Crash and Retirement of the Concorde Supersonic Airliner: What Next?

   What more can be said by way of generality about Concorde that has not yet been said? Not much, I suppose, especially since criminal hearings are currently underway in Pontoise not far from the crash site. More detailed facts, incriminating or not, about the actual cause and chain of events leading up to the fateful crash are yet to be determined  However, every time I see a photo of the stricken Grand Bird trailing flames on take-off at CDG Paris airport, I am reminded of both the greatness and frailty of the marvelous flying machine.

   The greatness of Concorde lies not only in the amount of engineering, flight testing, lobbying for acceptance in foreign countries, and money allocated to the supersonic transport jet mega-project, but also in the purity and elegance of its profile, lines and curvatures together with graceful manoeuvres on take-off and landing, and overall sheer good looks (decibels quite apart, I admit). Moreover, Concorde  kicked off a passionate debate in the far recesses of my own mind: did she look sleek by design or as a result of  her suitability as an airliner in both a subsonic climb to altitude and approach to land environment on the one hand, and a supersonic cruising environment on the other?

   Imagine the engineering ingenuity  that went into designing a flap-less delta-wing supersonic airliner fit for existing airports. The end result was an aircraft both so streamlined and functional that body-style designers, such as Ferrari, perhaps could not have dreamed of for any vehicle. At high levels of attack on take-off and landing with her drooped nose, she maintained a graceful look, something straight out of an artist’s imagination.

   Most people did not realise also how much engineering know-how had to be applied in order for Concorde to stretch and contract in length as her skin went from low temperatures to high temperatures generated  by Mach 2.2 cruise flight on her wings and fuselage. A civil aviation marvel she was indeed.

   By hubris or not, the magnitude of the Concorde project which, some say, helped usher France and the U.K. into the European Union, reflects the hopes and aspirations of a whole generation. Continents would be linked in less than half the time it takes for subsonic jets to fly the same intercontinental routes.

   The frailty of Concorde can be found in her anachronism. Her splendour was obvious; however, she was born out of older technology, a problem that a number of reputable aeroplanes, such as the DC-3 and the Boeing 707, to name but a few, shared with Concorde, albeit with fewer news coverage of dramatic and fatal signs of aging.

   This airliner was the subject of much attention by both pro-Concorde and anti-Concorde interest groups. A compromise agreement was struck: Concorde would be allowed to overfly populated areas at subsonic speeds only.

   Why would dual flag-carrying airliners such as Concorde be allowed to operate amongst slower jetliners built to recent, more stringent and more efficient aeronautical and environmental standards? Oh yes, I hear: “She was grandfathered in.” If so, should public authorities keep on protecting, from a regulatory perspective, a beautiful aeronautical product from a recent past at the cost of putting lives at risk until other circumstances brought its commercial use to an end?

   How many people would nowadays go for a ride in a hot air balloon built in all respects like the original Montgolfier brother’s (presumably) successful model?

   France and the U.K. had every reason to be jointly proud of Concorde. The problem is neither country knew when to confine the aging supersonic airliner to a museum before disaster struck. Did the the Concorde program change to a prestige-driven venture only? This was likely the case since a number of jet aircraft of an older vintage and no longer allowed to carry paying passengers are still allowed to carry freight. Unfortunately, Concorde did not have a  fall-back commercial niche; flying the Jet Set at premium airfares was its only remaining one.

   When Concorde crashed after her fateful take-off from Roissy, she was technologically decades behind her times by several standards, even if she could cruise twice as fast as modern subsonic  jetliners.

   On a more positive note, Concorde was the first commercial airliner to incorporate sophisticated fly-by-wire technology, a major engineering feat  in the 1960s. Her quadruple Olympus power plant was amongst the most reliable at the time. Unfortunately, Concorde’s complex design made it difficult to incorporate later on engines that were more fuel-efficient, less noisy and more resistant to FOD. 

   The Concorde disaster in Paris has a positive fall-out: the growing opinion that high-speed intercontinental travel should perhaps be carried out above the atmosphere, i.e. with suborbital spacecraft. This approach is supported in part by the major airlines’ reluctance, in today’s economic context, to place orders for new supersonic transport aircraft operated at higher operating costs on a per seat per mile basis. 

   The short to medium solution now being considered and tested is not an improved existing SST concept, but a totally different one: a suborbital spacecraft such as the Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo recently unveiled by Virgin Air’s CEO, Sir Richard Branson and by Dick Rutan, a well-known pioneering  expert in composite materials applied to innovative aircraft designs.

  NASA is wise in phasing-out the current space shuttles. In fact, the U.S. space agency had set a life expectancy for its fleet of space shuttles.

   Were the U.K. and France in the process of acting likewise for Concorde when the Paris crash occurred? Civil aviation authorities in both countries may have set a time limit only as a result of Concorde’s unfortunate crash in Paris.

   Having said this, the future looks promising for supersonic intercontinental travel using suborbital trajectories with whatever vehicles will foot the bill in terms of commercial feasibility. For now, suborbital transportation remains far in the offing. Spaceflight bookings confidently accepted at present by Virgin Galactic will no doubt offer space tourists a sensational experience, keeping in mind however their amazing spacecraft will land where it took off from. 

Happy New Year!

   PS: With the underside of their delta wing strengthened after the deadly crash of a Concorde shortly after take-off from Paris-CDG airport in 2000, other Concorde units resumed commercial transatlantic flights under the Air France and British Airways banners. All Concorde units were finally retired in 2003, owing to excessive operating costs to both airlines. Concorde had flown commercially for nearly 30 years with no reported casualties until the most unfortunate Paris crash.  See Wikipedia for further details about the history of Concorde.

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