Ten years ago today Concorde took its last flight, landing at Bristol, U.K., at 13:00 GMT. For more than 3 decades it had been a matter of pride for both England and France, who started the project in the 50s, and a status symbol for those who could afford it.
It was a product of the age of “speed and sputnik“, when it seemed there were no limits to what could be achieved in the skies.
Seen as the carriage of choice for the rich and famous, celebrities regularly travelled the return trip from London to New York, including Elton John, Sting, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Joan Collins, Luciano Pavarotti, Sean Connery, Robert Redford, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, Mike Tyson, Annie Lennox and Rod Stewart.
As the world’s only supersonic passenger aircraft, Concorde has always seemed to be at the cutting edge of aviation technology. Yet it is the product of another age.
That first flight on a Sunday afternoon in 1969 was watched by millions on black and white television sets.
It was a masterpiece of engineering, a technological marvel – and the greatest financial disaster in aviation history.
Jointly developed and produced by Aérospatiale and the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) under an Anglo-French treaty, Concorde was one of only two turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner ever used in the aviation history for commercial purposes – the other one being the soviet Tupolev Tu-144, whose prototype first flew on 31 December 1968 near Moscow, two months before the first flight of Concorde.
Reaching a speed of Mach 2.2, Concorde flew transatlantic routes from England and France to New York and Washington in half of the time of a regular aircraft. While commercial jets took eight hours to fly from New York to Paris, the average supersonic flight time on the transatlantic routes was just under 3.5 hours.
But Concorde wasn’t all roses. Its high maintenance costs and high consume of petrol caused a regular return fare could be as expensive as £15,000.
And it wasn’t just the costs that were an issue, but the strong environmental impact influenced the eventual dismissal of the project.
The noise of supersonic flight forced the pilots to temporarily throttle back their engines to reduce noise during overflight of residential areas.
It also produced nitrogen oxides in its exhaust which, due to complicated interactions with other ozone-depleting chemicals, are understood to have degraded the ozone layer at the stratospheric altitudes where the Concorde cruised.
Major concerns were also expressed over its structural issues: because of the high speeds at which the plane travelled, large forces were applied to the aircraft’s structure during banks and turns. This caused twisting and the distortion of the aircraft’s structure, and the air friction on the outer surfaces caused the cabin to heat up during flight.
Despite these problems, which suggest a faulty structure, Concorde had only had one accident in its history: on 25 July 2000, it crashed into a hotel in Gonesse, France. All one hundred passengers and nine crew members on board the flight died. On the ground, four people were killed and one seriously injured.
The event encouraged criticism and discussion on the overall safety of the project, and contributed to the decrease of an already slim consumer market that could afford it.
The 9/11 terrorist attack in New York was the last straw, and two years later Concorde took its last flight.
Since then, rumors have occasionally been heard about the possible return of the supersonic aircraft, last one being the Dubai’s Emirates Airline. Alas, economics prevailed, as Tim Clark, president of Dubai Emirates Airline put it: “the cost of operating those jets and the charges that would have to be made to the corporate community are too high.”
The cold war’s dream of beating a common enemy has been changed with today’s need for efficiency and high profits.
Pier Paolo Lisarelli