The Boeing line of jets is a good example of this: the Boeing 707 first flew in 1957 and the 787 first flew in 2009. While the evolution of Boeing’s planes between these time periods have progressed to larger and more technologically equipped models, there haven’t been significant changes in how fast they travel.
Take the 707 with its cruising speed of approximately 917km/h, and the 787 which has a typical cruising speed of 903km/h. These speeds can change depending on the specific model of plane and the load involved, but you might have expected the passenger aircraft of today to whisk you off to your destination at a much higher speed than 50 years ago. There is one specific plane however, that sticks out in the mind of most, when it comes to fast flight.
Back in the fifties, a few dreamers in Britain and France thought they could do better than other companies when it came to speed. They built an amazing plane called Concorde (yes, the proper use of the name is without an “a” or “the”).
Generally regarded as the world’s fastest commercial airliner, Concorde took its first passenger flight 40 years ago. Let’s look at this iconic plane that did such a great job of capturing people’s imaginations.
The sleek design of Concorde feels fast, and the plane lives up to its looks. Concorde can cruise at 2,180km/h, which means it can go just over twice the speed of sound (or Mach 2). Just to put this into perspective, the F-35 fighter plane has a cruising speed of about Mach
1.6. Boarding Concorde meant you could arrive at your destination two times faster than the sound of your voice complaining about airport security lines!
So how did this amazing plane get created, and what happened to it?
The birth of Concorde
Concorde was developed as a joint venture between the British and French governments under the companies British Aircraft Corporation and Aérospatiale. The word concorde (or concord in English) means an agreement between persons, groups, or nations, so it is a very appropriate name for a plane built as a partnership.
Of course, a plane like this didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It has had a long and sometimes turbulent history.
The British government first began investigating the possibility of a supersonic airliner in the late 1950s. By the early 60s, the French government (under President de Gaule) asked to work with Britain on the development of an airliner that focused on speed rather than just passenger capacity.
An agreement was reached to share the development between Britain and France. The British government briefly intended to withdraw from the partnership in the end of 1964, but by January 1965 they decided against this and recommitted to the goal of creating supersonic airliners.
Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were also working to develop their own planes, so competition was hot (the U.S.S.R. succeeded in developing their own supersonic airliner, but it flew for a far shorter time than Concorde).
Development, testing, and manufacturing continued through the 60s, with Concorde taking it’s first flight in 1969. However, Concorde didn’t enter service as an actual airliner until 1976. The plane was given 5,000 hours of testing before it was certified for passengers, making it the most tested airplane in history.
The design of the plane incorporated a number of amazing tech advancements, such as the delta wing, fly-by-wire controls, hybrid circuits, carbon fibre brakes, and it was the first aircraft to have computer controlled air intakes as well.
Since many of these advancements pre-dated the massive computerization of aircraft, the highly analogue cockpit of Concord was an intimidating sight.
Even the face of the plane incorporated a new nose design. The optimum angle for efficient flight would have meant little-to-no visibility for the pilots in take-off and landing situations, so the designers built a droop nose that could change angles, lowering for takeoff and landing, and raising to the more aerodynamic position in flight.
Unfortunately, for all its technical advancement, Concorde sales never really got off the ground. Concerns about noise (both engine noise and the booms from the plane breaking the sound barrier) led to complaints from many airports and surrounding areas.
In addition, political issues led to some countries restricting Concorde from supersonic flight in their airspace. All too often, Concorde was restricted to sub-sonic flights over land, meaning that its great speed (and greatest competitive advantage) was increasingly only used on trans-Atlantic flights.
In the world of luxury travel, Concorde fell just a bit short of the mark when compared with other first class jets. While the in-flight menu was generally top notch, its cabin could only seat 100 passengers, and there were also headroom and baggage limitations.
As time went on, Concorde also lacked some of the more modern luxuries that newer airlines were offering. People didn’t seem to mind a longer flight if they had a choice of movies to watch or a bed to line down in, along with other first class amenities not found aboard Concorde.
Unfortunately, while it was a hit at air shows across the globe, widespread adoption of Concorde never happened. Only 14 of the planes were ever flown commercially. The companies involved in designing and building the plane took a loss on the project, and the planes that had been developed were sold to British Airways and Air France.
There are more US astronauts than there are Concorde pilots – it’s a small club.
Sometimes, being a bit of a rarity is a quality that brings a niche market. There is a certain prestige in being part of an elite club, and Concorde found its audience among the wealthy and influential.
The planes were set on popular runs such as London to New York, and Singapore. Businessmen and executives loved the fact that they could fly out to conduct their business and still be home by evening.
Celebrities and politicians appreciated that they could trim hours off their travel. In general, the planes became a hit amongst people who needed to get places quickly, and this went for transporting packages such as diamonds, important documents, and even human organs as well.
What happened to Concorde?
As you can probably guess, you can’t buy a ticket to fly on Concorde anymore. The planes were eventually retired due to higher competition from other airlines, worries about security and terrorism, environmental concerns, and difficult economic times.
One of the biggest issues contributing to the demise of Concorde was a crash in 2000 that killed 113 people. Safety concerns grounded the entire Concorde fleet for a year, pending investigation and modifications. By that time, the public attitude towards the planes had changed.
The final Concorde flight was in 2003. Now, if you want to see Concorde up close, you would have to visit one in a museum or as part of a tourist attractions. They have seemingly been confined to history… or have they?
The saga of Concorde might not actually be over. A group of Concorde fans and former pilots have raised about $160 million for the purpose of bringing back Concorde to the sky.
In the decade or so without Concorde, no plane has managed to capture the imagination in quite the same way. Who knows? With plans to have one of these iconic jets back in the air by 2019 (in time for the 50th anniversary of the first Concorde flight), you might find yourself cruising along faster than the speed of sound sooner than you know it.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Wikipedia
Boeing 707, Wikipedia
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, Wikipedia
Concorde History, Concordesst.com
O’Ceallaigh, John, “Concorde: 40 fascinating facts”, The Telegraph, 2016
O’Ceallaigh, John, “The revival of Concorde”, The Telegraph, 2016
Westcott, Richard, “Could Concorde ever fly again? No, says British Airways”, BBC News, 2013
Bramson, Dara, “Supersonic Airplanes and the Age of Irrational Technology”, The Atlantic, 2015
Fitzpatrick, Alex, “NASA’s Ambitious Plan to Help Build the Next Concorde”, Time, 2016
Alter, Charlotte, “Concorde Supersonic Plane May Fly Again”, Time, 2015
Hoeller, Sophie-Claire, “A group of fans are trying to bring the Concorde supersonic jet back”, Business Insider, 2015