Flying faster than the speed of sound has always been the sole proviso of the military, but in the late-Sixties, Russia, France, the UK and the US were all working on the idea of supersonic commercial travel. Faster planes meant shorter travel times, increased demand and higher prices.
Concorde was the result of France and the UK combining their efforts to produce a supersonic airliner and, even now, it’s impossible not to be impressed by its pioneering stature.
Its ogival or double-curved wings kept it aerodynamic and dictated much of the plane’s shape, as they forced the nose up on taxiing, take off and landing. To help minimise drag on the aircraft as well as improve visibility, the nose cone could move, dropping down to improve visibility then straightening out in flight to improve the aerodynamic profile.
Concorde’s engines also had to be modified for extended supersonic flight. Jet engines can only take in air at subsonic speed so the air passing into the engines had to be slowed when flying at Mach 2.0. Worse, the act of slowing the air down generated potentially damaging shock waves. This was controlled by a pair of intake ramps and an auxiliary spill door that could be moved during flight, slowing the air and allowing the engine to operate efficiently. This system was so successful that 63 per cent of Concorde’s thrust was generated by these intakes during supersonic flight.
And yet Concorde still had to contend with the heat generated by supersonic flight. The nose – traditionally the hottest part of any supersonic aircraft -was fitted with a visor to prevent the heat reaching the cockpit while the plane’s fuel was used as a heat sink, drawing heat away from the cabin.
Even then, owing to the incredible heat generated by compression of air as Concorde travelled supersonically, the fuselage would extend up to 300 millimeters, or almost one foot. The most famous manifestation of this was a gap that would open up on the flight deck between the flight engineer’s console and the bulkhead. Traditionally, engineers would place their hats in this gap, trapping them there after it closed.
End of an era
On 25 July 2000, Air France Flight 4590 crashed in Gonesse, France, killing all 100 passengers and nine crew as well as a further four on the ground. Although the crash was caused by a fragment from the previous aircraft to take off, passenger numbers never recovered and were damaged still further by the rising cost of maintaining the ageing aircraft and the slump in air travel following the 9/11 attacks.
Despite an attempt by Richard Branson to purchase BA’s Concorde fleet for Virgin Atlantic, the planes were retired following a week-long farewell tour that culminated in three Concordes landing at Heathrow. BA still owns its Concorde fleet: one is on display in Surrey, a second is being kept near-airworthy by volunteers at the Le Bourget Air and Space Museum, and a third, also at that site, is being worked on by a joint team of English and French engineers. The plan is to make it air worthy and have the aircraft form part of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.