We had it. From January 21, 1976 to
October 24, 2003, we had a commercial supersonic passenger plane
called Concorde. Today it takes 7 hours to fly from New York
to London. On the Concorde it took About 3:30 (just under 3 hours if it was record
time). A journey that would have taken the Titanic
137 hours had become just barely long enough to
Watch Titanic while crossing the Atlantic. The Concorde came to represent class,
style, and the miracle of engineering.
Here’s a normal plane landing and here’s the Concorde landing. Which one are you looking
at? With Concorde, we all looked up and pointed.
And then in 2003… it stopped. We had commercial supersonic flight and just
let it go. Why? Why did the Concorde become a museum
exhibit? This is the Smithsonian’s Concorde, and
the curator who got it flew on it, too. “I did see the color of the sky at 60,000
feet. It’s this most gorgeous deep, deep purple.”
How did a breakthrough become a piece of memorabilia? The answer says something about how innovation
really sticks. And it’s complicated.
“I’ve got a personal interest in the SST, and I’d like to tell you about it.”
SST equals Supersonic transport, any transportation that’s faster than the speed of sound. It
became a dream after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier
in 1947, And a technological race in the 1950s and
1960s, combined Cold War competition with a classic mid-century
faith in engineering. Americans, Russians, and the British and French governments dumped
hundreds of millions of dollars into supersonic R&D.
(Think rooms full of engineers in short sleeves and ties.)
The then Seattle-based Boeing won the American design contract in 1967, (that’s where a
certain basketball team got its original name).
“Seattle Supersonics win the game!”
But development stopped after a 1971 funding cut.
Russia’s effort, the Tupolev Tu-144, flew, but it was grounded after an extraordinarily
spotty record over just 55 flights. But there was a winner.
“Concorde. The paper dart jet liner conceived jointly by Britain and France to shrink the
world and cut air journey times in half.”
From the beginning, Concorde was a marvel of design. It wasn’t designed with computers,
but through math and trial and error. They had to innovate constantly to make a
supersonic passenger plane possible. “The airplane needed to be very long and
narrow to go supersonically comfortably.”
And the paint was twice as reflective as other jets just to compensate for the heat from
“Because you’re traveling at Mach II, twice the speed of sound, even though you’re
at 60,000 feet...the airframe would actually heat up, dramatically.”
“I actually touched the window. It wasn’t warm, it was hot.”
Fuel flowed around the plane, during flight, to adjust its center of gravity for takeoff,
cruising, and landing.
“So these pumps are working the whole flight, but you can’t tell.”
But it was the beautiful wing that distinguished the Concorde for its greatest fans.
“It’s a Delta Wing, but it’s called an ogival delta wing because of its unique
Delta because it was triangular, like the Greek Delta; ogival to reference its curve.
The Delta Wing helped the Concorde get lift at takeoff and limit drag while in flight.
The rest of the plane compensated.
“The one compromise in it, it required a very high angle of attack at takeoff and landing.
Since pilots couldn’t see out of the plane because of angled landing, engineers put together
“The Concorde featured a droop snoot.”
“The snoot would droop.”
The snoot drooped.
“The reason being that it was a Delta wing design and had a very high angle of attack
on landing. So, in order to see, they were able to lower the nose.”
It flew at Mach 2 - more than 1300 miles per hour — faster than the earth spins.
“You couldn’t tell — the only way you knew your were doing Mach Two was that they
had a Mach meter up on the bulkhead. Everybody was focused on that, because it would creep
up. As soon as it went to Mach One, everyone would break out into applause.”
To minimize drag, it soared so high you could see the Earth’s curve.
The Concorde defined the glamor of high speed flight:
“Now this is a very important part of the seven piece wardrobe, this washable dress
that she wears in hot climates” And the admiration of celebrities like...Sting.
“It’s always exciting flying Supersonic and it’s always exciting to get to New York
before you’ve left.” It was a stratospheric cocktail party.
