Supersonic Dreams

On this day fifty years ago, Concorde made its maiden flight. The French prototype 001 lifted off from Toulouse with test pilot André Turcat at the controls for a modest 28 minute flight of what would become a truly groundbreaking aircraft.

Most famous as a supersonic airliner, Concorde would not break the sound barrier until October 1969. This first flight — and subsequent subsonic test flights of British prototype 002 under Brian Trubshaw — proved this engineering marvel could meet the ambitious aerospace goals set in motion some 15 years earlier.

Just think about this for a moment. In 1969, a passenger aircraft flew faster than sound, the world’s largest passenger plane took to the skies and man landed on the moon — twice! From the discomfort of 2019, with the threat of global extinction whirling around us, it is easy to feel like technological process has come to a halt.

That might be why I love Concorde so much. Its inception, development and operation is an encapsulation of the unparalleled technical and social progress of that era. Incredibly creative minds overcame complex design obstacles with few of the modern tools engineers take for granted today. In fact, Concorde is really one of the last big “analogue” devices. 

Although it embodied the vision for a space-age future — 2001-style moon colonies, jetpacks, lasers(!) — Concorde had more in common with a World War II bomber than a starship. Its flight deck is a mass of switches and dials which looks more like the set of Major Kong’s B-52 in Dr. Strangelove than a commercial airliner. Indeed its first pilots — Turcat and Trubshaw — earned their wings in World War II. Concorde was a product of the 1960s made with technology and know-how from the 1950s — and flew successfully until the beginning of the 21st century. They don’t make them like they used to.

But Concorde was also a technological test-bed for the future. It was the first production aircraft to utilise fly-by-wire flight control systems. Its complex Automatic Flight Control System was state of the art, incorporating autothrottle and autopilot that substantially reduced the workload on the pilots. Its pitch trim system — maintaining Concorde’s centre-of-gravity by pumping fuel to and from different parts of the plane —  was ingenious, if not the first of its kind. In every step of Concorde’s development, there was a new technical hurdle to overcome. One of my favourite engineering solutions is the variable air intake on each of Concorde’s four Rolls-Royce Olympus engines:

Concorde was designed to travel at speeds in excess of Mach 2, but at this speed, air cannot reach the compressors of the engines. This meant air had to be slowed down before reaching the engines to enable them to function, but still allow air to enter freely at subsonic speeds. The solution was ingenious: a variable air intake ramp which would slow down air from Mach 2 to about Mach 0.5. Essentially these were barn doors that would open and close depending on the flying conditions. These ramps would also be controlled by a digital processor — the first time a critical flight system had been entirely assigned to a computer. 

But history can’t be outrun. Although iconic, Concorde was not a commercial success for most of its life. In hindsight, it probably arrived about a decade too late on the aviation scene. First flown at the height of the golden age of 20th century technological advancement, Concorde launched commercially in the middle of the 1970s, a decade mired in energy crises and fatigued from the excesses of the previous decade. Soaring energy costs were an issue for an aircraft which reportedly burned as much fuel taxiing from the gate to the runway as an A320 does today flying from London to Amsterdam!

Concorde is now a museum piece. Most are on display to the public, some better cared for than others — one sits out in the weather at Heathrow, a cruel reminder to taxiing passengers of the promise of a supersonic future. One, of course, was destroyed in the horrific disaster of AF4590, a tragedy which hastened the Concorde experiment’s own demise.

We may not be lucky enough to have Concorde still in the skies today, but it leaves a lasting legacy of innovation (before M. Trunbull murdered that word to death) and post-war cooperation. Imagine that, eh? The Brits and the French working together on something? How quaint.

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