On October 14th in 1947, history was made. Chuck Yeager became the first human to fly supersonically. This event set off a race between Russia, British, France, and the United States to create the first supersonic commercial plane. And we achieved that goal, so what happened?
In the fifties and sixties, these countries spent hundreds of millions of dollars on supersonic research and development.
In the US, Boeing received the design contract from the government to work on a supersonic plane. This contract happens to be the reason why the basketball team in Seattle has a particular name.
Around this same time, the US Air Force began a wide range of tests about supersonic flight. In the mid-sixties, the Air Force intentionally caused several sonic booms over Oklahoma City. Hundreds of windows were shattered, and the telephone lines were clogged with complaints about the noise disturbances.
Not long after these tests, a law was passed that banned supersonic flight over US soil. With the passing of the law, interest (and funding) in the US made supersonic plane diminished. After all, why spend a bunch of money if it won’t help us get from New York to LA any faster?
Russia experienced a little success with their jet, the Tupolev Tu-144. However, its performance was spotty and not consistent. Russia scrapped the plans after fifty test flights.
It was combined efforts from Sud Aviation (France) and the British Aircraft Corporation that birthed the winner of commercial supersonic flight, the Concorde.
The Concorde’s body was long and narrow to help it transition past the sound barrier with more comfort. The narrow body limited the size of the interior. Even though there was plenty of legroom, the seats were narrow similar to the width of coach seating.
The paint on the Concorde was twice as reflective as normal planes. Because of air friction, while in flight the nose would reach temperatures around 127 C, or 260.6 F. The reflective paint helped to lessen the amount of heat conducted into the plane.
The Concorde had several large fuel tanks that could be found throughout the plane. Pumps were constantly working to move fuel between the different tanks to help stabilize the weight and allow for easier takeoff and landings.
The wings are what most people think of when someone says Concorde. A delta wing was developed that would reduce air friction. Less friction means faster movement with less effort.
However, the delta wings didn’t give as much lift as traditional planes. So the takeoff and landing of the Concorde were steep. So steep in fact that the pilots couldn’t see past the nose of the plane. To get around this, engineers created a nose cone that would lower allowing the pilots more sight. The engineers jokingly called it a “droop snoop.”
The Concorde’s cruising altitude was at 18,300 meters or 60,039 feet. Once at altitude, it could pass Mach 2, 2,146 kilometers per hour (1,334 mph). That’s faster than the earth spins (1,674 kph).
Each Concorde had a “Machmeter” installed in the bulkhead of the plane so the passengers could see what Mach they were traveling at. Passengers would cheer when they passed Mach 1 and champagne was served once they reached Mach 2.
Today, with a modern plane, it takes seven hours to fly from New York to London. The Concorde could make the trip in three and a half.
There isn’t a single commercial supersonic plane in operation today. It feels like we may have abandoned an amazing future for something… well less amazing.
On July 25th, 2000, Air France flight 4590 punctured a tire during take off. The plane crashed and one hundred and thirteen people died. An investigation followed and all Concorde’s were grounded until the investigation ended in November of 2001. It turns out there was a fault in the tire that was specific to the Concorde.
However, it wasn’t this tragedy that ended the Concorde. There were several things that happened that limited the potential of the plane.
The law that prohibited supersonic flight over US soil was a major limiting factor. Another factor was the September 11th attacks. The September 11th attacks severely depressed the air travel market. This happened during the investigation of Air France flight 4590.
Some scientists believed that the Concorde would have a severely negative impact on the environment. It is true that the Concorde burns more fuel than a normal commercial plane but they argued that its altitude would increase the impact on the ozone.
It takes a lot of fuel to reach supersonic speeds. A Concorde could only hold enough fuel to make trans-Atlantic flights. This limited the destinations greatly.
Fuel isn’t cheap.
And while I’m talking about how not cheap fuel is, the crew of the Concorde had to be specifically trained for that plane. There was only a hand full of mechanics in the world how could work on them. And if a part broke and needed to be replaced, well then a machine shop had to make that part. There were only twenty Concorde’s built. All of the unique parts were specifically made for that plane.
Basically what I am trying to say is, the Concorde was an expensive plane to build and maintain.
The Concorde could only hold 120 passengers. Because of few passengers and the high cost of flying a Concorde, tickets were very high. In 2003, the cost of one seat was about $12,000!
In 2003, the controls on the Concorde were still analog, and the plane also required a flight engineer. At that time they were the only commercial planes with old analog technology.
The British Aircraft Corporation and Aerospatiale (which use to be Sub Aviation) found that it would cost too much to update the out of date planes. The last commercial flight of a Concorde was on October 24th, 2003.
The Concorde was a very fast plane that had very little real world use. With a high cost to fly and limited destinations, there hasn’t been another supersonic commercial plane.
But with new technology, that may soon be changing. I will have to write about the future of commercial flight at another time.