“Normally people complain about how bad the airline food is...I will attest, in this
case, that was not true. This was one of the best meals I ever had. It worked beautifully
— a normal French meal takes 2.5, 3 hours — by the time dinner was over, we were here.”
So what went wrong?
On July 25, 2000, the Concorde punctured a tire during takeoff for Air France Flight
4590. 113 people died. Though failure happened shortly after takeoff,
it was due to a problem specific to Concorde tires.
The plane was grounded, until November of 2001. By that time, the September 11th attacks
had already depressed the industry. But while both tragedies did affect Concorde,
they’re only a couple of pieces of the fundamental challenges for the plane.
Noise levels on takeoff were high.
But massive sonic booms had no comparison. In the 60s, the Air Force a ran a test of
sonic booms over Oklahoma City, and residents reported hundreds of damaged windows and noise
disturbances. All that meant limiting supersonic flight
to above the ocean — there would be no New York to LA Concorde.
That’s part of what quashed the American supersonic experiment with Boeing, and it
limited demand for supersonic planes from the beginning.
Noise concerns were paired with environmental concerns.
“There will be severe environmental damage to the ozone layer.”
The plane’s high flight pattern made scientists think its exhaust gas could be more threatening
to the ozone than normal jets. “What was noticeable was that you kept climbing,
and climbing, and climbing. We were flying much higher than a normal airliner.”
A massive fleet of supersonic planes probably would have caused real damage, setting red
flags for a supersonic future. Fuel requirements also limited range to Transatlantic
journeys, without any Transpacific cash cows. It guzzled enough fuel that price fluctuations
could hit particularly hard.
With ticket prices as high as $12,000 a seat, that was a significant risk.
And tickets had to be expensive, since at most only 120 passengers could fit on the
plane. It couldn’t distribute the price tag.
That was compounded by the need for specially qualified crewmembers and maintenance that
came at a premium. And it was all for a very demanding crowd.
“Air France and British Airways had to position a spare Concorde in New York in case the flight
had any problems. So there’s airplanes sitting on the ground, not making any money, just
in case. Because Concorde passengers expect to walk onto a Concorde because they paid
a lot of money to it.” None of these factors stopped the Concorde,
but they all boxed it in until it had nowhere to go but down.
When Air France and British Airways announced the Concorde’s closing on April 10, 2003,
it wasn’t about past, but the future. The manufacturer, Airbus, decided supporting
the Concorde was impossible. An aging Concorde — it still had analog
controls and a flight engineer, both of which newer planes had lost — would cost too much
to upgrade or redo. In a way, Concorde economics were similar
to this toy model’s economics. I got it for ten bucks because the manufacturer
could distribute the cost of factory workers, tooling, and distribution over thousands of
cute planes. Airbus loves doing the same with its family
of jets. Even if a flight were profitable for an airline, the airline couldn’t afford
a new small batch of planes. All the factors that boxed in Concorde kept
its scale so small, it would be wildly unprofitable to service, rebuild, or revive.
The best option was to land for good.
We like to think breakthroughs only end because of disaster.
With a crash. But they can fall short without disaster,
despite a breathtaking wing
or a jaw-dropping droop snoot. They have to come with a business model and
supply system, a political resolve, and a plan to expand.
Even as future dreams for Supersonic transport still simmer, all those business model questions
remain unanswered. “They don’t exist unless they make money...some
people don’t like that idea, but it’s a fact of life. They’re there to make money
If they’re making a product that doesn’t make money, they’ll stop making it or go
out of business. Or both. You never know.” So the flight time to London can return to
a double feature slog. But we lose something with the drudgery. Progress...slows.
And we have to wait for something else to look up at. Something worth pointing at.
So I have fallen completely in love with the Concorde, but it was not that comfortable
of a ride. Bob told me that while the legroom was pretty good, the headroom was not and
neither was the seat width — it was kinda like a coach seat. And you can see that in
this video of Sting. He looks pretty cramped — especially for Sting.