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Concorde Supersonic Transport

The Concorde supersonic airliner, built jointly by France and Great Britain, to this day remains the only such supersonic plane to operate successfully in commercial service and has earned its prominent place in aeronautical history. For half a century, planebuilders flew their airliners at increasingly high speeds and altitudes. Concorde marked the limits of this trend, with the aviation industry subsequently returning to conventional jets rather than seeking newer frontiers. The sleek, needle-nosed aircraft could cross the Atlantic at an altitude of 60,000 feet and at 1,350 mph, completing the trip from London to New York in less than four hours -- half the time of regular jets.

The cost of the Concorde development program was estimated in 1965 at $400 million and later revised to $770 million, then to $1.26 billion, $1.75 billion, and ultimately $2.63 billion by 1975. The final cost figures quoted by the British Government in 1977 were $3.25 billion for development and $0.85 billion more for production costs and losses sustained in operating the Concorde, making a total program cost of over $4 billion.

Sales estimates made at various times during the course of the program varied widely - from 100 to 500 - and the projected purchase price fluctuated accordingly, from $30 million to $56 million. But only 16 Concordes were built, 2 for testing and 14 for sale; 9 were sold at a price of $80 million each to the State-owned airlines of the two countries, British Airways and Air France. The Concorde production line was closed in September 1979 and the remaining seven planes were given to the two airlines.

Construction of the first two prototype Concordes began in February, 1965. The application for a U.S. type certificate was made in 1965. The first of these, Concorde 001, was rolled out in December 1967, underwent engine tests in early 1968, and had its first flight on March 2, 1969. The first supersonic flight took place 7 months later in October 1969. The static test programme was completed in September 1973 and this airframe was tested to destruction in June 1974. Fatigue testing continued until two aircraft `lives' (about 48,000 flights) had been attained.

In 1972, the question arose in a serious way as to whether any airlines wanted to order the plane. Events soon showed that almost no one wanted it, for it was highly costly to operate. It achieved its high speed by burning fuel in vast quantities. Yet it spread its costs only over some 100 passengers per flight, which forced ticket prices to exorbitant heights.

September 20, 1973, a Concorde prototype, in its first visit to the United States, landed at the Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport. By then the Boeing 747 was in service. It flew no faster than earlier jets such as the Caravelle, but its unprecedented size offered new comfort for travelers. It also carried up to 400 passengers, spreading its costs wider and lowering its ticket prices. Pan American World Airways was the world's largest international carrier and its management had embraced the 747 with enthusiasm. But in 1973, it rejected the Concorde, declaring that it was too costly. TWA, another major international airline, rejected Concorde as well, citing "dismal economics."

Commercial passenger service began in January 1976 with flights from Paris to Rio de Janeiro (via Dakar) by Air France and from London to Bahrain by British Airways. Service from Paris and London to Washington started on May 24, 1977. The Concorde operated on routes from Paris and London to New York, Washington, Caracas (via the Azores), Rio (via Dakar), and Bahrain.

Only 14 Concordes ever flew in commercial service. All of them served the national airlines, British Airways and Air France. Apart from Air France and British Airways, the only other operator of Concorde was Braniff in the USA. This airline temporarily leased and US-registered individual aircraft at Dulles Airport, Washington D.C, each time it made the (subsonic) return trip to Dallas-Fort Worth.

They acquired considerable glamor. The service attracted a larger market share than would have been predicted if it were assumed that travelers valued their time at their income levels. Business travelers were found in studies to behave as if they valued their time at more than twice their incomes. There was very great prestige in flying to Paris on a Concorde, and those who did it let their friends know about it. The flight was whisper-quiet. The windows were small but through them one could see a velvet-purple sky that brightened to a light-colored band near the horizon. Coastlines were as distinct as on a map. By looking closely, one might see the curvature of the Earth.

The sensation of going through the sound barrier was a bit of a disappointment as the passengers felt was a slight shudder. Conditions on the plane were cramped compared with the luxury of the first class cabin on a Jumbo. The fuselage is only 2.9 meters (9 foot 6 inches) outside diameter. With 2 seats on each side, the narrow gangway down the center made room for the service cart and crew. It was also very noisy because of the engines.

"Jet lag" refers to the effect upon passengers who cross several time zones quickly. Since SSTs travel more than twice as fast as subsonic transports, more time zones can be traversed in a given period of time and jet lag effects may be increased. On the other hand, this high speed also reduces travel fatigue, which is related to the length of the flight time. Since SSTs reduce flight times by approximately 50 percent, the travel fatigue will be greatly diminished for SST passengers. The net result of increased jet lag and decreased travel fatigue appears to be that there will no overall adverse effects on passengers.

The oil crises of 1974 and 1979 greatly increased the cost of petroleum. Before the crises, jet fuel cost 11 cents per gallon, and airline executives calmly expected to maintain this low price for decades into the future. By 1980, the price was $1 a gallon. With a Concorde burning as much fuel as a 747, while carrying far fewer passengers, the effects were catastrophic. By 1982 a round-trip Concorde ticket between New York and Paris cost $3,900. In 2000, it came to $8,148.

The level of service for the two airlines combined was about 110 flights per month for the first year of operation and rose to about 140 per month since inauguration of flights to New York in December 1977. Load factors for all routes averaged slightly under 50 percent, but have reached as high as 85 to 90 percent for the North Atlantic routes. The aircraft operated at an average of 70-percent capacity on these routes.

The Concorde was a remarkable vehicle with unequaled performance, the first aircraft to use fly-by-wire control, featuring some unique solutions such as fuel transfer for trim management. Though flown in limited numbers, the Concorde enjoyed decades of service. It set a standard for others to imitate. In Moscow, the firm of Tupolev built the Tu-144 airliner, which looked like a close copy. People called it the "Concordski." However, a Tu-144 went out of control and crashed at an air show in 1973. It returned to service but proved too costly and soon was withdrawn.

The United States did not even get that far. In 1963, President Kennedy responded to the challenge of Concorde by declaring that the United States would do even better. Rather than fly at twice the speed of sound, an American supersonic transport, or SST, would reach three times that speed. Boeing won the contract to develop the SST, with the government in Washington paying most of the cost. But late in the 1960s, the SST drew strong opposition from a rising environmental movement. Critics stated that SST engines were screechingly noisy. Scientists charged that exhaust from SST engines, high in the atmosphere, would damage the ozone layer that protects people from cancer-causing solar rays. Others declared that the SST would fly over cities and would disturb millions of people with a sonic boom, a loud and very bothersome crack resulting from its supersonic flight. In 1971, Congress voted to cancel the American SST program.

Commercial high-speed flight at supersonic speeds poses major technological challenges that were resolved during the 1960s and early 1970s and that led to a unique vehicle in the history of air transportation. The demonstration of sustained supersonic flight has been made on a regular basis by operating the Concorde over a period of more than a quarter of a century. It also served to show the limitations of this remarkable aircraft. Commercial operation of Concorde ceased in 2003.

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