — it was kinda
like a coach seat. And you can see that in this video of Sting. He looks pretty cramped
— especially for Sting.