52 Years on from Concorde’s first flight

by Callum Tennant
A Concorde tailfin

On March 2, 1969 – a clear blue-skied day – for the first time in history, Concorde powered down a runway before rotating and climbing away into the air. As the only supersonic airliner to enjoy a sustained commercial career, Concorde has and continues to fascinate enthusiasts around the world.

Even for non-aviation fans, Concorde remains a captivating aircraft; immortalised by its distinctive delta-shaped frame and an impressive maximum speed of Mach 2.04 (1354mph/2180km/h). Whilst more than half a century has passed since Concorde’s first flight, and over 17 years since the aircraft’s retirement, it appears that supersonic air travel is once again on the horizon.

A retired Concorde

The Anglo-French pursuit of a supersonic airliner

In the 1950s, British and French engineers pooled their talents in the race to create the world’s first supersonic airliner. In the end, Concorde would be the only real competitor to emerge, with Boeing abandoning their project and the Soviet Tu-144, plagued by technical issues, would never be the success that it had hoped to be.

By March 1969, Concorde had been designed, a prototype built, and the first test flight had taken place. The aircraft was revolutionary. Concorde cut what was normally a seven and a half hour flight, from London to New York, to just over three hours on a good day. The iconic jet set a new standard of luxury in terms of service on board, with fancy lobster dinners and champagne that flowed freely.

Yet, despite becoming well known as the most prestigious plane in the sky, commercially Concorde was not the market leader of the skies. The release of the Boeing 747 (affectionately nicknamed the Queen of the sky), proved that it was size, not speed which would matter most in the 20th century.

A retired Concorde set upon a display stand

The fall of Concorde

Concorde would never reach the levels of sales that its supporters had hoped. Throughout the aircraft’s 27 year career it would only ever be continuously operated by two airlines – Air France and British Airways – the flag carriers of the two nations behind the production of the plane. Hardly a commercial success.

The aircraft could only carry 120 passengers when fully booked, and its high fuel consumption rates left it uncompetitive and vulnerable to oil price fluctuations. Concerns over noise pollution also led to many countries banning the plane from their airspace, restricting Concorde to mostly trans-Atlantic flights.

By 2000 the aircraft’s analogue operating system was showing its age when compared to newer planes. A fatal crash, in which over 100 people died undermined trust in the jet, leading to it being grounded for a considerable stretch of time. The relaunch, which came just two months after 9/11, failed to save the aircraft and Concorde was retired after its last flight on 24 October 2003.

A new age of supersonic travel?

Concorde cockpit

Now, nearly two decades after the last supersonic passenger flight, supersonic travel could once again be close to being a reality. Multiple companies are designing aircraft that will fly passengers at supersonic speeds around the world. Whilst these models are at different stages of design and development, some, such as Boom Supersonic, have already started building prototype models.

Whilst Concorde may soon have a successor, it will maintain its supremacy in terms of its size, for now.

The highest passenger capacity for current designs for a new supersonic aircraft, are for just 30-40 passengers. However, with improved efficiency and the use of new technologies, the price per seat is set to be lower than those for Concorde were.

What do you think of when you think of Concorde? Let us know in the comments below.

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