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Concorde - The Greatest Plane Ever Built?

At Mach2 it was quite literally ‘faster than a speeding bullet’. It could carry 100 passengers in style. So was Concorde the best plane that the aviation industry has ever built? And just why is there no modern replacement?

by Stuart Carter

For the last 27 years, Transatlantic passengers have routinely flown supersonically when they climbed on board one of British Airways or Air France’s Concorde’s. Its passengers were 80 percent business passengers and included film stars, royalty, rock icons and sports legends. Flying at more than twice the speed of sound they could travel form London or Paris to New York in little more than 3 hours. Sadly, now at the end of October 2003 the service is no more.

The invention of Concorde ranks right up there alongside the Wright Flyer and Apollo 11. It was a huge step forward in aviation. Just twenty years after the sound barrier was first broken Concorde was designed and built to carry 100 passengers at Mach 2 in comfort from one side of the Atlantic to the other. At the time it was brave and visionary. And every pilot who has flown it thinks it was great - from the cockpit 11 miles above the ground, that’s 55-60,000 feet high, they could see the curvature of the Earth’s surface. Apart from spy planes no one flew higher.

One of the greatest achievements of the original design that engineers had to overcome was the immense heat problems. At Mach2 the air is compressed so much it heats the body of the plane. The front of the nose can reach 127 Celsius – well above boiling point even when the ambient outside temperature is subzero. In fact it heated up so much that overall it increased by 15 cms in length. When it’s at full speed it feels hot if you touch the bare metal of the fuselage from the inside. Without efficient air-conditioning the inside air temperature would become unbearable and dangerous, higher than 100 Celsius! Fortunately the fuel remains relatively cool inside the wings and this can be circulated and used as a ’cooling’ fluid to lower the air temperature inside the cabin. By the time a plane arrives at New York the remaining fuel is much warmer than when it took off in London.

Credit to Newscast

Captain Mike Bannister - Chief Concorde Pilot from British Airways after a successful flight

Concorde takes off with the help of extra power from its after burners. This means the jet exhaust gases are reheated with extra fuel to give 20% more thrust – and unfortunately a lot more noise. Also the plane is designed to cope with effects of the supersonic shock wave. As the plane accelerates from Mach 1 to Mach 2 the shockwave pushes the ‘lift’ on the upper surface of the wings further back. To compensate for this, the centre of gravity has to be moved otherwise the pane would end up nose-diving. Through a combination of 33 fuels tanks and many pumps, one of the two on board engineers shifts 12 tones of fuel toward the rear of the aircraft to counterbalance the new ‘lift’ position. When the plane slows down at the end of its journey fuel has to be pumped to the front again.

Amazingly now that Concorde has finished its active service; there is no direct replacement. In fact the Concorde fleet is still air worthy but the heavy costs of running the service outstrip the revenue it can generate. And it seems the same would be true even for more modern, efficient supersonic aircraft. It is just far more efficient to fly much larger numbers of people across the Atlantic sub sonically in 7 hours rather than 3. When Concorde was first built, the French and British governments swallowed the start up costs. R and D costs were in the tens of billions of dollars, all of it paid for by the taxpayer. Originally 120 planes were planned but only the two airlines bought the planes and costs skyrocketed even further. Finally only 2 prototypes and 14 planes were built. One of the limiting factors was that Concorde could only travel supersonic over water. Overland the sonic boom was too disruptive – it was a technical problem the engineers could never overcome.

Concorde flies faster than the speed of rotation of the earth. It’s like a time machine. If the plane leaves London at 10.30 am it will arrive at New York at 9.30am the same day.

Thousands have flown on Concorde over the years. It is still one of the great machines of all time and perhaps the greatest plane ever built. It is certainly the only way the general public can travel faster than sound. Unfortunately, they will never be able to do it again – probably not in my lifetime at least. A trip to Australia from London takes 23 hours with a single refuelling stop. If the same trip was done supersonically it would take perhaps 12 hours, but there would still be need to be at

Credit to Newscast

An Image of Concorde in all her glory. When will we see her like again?

least one stop. One thing is for sure, in the future there will be more and more people wanting to travel long distances at cost effective prices. Until someone designs a supersonic plane that will be cheap to develop and cheap to run, then supersonic long haul flights will be off limits.

Concorde was a product of the post war, cold war era: a sort of child of the 60’s. Like the space race, Concorde was a grand vision, a unique project the likes of which we rarely see now. If the British and French governments had continued to develop supersonic technologies then today we might have an affordable mode of supersonic transport. But now with over 3 decades of neglect the amount of Research and Development that would be needed to build a new plane has pushed any cost estimates sky high. It may take at least another 3 decades before we see the likes of Concorde again. So perhaps Concorde will remain the greatest plane ever built for many years to come?


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First Science 2014