By the mid-1950s the UK and French governments were worried. Twenty years earlier people were crossing the Atlantic in zeppelins, and now jet airliners were taking to the skies. Going supersonic was the next logical step, and the US had already broken the sound barrier… if they didn’t make the move into supersonic travel, they’d be locked out of the next generation of airliners.
Both countries started work on a supersonic airliner individually. But while the British team had a head start, both in planning and technology, the UK wanted to spread the costs and join the Common Market, (the predecessor to the EU). So it decided to join forces with France - a treaty was signed between the two countries in November 1962, and Concorde (with a French “e”) was born.
The resulting plane was ground-breaking in just about every way. It flew more than twice as fast as any passenger plane before it. It had a droop nose so the pilots could see during the steep take-offs as the plane soared almost straight up to its cruising altitude of 60,000 feet. With a speed of Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound – the engineers had to overcome a range of technical issues, including creating windows that wouldn’t melt. It was touted as the future of travel and airlines worldwide made expressions of interest. By the mid-sixties over a dozen airlines had made (non-binding) orders for close to a hundred Concordes.
The first prototype flew in 1969, but the first commercial flight wasn’t until 1976. The development costs were originally pitched at around 70 million pounds. By the time the Concorde went into production it had cost French and UK taxpayers around 1.5 billion pounds. The airline market had changed massively too. By 1976 the price of fuel had soared, and the Concorde was massively wasteful, using 94 tonnes of fuel to cross the Atlantic. These days a 787 can cross the Atlantic three times on the same amount of fuel. And in what would prove to be a near knockout blow to its commercial use, the sonic boom it generated meant that it couldn’t fly over land (at least, not without deafening those below it).
The US had abandoned their own Supersonic Transport (or SST) program in 1971 thanks to cost overruns and noise concerns, and they weren’t interested in letting a European plane rattle their windows. It took a legal battle that went all the way to the US Supreme Court for the Concorde to be allowed to land in New York; the only times it would fly over the continental USA would be on subsonic flights to Texas that never turned a profit.
In the end only fourteen Concordes would fly commercially, and only for British Airways and Air France. All those non-binding orders were never taken up. While both airlines were eventually able to operate the plane at a profit – mostly because flights were aimed firmly at the elite, with final tickets costing around US$10,000 for a round trip across the Atlantic – the massive development costs were never recouped.
For all its problems, the Concorde was definitely fast; it made the trip from London to Washington in three and a half hours. Thanks to the speed with which you crossed time zones, the clock (or maybe just the advertising) said you arrived before you left. But it lacked range; any long-distance flights required refuelling stopovers. And as most long-distance flights required flying over land, by the early 80s the Concorde’s supersonic flights were limited to trans-Atlantic routes.
It was only ever a niche service, but for decades it was the only way to cross the Atlantic if you were in a hurry. Before the Internet, the Concorde was the fastest way to get documents from one side of the Atlantic to the other and twice daily flights meant that business travellers could make the round trip from London to New York in a single day.
Then in July 2000, a Concorde crashed on take-off in Paris, killing 113 people. All remaining Concordes were grounded for a year. The service limped on, but in 2003 it was announced that both BA and Air France were stepping away from the Concorde.
Where was the successor? The only other supersonic passenger jet to fly was the accident-prone Soviet Tu-144, which only flew briefly in the 70s. Cutting edge technology had moved away from air travel; it was no longer a glamour industry that inspired national pride. Fuel and noise were big problems no-one had fully solved, though new technology could possibly change that today. Those who used to travel on the Concorde – the super-rich, mostly – now have private planes and supersonic private jets are on the drawing board for 2022 while near supersonic options are already available.
There’s still plenty of big talk about making supersonic passenger travel happen. In 2016 NASA announced they were working on a quieter supersonic jet; earlier this year Boeing announced plans for a hypersonic passenger jet that would travel at Mach 5 and travel between London and New York in two hours. They expect it to be operational and commercially viable around 2040.
In the meantime, we’ll still be taking the Airbus.
Watch Concorde: Designing the Dream on Sunday, 9 September at 8:30pm on SBS.