In a collaborative effort between the United Kingdom and France, the Concorde was born. It was the world’s first supersonic commercial aircraft which was a cut above the rest and, perhaps, a few decades before its time. Having invested so much in building this revolutionary supersonic commercial aircraft, why did the Concorde fail?
A Revelation In Supersonic Commercial Aircraft Design
The Concorde’s story starts in 1962 when Geoffroy de Courcel and Julian Amery signed the Anglo-French supersonic airliner treaty. The Concorde would be the result of a joint undertaking between France’s Sud Aviation and the British Aircraft Corporation.
In 1969, not long after the moon landing, Brian Trubshaw flew the British-built prototype for its first flight. However, it wasn’t until 1976 that the Concorde flew the first supersonic commercial flight. Little did they know that it would become one of the most-talked-about supersonic commercial aircraft of all time, albeit for different reasons.
It was the only aircraft in the world that could transport passengers from New York to London in under three hours. This was a remarkable feat, especially considering it was almost more than 40 years ago.
What Made The Concorde Ahead Of Its Time?
Able to travel at twice the speed of sound or 2.04 Mach, the Concorde featured some of the most advanced systems and technologies of its time.
It was the first aircraft with computer-controlled engine air intakes which was a significant leap in the aviation sector at the time. This allowed the Concorde to slow the airflow into its engines down to 1,000 mph in just 4.5 metres while also preventing the engines from exploding.
The then-futuristic supersonic passenger aircraft also featured carbon fibre brakes and fly-by-wire controls. While it may not sound like much today, in the 1960s this was well ahead of its time and long before Airbus took this technology mainstream.
Concorde’s drooping nose and wing design made the aircraft more streamlined during flight. It could also be dropped lower to give the pilot a better field of vision when taking off and landing.
A Supersonic Commercial Aircraft In Full Flight
The first supersonic commercial flight took place on 21st January 1976 when the British Airways Concorde flew from London to Bahrain. At the same time, Air France’s Concorde flew from Paris to Rio de Janeiro. The Concorde was in full flight between 1976 and 2000 serving wealthy travellers and aircraft fanatics but a tragic crash in Paris in 2000 soon changed things.
While the Concorde returned to active service in November 2001 after the companies spent £71 million on safety improvements, British Airways and Air France announced in 2003 that they were retiring the Concorde. The final flight of the Concorde would be October 2003. The question is, why was the Concorde permanently grounded?
How Did The Concorde Fail?
Despite being a revolutionary supersonic passenger aircraft loaded with innovations, the Concorde wasn’t very efficient. Since the Concorde was designed before the oil-price shock in the 1970s, it consumed a lot of energy which made it unprofitable with higher fuel prices.
They also placed prestige over efficiency and whilst some people were willing to pay a premium during that era, it wasn’t a sustainable approach. In addition to the inefficient performance, the Concorde was extremely loud which meant it couldn’t operate at all airports or fly over densely populated areas.
The Concorde also could barely make the journey from the UK to the U.S. East Coast, not to mention the West Coast. It could only ferry 100 passengers which consumed the same amount of fuel as a Boeing 747 with twice the range and four times the number of passengers.
Crash Of Air France Flight 4590
Flight 4590 was an Air France Concorde, a supersonic passenger aircraft charter travelling from Paris to New York City. Most of the passengers were German tourists travelling to New York to board a Caribbean-bound cruise ship. At approximately 4:43 PM on July 25, 2000, the plane began its journey from Charles de Gaulle Airport but went down in flames almost immediately after takeoff.
It crashed in Gonesse, a suburb of Paris killing all 109 people on board and 4 others on the ground. This marked the first fatal crash of a Concorde in 24 years of regular passenger service. According to a French government investigation:
“The Concorde ran over a strip of metal on the runway, causing a tyre to blow out. A large fragment of rubber then struck a fuel tank on the underside of the wing.”
Looking at it from today’s perspective, they probably should have grounded the entire project before the 1980s. You may think that the crash in 2000 was the reason for the Concorde’s retirement, but in reality, Air France and British Airways were already planning to phase it out of service.
While the Paris crash in 2000 didn’t help the cause, it was ultimately the inefficiency of the Concorde that led to its demise. Aside from the tragic crash, and considering what they had achieved, the Concorde was good at the time and undoubtedly an incredible feat of engineering whichever way you look at it.
Today, there are countless supersonic aircraft designs but let’s hope they’ve learned from the Concorde’s failures and offer the world a more affordable and sustainable supersonic commercial aircraft.