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Concorde Beginnings

In the late 1950's, commercial aircraft designers began turning their attention to passenger transports that could add the element of speed to aircraft productivity. In Great Britain and France, studies were initiated independently about 1956 into the feasibility of supersonic passenger aircraft. In the United States, technical feasibility studies were begun slightly later. However, by 1959, NASA was giving serious consideration to a supersonic transport that would be a civilian derivative of the XB-70 bomber which was later canceled.

The program that would result in the Concorde began with design studies conducted at Sud Aviation in Toulouse, France, and at British Aircraft in Bristol, England, with engineers comparing the various forms the plane could take. Other discussions involved the engines. Here the companies were Britain's Bristol Siddeley along with France's SNECMA (Socit National d'Etude et de Construction de Moteurs d'Aviation).

For the Europeans, the impetus to develop a supersonic transport came from several sources. In Great Britain, it was seen as a way of recouping the loss in prestige and market advantage suffered by the failure of the Comet jet transport. Exhaustive tests indicated that metal fatigue had caused the Comet disasters. By the time the problem was fixed and the Comet returned to service on October 4, 1958, however, the American turbojet aircraft had just about cornered the market. By the time the Comet's problems had been corrected and the aircraft was ready to re enter service, the U.S. Boeing 707 and DC-8 had built up an unassailable lead. In the words of Sir Cyril Musgrave, permanent secretary of the United Kingdom Aviation Ministry in 1956, "All the major airlines were buying the 707 or the DC-8 and there was no point in developing another subsonic plane. We felt we had to go above the speed of sound, or leave [the market]."

The Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough was one of the world's leading centers for aeronautical research. In November 1956 the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee (STAC), which combined 9 largest aviation organizations in England, was created under the aegis of the Ministry of Supply, which was occupied at that time by questions of aviation and the problems with the Comet. The Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee (STAC) was to consider the pros and cons of a British supersonic transport program. The first meeting of STAC on November 5, 1956, was really the beginning of the British SST effort. At this meeting, interest centered on a slender delta wing configuration for long-range Mach 2 flight and an M-wing concept with waisted fuselage for short-range operation at Mach 1.2.

The STAC considered all the problems associated with supersonic flight from the sonic boom to ozone, radiation, and airport noise. When Sir Morien Morgan submitted his STAC report to the controller of aircraft at the Ministry of Supply on March 9, 1959, no less than 500 separate studies were attached. The report stated: "Since this country's future will depend on the quality of its technological products and since its scientific manpower and resources are less than those of the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R., it is important that a reasonable proportion of such resources are deployed on products which maintain our technical reputation at a high level. A successful supersonic aircraft would not only be a commercial venture of high promise but would also be of immense value to this country as an indication of our technical skill."

Duncan Sandys, the British minister of aviation, strongly backed the STAC report with the statement, "If we are not in the supersonic aircraft business, then it's really only a matter of time before the whole British aircraft industry packs it in. It's obviously the thing of the future. It may pay. It may not pay, but we cannot afford to stay out. If we miss this generation of aircraft we shall never catch up. We will end up building executive aircraft."

The principal recommendations of the report were that the British government should embark as soon as possible on a program for two airliners -- a 3,500-mile (5600 km), 150-passenger airplane with a cruise speed of not less than 1200 mph (Mach 1.8) and a second airplane capable of carrying 100 passengers over a stage length of 1500 miles with a cruise speed of about 800 mph (Mach 1.2). A version with a speed Mach 3 and a range of 3500 miles was seen as technically complex and expensive. Sandys' recommendation that the British government proceed with the supersonic transport effort was taken, and preliminary design studies were begun. The long-range Mach 1.8 contract was given to the Bristol Aircraft Company and the medium-range Mach 1.2 study to Hawker Siddeley Canada, Incorporated.

