The Concorde Supersonic Transport

The Dassault Mirage, predecessor to the Concorde, was the first plane to fly at twice the speed of sound in Europe. Supersonic Transport

The Boeing SST prototype.

Concorde airframe British Concorde production airframe.

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.

Its background traces back to the 1950s, when 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 Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough was also one of the world’s leading centers for aeronautical research.

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. The Concorde was to fly at twice that speed, sharply cutting the time needed for a transatlantic flight. 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 (Société National d’Etude et de Construction de Moteurs d’Aviation). In November 1961, officials of these two firms signed a joint agreement stating how they expected to cooperate.

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 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. 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 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. Wilson gave in and continued the partnership.

The first experimental Concorde took to the air in 1969. 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.

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.”

Significantly, these decisions came before the oil crises of 1974 and 1979, which 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.

Only 14 Concordes ever flew in commercial service. All of them served the national airlines, British Airways and Air France. They acquired considerable glamour. 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.

Though flown in limited numbers, the Concorde has enjoyed decades of service. It has also 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 SST program.

A Concorde crashed in mid-2000, leading Britain and France to withdraw the remaining planes from service until investigations into the cause of the crash were complete. They returned to service at the beginning of November 2001.

—T.A. Heppenheimer


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