The Concorde Redemption
Can the superplane make a comeback?
- By Joseph Harriss
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
(Page 3 of 5)
With the airlines pushing to resume service, the companies assigned some 100 engineers to the top-priority project. “At first we and EADS Airbus talked with the authorities about all sorts of modifications, feeling our way, pushing forward on a number of fronts,” says Howard Berry, an official at BAE Systems. “What we had to do was somehow break the chain of events that occurred in the crash. The time scale [for completing the modifications] has been unpredictable because we’ve been going down a number of avenues and have to take into account any test results and the accident investigation.”
Besides the technical challenge, there was an economic one: The modifications must not unduly increase the airplane’s empty weight or reduce payload or maximum range, any of which would make it more costly to operate. And time was of the essence: Every month the Concorde fleets were grounded cost the two operators millions of dollars in lost revenue, continuing maintenance, salaries for inactive air crews, and, possibly, long-term loss of passengers.
From the start, British Airways was more optimistic about getting Concorde back into service than Air France. “That’s normal,” says Claud Freeman, BA Concorde manager at London’s Heathrow Airport. “After all, Air France management saw it happen right in front of their offices. Had we not taken a very positive attitude immediately, I believe Concorde probably would have stopped flying for good.”
The engineers felt the pressure; they were not only modifying an aircraft but trying to save an icon, a super-sleek machine that travels at Mach 2, faster than a rifle bullet. The roughly 150,000 Concorde passengers a year have gladly paid some $10,000 for a round-trip transatlantic ticket to race the sun, leaving London or Paris for New York and arriving a few minutes before they left (fastest crossing on record: two hours, 52 minutes, 59 seconds in February 1996, New York to London). As BBC interviewer Sir David Frost, who has made over 200 trips on the airplane, has said, “Concorde is the only way I know that you can be in two places at the same time.”
Not bad for an aircraft designed when engineers still used slide rules and log tables to figure out supersonic aerodynamics. Concorde’s engineers created a radically different bird that operates in a weird environment. At Mach 2, about 1,322 mph, and 60,000 feet, the air temperature is around –67 degrees Fahrenheit, but atmospheric friction heats the fuselage skin to the boiling point of water, expanding the metal and making the airplane about half a foot longer. “Concorde is a triumph of engineering,” says John Anderson, a curator in the aeronautics division of the National Air and Space Museum. “Particularly the wing, which is very complex in shape with lots of curvature for low drag and good stability. And they did it all without computers.”
Today, however, its flight deck instrumentation is old technology, the equivalent of a first-generation 747. Concorde pilots laboriously read electro-mechanical dials instead of glancing at the comprehensive, computer-generated displays of contemporary glass cockpits. “It’s not an easy plane to fly. You have to be constantly alert,” says Peter Duffey, a retired British Airways Concorde pilot and author of Comets and Concordes. “Things happen more quickly. For example, its takeoff time is only half that of a 747. At Mach 2, about 22 miles a minute, you’re always thinking about where you can land in an emergency, and there are about 50 reasons besides engine failure why you would have to take it down to subsonic flight. Unlike a conventional transatlantic run, you’re not sitting there for seven hours wondering what to do with yourself.”
Its makers never got around to modernizing Concorde’s cockpit because not enough were sold to make updating it economical. After the French and British governments sank several billion dollars in development costs in the 1960s, the only takers were their two captive, state-owned national carriers. As early as 1965, Beverly Shenstone, the technical director of BOAC, the predecessor of today’s British Airways, warned that Concorde was “the largest, most expensive, and most dubious project ever undertaken in the development of civil aircraft.”
Only 20 Concordes were built, including prototypes and pre-production models; 14 entered service. Because Concorde’s development costs were footed by taxpayers, both British Airways and Air France have claimed in recent years that their supersonic flagship was making a slim profit—in Air France’s case, reportedly only about $3 million, or a minuscule 1.3 percent of its total annual profits. “The economics of Concorde never made sense and there was never a market for it,” contends Ron Davies, curator of air transport at the National Air and Space Museum. “For every hour it spends in the air, it spends 14 on the ground. And for every seat transported across the Atlantic, it has to carry one ton of fuel—two tons if it’s only half full, which often happens. It’s so inefficient it’s unbelievable.” And all that development money spent? “Taxpayer-funded executive air transport,” Davies says. “It’s one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated. Concorde’s days are numbered and all they’re doing now is prolonging the agony.”