Rise and Crash of the Concorde
Introduction and History
Concorde was a marvel of engineering ingenuity. A form of supersonic transport (SST), the Concorde airplane was a joint venture of the United Kingdom and France. In many ways, it was well ahead of its time as it was packed with various revolutionary design features. It was the first airplane to make use of a computer-controlled engine air intake system. This lowered the speed of air entering the engine and prevented the engine from exploding.
The Concorde also pioneered the use of carbon-fiber brakes during the 1960s. These days, they have become a norm in the airplane industry. The drooping nose of the Concorde was a signature design feature. This streamlined the airplane and increased the pilot’s field of view during landing and take-offs. As a result of these features, Concorde commercial flights could travel at around 2 Mach or twice the speed of sound.
The development process for the Concorde began in 1962 after the Anglo-French supersonic airliner treaty was signed between France and the UK. By 1969, the first Concorde prototype had been developed and it made its first supersonic flight in the same year. Commercial operations began in 1976 and continued regularly till 2000 when the tragic Paris crash occurred. Concorde did resume service in 2001 but it was eventually retired in 2003.
The Paris Crash of the Concorde on 25th of July 2000
In the history of Concorde’s flights, the most significant event was the fateful Paris crash. The crash occurred on the 25th of July 2000 when the Concorde crashed soon after taking off which resulted in the death of 113 people. It was the first major accident since the Concorde’s first flight and became a major contributing factor for the retirement of the airplane.
An investigation was conducted by the French government to determine the cause of the crash. It was found that a metal strip on the runway caused the tire to burst. This resulted in a large fragment of rubber hitting the fuel tank, located on the underside of the wing. The strike from the rubber fragment ruptured the fuel tank and the leaking fuel quickly ignited due to the presence of an electric arc in the landing gear. As the fuel tank was full, there was a large explosion that resulted in engine failure and caused the plane to crash after 90 seconds from take-off.
As per the official investigation report, a metal strip had fallen off a Continental Airlines DC-10 airplane which had taken off a few minutes before the Concorde. It was believed that the part had fallen off due to the negligence of the mechanic who was responsible for the routine maintenance of the airplane. Instead of using the recommended stainless steel strip, the mechanic had used a titanium alloy strip. Watch here the ABC News Report of that day: ABC News This day in history: July 25, 2000.
Consequences of the Crash
As a result of the above assessment, in 2010, a Paris court held Continental Airlines criminally responsible for the crash and placed a 200,000 Euros fine on them. Continental Airlines felt that the verdict was unfair and appealed against the decision. Two years later, the criminal charges, which included involuntary manslaughter, were overturned but the fine remained applicable. The detractors of the official report pointed out different aspects that were ignored during the investigation. This included the fact that the Concorde was overloaded and exceeded the recommended takeoff weight. The spacer was not installed in the landing gear which may have caused the aircraft to skid on the runway. Other possible factors included the wind shift before takeoff and premature engine shutdown.
The End of Concorde Flights
In the aftermath of the Paris Crash, over 70 million pounds were spent to improve the safety features of the Concorde. The flight operations were resumed in 2001 but this was short-lived as the Concorde was retired in 2003. Many felt that this decision was primarily taken due to the Paris Crash but the reality is different.
Even before the crash, there were plans in place to gradually phase the Concorde out. These plans were considered to be justified due to the inefficiencies of the Concorde. The strength of the Concorde was its blazing fast speed. The trade-off for breaking the sound barrier was high fuel consumption. This made the Concorde economically unviable especially in times where fuel prices are high.
Another truth is that the Concordes were not economic due to faint bookings. A befriended retired Colonel of the Swiss Air Force told me that whenever he took the Concorde to fly from Paris to New York it was only half-fully occupied. Ok, this is a non-representative comment from a friend of mine but it supports the point that the Concorde was not making money. He also told me that the flights were comfortable and it was a very special, even strange feeling to be in New York in such a short time.
The Concorde was always a project based on prestige instead of practicality. A comparison with the Boeing 747 puts things in perspective. The Concorde consumed the same amount of fuel as the Boeing 747 but the Boeing 747 can carry 4 times the passengers than that of the Concorde and could travel twice as far as the Concorde. In light of these numbers, there was serious consideration to retiring to the Concorde even before the Paris Crash.
The Future of Supersonic Flights
In recent times, the possibility of reintroducing supersonic flights is being explored. Aircraft manufacturers feel that there’s space for such airplanes that can travel faster than the rest of the options and save the passenger’s time. However, there are certain challenges that block the return of supersonic commercial flights. These include consideration for protecting the environment and lowering operation costs. In order to achieve these goals, engineers would need to come up with innovative solutions.
Aerion Corporation is planning to introduce its supersonic AS2 jet. It plans to lower emissions and fuel costs. Unlike the Concorde, the aircraft would not have afterburners which means lesser noise and lower fuel requirements. Despite the change, the aircraft would still be capable of achieving 1.4 Mach speeds. Furthermore, in a bid to offset the carbon emissions of the AS2, they would invest in a reforestation program as well. The company expects to start AS2’s commercial operations in 2026.
Overture is another planned supersonic commercial jet. Designed by Boom Supersonic, it aims to cater to a broader segment of passengers. It would begin testing in the mid-2020s and interest in the aircraft is already shown by different airlines, such as the Virgin Group, in the form of pre-orders. In order to protect the environment and the population from carbon emissions, the aircraft would travel at subsonic speeds when traveling overland and would go supersonic only when traveling oversea.
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