As the alternative and cheaper project an aircraft of firm Armstrong-Whitworth of medium range (1500 miles) with a cruising speed of Mach 1.2 (1285 km/h) was examined. Toward the end 1960 there appeared the preliminary design of firms Armstrong-Whitworth and Bristol Aeroplane Co. The Model 198 could transport 132 passengers across the Atlantic with a speed Mach 2.2 with six Olympus engines. In the summer of 1961 the Ministry decreased the passenger capacity to 100. For this new taskthe project of four-engine BAC-223 was developed, whose nose section had to be slanted in the takeoff and landing regimes.

The British aircraft industry had serious doubts about the economic soundness of the supersonic transport proposed at that time. The development costs were estimated to be high. Depending on range, speed, and payload, the estimates at that time varied from $165 million to $265 million [these estimates proved to be wildly optimistic - the British Government's final figures on Concorde development costs were $3.25 billion, shared by Britain and France]. The market for such an aircraft was uncertain, and the operating cost for a New York-London nonstop flight at Mach 1.2 to 1.8 was projected to be five times greater than the cost of subsonic jets then in service. Designers later increased the speed and capacity of the proposed aircraft, but the industry members of the British Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee remained skeptical.

While study and debate were going on in Britain, the French Government and aircraft industry were also conducting preliminary studies of a supersonic transport. In France, the impetus for developing such an aircraft came largely from outside the sphere of technology and economics. The French Government was determined to enhance the role of high-technology industries in both the national and the European economy. A supersonic transport was perceived both as a response to "the American Challenge" and as a means to generate the expertise and skills needed to build and sustain a European industry that could compete in high-technology aerospace engineering.

In the 1950s, the great French planebuilder Marcel Dassault built a succession of high-speed military fighters. His company, Avions Dassault, realized a significant achievement with its Mirage series. In October 1958, a Mirage III-A flew at twice the speed of sound, the first time this had happened in Europe. The British, as well as the French, demonstrated technical strength. The firm of Fairey built an experimental plane, the FD-2. In March 1956, it set a world speed record of 1,132 miles per hour (1,822 kilometers per hour).

The Sud Aviation Company in France had decided on a slender delta-wing approach to their new Super-Caravelle, the same general approach favored in the British long-range Mach 1.8 study. Sud Aviation and Bristol designers were on common ground. The French design concept, like the British, was a Mach 2.0, all-aluminum aircraft, but it had a shorter range and a higher payload intended to serve a European, near Eastern, and African travel market.

Doubts about development and production costs and about the eventual world market for the aircraft continued to nag the British and the French. In 1960, both began to cast about for ways to lessen cost and to reduce the technological and capital risks. Negotiations between the two governments began in the summer of 1960. The design team consisted of the British Aircraft Corp. and Sud-Aviation (later reorganized as Aerospatiale), with Bristol-Siddeley and SNECMA providing the engine. In November 1961, officials of the two firms signed a joint agreement stating how they expected to cooperate.

Politics played a part as well. President Charles de Gaulle, the French leader, had a highly nationalistic outlook. He resented the fact that the United States dominated commercial aviation and yearned for a French airliner that would compete effectively with the American planbuilders. His firm of Sud Aviation took an important step toward this goal by developing the Caravelle, an early twinjet airliner. It used British engines from Rolls-Royce, thus foreshadowing the later Concorde partnership. Caravelles even sold in America, where United Airlines bought 20 of them. This was the first time that a U.S. airline had purchased aircraft from a French manufacturer. Like all of America's jetliners, the Caravelle flew below the speed of sound.

In London, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had reasons of his own to embrace Concorde. De Gaulle had little love for the United States, whose rising influence contrasted painfully with the lessening role of France. He also distrusted Macmillan because the British leader was particularly close to his counterpart in Washington, President John F. Kennedy. Macmillan therefore hoped to reassure De Gaulle of his loyalty to the European community by having Britain join with the French in the joint Concorde program.

