The Concorde Redemption

Can the superplane make a comeback?

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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.”

Last year’s crash shocked the world. Yet the omens had long indicated that not all was well with the beautiful white bird. The very day before the crash, Air France discovered cracks in the wings of four of its six aging Concordes (though not in the one that crashed). This followed British Airways’ finding cracks, like those at Air France, termed non-safety-critical, in all seven of its airplanes; it grounded one for repairs just before July 25.

Perhaps more ominous is the long series of incidents and warnings that came to light as crash investigators and the media delved into Concorde’s past. For example, aircraft belonging to both companies had lost parts of their elevons and rudders several times in flight but were able to land safely. In 1998, the Olympus 593 engines were found to have 152 problems in hardware design or other factors, 55 of which were considered “significant risks,” and BA and Rolls-Royce initiated a plan to remedy them. The engine study warned, “A major technical event would probably end Concorde operation.”

But the scariest scenario to come out this year has been the BEA’s list of 57 tire-related incidents from 1976 to 2000, 30 of which were on Air France flights and 27 on British Airways. Of those, 32 blowouts damaged the aircraft’s structure, engines, or hydraulics, and six resulted in penetration of one or more fuel tanks.

The worst of these occurred on June 14, 1979, when Air France Flight 054 to Paris blew the two rear tires on its left main gear on takeoff from Washington Dulles Airport, hurling high-speed rubber and wheel rim debris at the left wing and engines. The flight crew knew about the blown tires and were diverting to New York, but they were unaware of the true extent of the problem until a passenger convinced the mostly indifferent cabin attendants to bring a crew member back to examine a 12-square-foot hole in the top wing skin. “I took the gentleman who had come back from the flight deck to my seat and virtually held his head to the window so that he could look down and see the hole in the wing,” the passenger wrote in his harrowing statement to the National Transportation Safety Board (available at “When he saw the hole, he exclaimed, ‘Mon Dieu!’ ” The crew managed an emergency landing at Dulles with Jet A1 streaming from a dozen holes in fuel tanks, damage to the number two engine, severed electrical cables, and the loss of two of three hydraulic systems. Following recommendations from the NTSB, the FAA urgently telegraphed airworthiness directives to both Concorde operators detailing procedures for more intensive checks of tires, wheels, and brakes.

The airplane was later modified to include roll-on wheel rims, strengthened tires, and a tire failure warning in the cockpit. But even after the NTSB’s then-chairman, James B. King, wrote to his French counterpart on November 9, 1981, expressing “serious concern” about “the repetitive nature of these incidents,” they continued. As another former NTSB chief, Jim Burnett, points out, “Concorde could have been certified with a design flaw nobody noticed at the time. If there were as many Concordes flying as 737s, I suspect that we would have seen this kind of accident many times.”

Will the current modifications solve the problem for good? Because EADS Airbus is responsible for the wings, it has taken the lead in trying to find the solution. Its engineers quickly focused on modifications to the fuel tanks to cut the risk of fire from a fuel leak, and armoring electrical cables, which were suspected of igniting the fire with a spark, in the airplane’s wheel wells.

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