Can the supersonic bird ever fly again?
When Fred Finn, the most travelled man in the world, was asked recently by Airline Reporter about his favourite aircraft, he unsurprisingly selected Concorde, an aircraft he’d flown on a record 718 times.
“…It was a terrific experience to travel faster than a rifle bullet and drink Dom Perignon at the same time. You were able to ride on the very edge of space where you could see the earth circle, and arriving before you took off if flying west, all above any turbulence and with friendly crews.”
The bird has flown
Concorde, which flew at twice the speed of sound, crossing the Atlantic in half the time of regular commercial aircraft, started operations in 1976 and suffered no serious mishaps until July 2000 when, minutes after take-off at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, one of its 20-strong fleet plunged into a suburban hotel killing all 100 passengers, nine crew and four on the ground. It was only a matter of time (three years as it turned out) before Concorde was forever grounded.
The ahead-of-her-time turbojet-engined craft was, many think, grounded prematurely; after all, the fatal crash occurred only because the plane taxied over a shard of titanium debris on the Paris runway. It remains the safest working passenger airliner in the world according to passenger deaths per distance travelled.
Two groups of die-hard Concorde fans in the UK have been working behind the scenes to resurrect the fallen icon. Founded straight after its October 2003 retirement, Save the Concorde Group (SCG) is manned by chairman Ben Lord and two colleagues. Lord has never flown on the plane, but always thought he would be able to, until it was too late.
Though lobbying not for Concorde’s commercial return, but for six to ten ‘heritage’ flights per year, the diminutive group has an uphill battle on its hands. “We have constantly received criticism from a small minority of people who feel their voice is stronger than ours,” says Lord.
Sister group Heritage Concorde Tech (HCT) takes a more hands-on approach. Founded in February this year when project director Steve de Sausmarez visited Manchester Airport to carry out repairs to a Concorde kept at its museum, its volunteer engineers have made a slew of fixes with initial hopes of inclusion in the 2012 Olympics.
Wrote Lord: “Whilst it was inevitable that Concorde wouldn’t be flying over the Olympic Stadium next year, an option became apparent that could see this iconic aircraft being beamed across video screens around the world saluting the Olympics with the famous [hydraulically adjustable] nose being lowered.”
The plan has now stalled, on the dreaded grounds of health and safety. Those involved are hopeful that this ruling can be reversed. I asked Lord and de Sausmarez why so many people who would never been able to afford to be a passenger on the aircraft are so nostalgic about Concorde.
“Although it was cost-prohibitive to many,” says de Sausmarez, “seeing it fly was a symbol of pride and patriotism.”
Lord harks back to the sight of Concorde and the Red Arrows flying over The Mall at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, adding: “Concorde is a symbol of unity. The whole world over, even now, is in love with this aircraft. Everyone has a story to tell with Concorde, whether it be where they saw it fly, knew someone who flew it or worked on it – everyone does and that has left an indelible mark on this country’s DNA.”
Paris to New York in one hour 45 minutes?
Both men think Concorde is irreplaceable, and they are probably right – in the passenger space. But supersonic business jets may be just around the corner. HyperMach, an aerospace firm, revealed plans to make a 2,664mph SonicStar jet at the Paris Airshow in June (Concorde’s top speed was about 1,350mph), while Airbus-owner EADS unveiled a hypersonic jet.
“It is not a Concorde but it looks like a Concorde, showing that aerodynamics of the 1960s were very smart,” Jean Botti, EADS’ chief technical officer told Reuters. EADS CEO Louis Gallois said it could be another 30-40 years before commercial flights are a reality.
Both companies are seeking to avoid Concorde’s notorious supersonic boom, the rather alarming sound of which had led The Port Authority of New York to refuse it landing rights at JFK Airport until the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the decision in 1977, after which, says Lord, “the Americans came to love Concorde almost as much as we did!”
For those onboard, crossing the sound barrier was a far nicer experience. Here is Irish TV and radio personality Terry Wogan reminiscing recently in The Daily Telegraph: “Breakfast at Heathrow, and breakfast again on arrival in New York; the darkness of the ionosphere as we flew high above the surly bounds of Earth; the gentle lurch forward as the sound barrier was breached.”
Lord is dismissive of the business jet alternative. “It would seem technology demands the ability to be able to fly much quicker than Concorde. There is a need and desire to be able to get from London to Sydney [for example] in the same time it took Concorde to fly between London and New York, but I think that will never be as affordable as was Concorde.”
In its day, only six planes in the world could catch up with Concorde, de Sausmarez explained, “all of which were military and required mid-air refuelling.” No matter how fast new jets come to fly, the Sixties-era Concorde will always win on sex appeal. As cargo pilot Patrick Smith wrote in one of his excellent Salon.com columns, “It was international, in a sexy, James Bond kind of way, its delta-winged profile instantly recognizable.”
Lord thinks Concorde is easily the greatest engineering and aviation achievement since the Second World War. “I think if you held a poll in a national newspaper today asking if the country wanted to see Concorde fly again, you would get record numbers of people voting in favour. The display of support and interest over the last few years towards us have shown that, and above all this would put the UK on the world map, and our national airline would attract marketing kudos that no marketing budget would ever be able to arrange!”
For now, however, it is to museums that Concorde fans must go. SCG are currently working to save BA Concorde Alpha-Foxtrot in Bristol Filton Airport which has had its museum temporarily closed. They also want to see BA Concorde G-BOAB Alpha-Bravo, the last Concorde to remain there, given a permanent display at London Heathrow, “to mark her Supersonic home for 27 years – just as Air Frances does at Paris Charles de Gaulle.”
Main caption on blog homepage: The retired Air France Concorde number five is seen on the tarmac at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport, north of Paris, October 19, 2005. The retired Concorde is placed on permanent display in a position to simulate the take off of the supersonic passenger jet. REUTERS/Franck Prevel