The two leaders met near Paris in June 1962. The meeting went well and led to a formal intergovernmental agreement that committed London and Paris to proceed with Concorde. This culminated in November 1962 with an agreement for a joint effort to build an aircraft appropriately called Concorde. This agreement had the force of an international treaty. The two governments hoped to build and have this plane ready for service in eight years. The cost to each nation was to be $224 million, or $28 million per year. For this modest sum, the French might beat back America's domination of the sky, while Britain might forge important new ties to France and to Europe.

Macmillan hoped particularly to see Britain join the Common Market. This was a zone of free trade in western Europe that promised important new markets for British industry. But in January 1963, De Gaulle vetoed Britain's bid for membership. He declared that such membership would not lessen the close ties between London and Washington. DeGaulle also claimed that, with London doing America's bidding, the Common Market would effectively be under American control. After this setback, the British now had far less reason to proceed with Concorde.

When in 1962 the two governments decided to set up a joint design and manufacturing programs, the three fundamental issues relating to the aeroplane were already agreed in principle. The reasons for the choice were: 1) the engineering problems arising from flight at Mach 2 were cnpable of solution in the time scale envisaged, 2) the basic structural material could be handled by existing skills and techniques, 3) flight experience in the Mach 2 region was becoming increasingly available.

Although a number of technical problems were encountered during the development of the Concorde, perhaps the most critical problems were in the political arena. Less than 2 years after the project was launched, the United States announced their program for building a larger, faster SST. BOAC, apparently doubtful that the smaller, more conservative Concorde would have adequate range for the transatlantic operation, placed an order for six U.S. SSTs. Moreover, in less than two years, the program's estimated costs had nearly doubled, while Britain had fallen into financial troubles.

A new prime minister, Harold Wilson, thus had excellent reason to cancel his country's participation, thereby cutting government expenditures. He found that he could not. The British government opted to get out of the program in late 1964. The British appeal to France to break the SST agreement was refused, and the French let it be known that there was a binding agreement between the two countries "to develop and produce jointly a civil supersonic transport aircraft." The Concorde treaty gave France the right to collect funds from London in the event of a cancellation, thereby building the plane at British expense-but without British involvement. It was clear that the French could well take their grievance to the International Court of Justice at The Hague and could probably win. The British government did not want to face the embarassment of an international lawsuit while they were trying to get into the European Common Market. Consequently, they assured the French that they would honor the treaty.

Wilson gave in and continued the partnership. In reflecting on the decision later, Prime Minister Harold Wilson wrote: "Had we unilaterally denounced the treaty, we were told, we could have been taken to the International Court, where there would have been little doubt that it would have found against us. This would have meant that the French could then have gone ahead with the project no matter what the cost, giving us no benefit from the research or the ultimate product. But the court would almost certainly have ruled that we should be responsible for half the cost. At that time, half the cost was estimated--greatly underestimated as it turns out -- at 190 million pounds. This we should have had to pay with nothing to show for it .... "

The Concorde project survived through several changes in government; it survived the removal of Charles DeGaulle as French president; it survived several strikes in both countries; it survived technical difficulties that required a redesign of the wing and engine exhaust system; and it survived the escalating costs that were to rise from a 1965 estimate of $400 million to a 1977 total cost of about $4 billion, 93 ten times the original estimate.

By the end of 1968 manufacture of the two prototype aircraft was complete, and first flight was expected early in 1969. Manufacture of the two preproduction aircraft and of the static test specimen was well advanced, and work had started on the fatigue test specimen and on the first three production aircraft.

The first flight of the Concorde was originally scheduled for 1967, and it was to enter passenger service in the middle of 1971. As it turned out, the first test flight did not occur until March 1969, and passenger service did not begin until 1976. In its first 3 years of operation, the Concorde carried 400 000 passengers over 25 million miles and accumulated nearly 30 000 flying hours. 97 In the next 3 years, these numbers trebled as the Concordes accumulated nearly 100 000 hours of passenger service. This record was achieved without a serious accident and with very low utilization because of limited landing rights.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:53:02 ZULU