Operational History

Concorde 1977

Scheduled flights began on 21 January 1976 on the London-Bahrain and Paris-Rio (via Dakar) routes. The U.S. Congress had just banned Concorde landings in the US, mainly due to citizen protest over sonic booms, preventing launch on the coveted transatlantic routes. However, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, William Coleman, gave special permission for Concorde service to Washington Dulles International Airport, and Air France and British Airways simultaneously began service to Dulles on 24 May 1976.

When the U.S. ban on JFK Concorde operations was lifted in February 1977, New York banned Concorde locally. The ban came to an end on 17 October 1977 when the Supreme Court of the United States declined to overturn a lower court's ruling rejecting the Port Authority and a grass-roots campaign led by Carol Berman efforts to continue the ban. In spite of complaints about noise, the noise report noted that Air Force One, at the time a Boeing VC-137, was louder than Concorde at subsonic speeds and during takeoff and landing. Scheduled service from Paris and London to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport began on 22 November 1977. Flights operated by BA were generally numbered "BA001" (London to New York), "BA002" (New York to London), "BA003" (London to New York) and "BA004" (New York to London). Air France flight numbers were generally "AF001" (New York to Paris) and "AF002" (Paris to New York).

In 1977, British Airways and Singapore Airlines shared a Concorde for flights between London and Singapore International Airport via Bahrain. The aircraft, BA's Concorde G-BOAD, was painted in Singapore Airlines livery on the port side and British Airways livery on the starboard side. The service was discontinued after three return flights because of noise complaints from the Malaysian government; it could only be reinstated on a new route bypassing Malaysian airspace in 1979. A dispute with India prevented Concorde from reaching supersonic speeds in Indian airspace, so the route was eventually declared not viable and discontinued in 1980. During the Mexican oil boom, Air France flew Concorde twice-weekly to Mexico City's Benito Juárez International Airport via Washington, DC or New York City, from September 1978 to November 1982. The worldwide economic crisis during that period resulted in this route's cancellation; the last flights were almost empty. The routing between Washington or New York and Mexico City included a deceleration, from Mach 2.02 to Mach 0.95, to cross Florida subsonically and avoid unlawfully sonic-booming it; then a reacceleration to cross the Gulf of Mexico at Mach 2.02. British Airways later implemented this new routing on 1 April 1989, with G-BOAF, on an Around-The-World luxury tour charter. From time to time, Concorde came back to the region on similar chartered flights to Mexico City and Acapulco.

From 1978 to 1980, Braniff International Airways leased 10 Concordes, five each from Air France and British Airways. These were used on subsonic flights between Dallas-Fort Worth and Washington Dulles International Airport, flown by Braniff flight crews. Air France and British Airways crews then took over for the continuing supersonic flights to London and Paris. The aircraft were registered in both the United States and their home countries: a sticker covered up the European registration for the few hours it was being operated by Braniff, retaining the AF/BA full colour schemes. The flights were not profitable and were usually less than 50% booked, which forced Braniff to end its tenure as the only U.S. Concorde operator in May 1980.

By around 1981 in the UK, the future for Concorde looked bleak. British government had lost money operating Concorde every year, and moves were afoot to cancel the service entirely. A cost projection came back with greatly reduced metallurgical testing costs, as the test rig for the wings had built up enough data to last for 30 years and could be shut down, but still, having lost money for so many years, the government was not keen to continue. In late 1983, the managing director of BA, Sir John King, managed to get the government to sell the aircraft outright to (the then state owned, later privatised) BA for £16.5 million plus the first year's profits.

After doing a market survey and discovering that their target customers thought that Concorde was more expensive than it actually was, BA progressively raised prices to match these perceptions. It is reported that BA then ran Concorde at a profit, unlike their French counterparts. The plane was reckoned to make an operating profit for British Airways. BA's profits have been reported to be up to £50 million in the most profitable year, with a total revenue of £1.75 billion, before costs of £1 billion.

Between 1984 and 1991, British Airways flew a thrice-weekly Concorde service between London and Miami, stopping at Washington's Dulles International Airport. The routing from Dulles to Miami was flown subsonically as far as Carolina Beach VOR; then there was a very rapid climb to 60,000 ft (estimated at 6,000 ft (1,800 m) per minute) and Mach 2.02 that was possible due to the aircraft's very light weight: an average of only about 25-30 passengers and fuel only for the short Dulles-Miami sector. After about 6-8 minutes at Mach 2.02, deceleration and descent was begun into Miami. On several occasions, bad weather at Dulles and a light passenger payload out of Miami enabled nonstop Miami-London sectors to be flown. The fastest such flight took just 3 hours 47 minutes to fly over 4,000 nautical miles (7,400 km) from Miami to London, with 70 passengers. On such trips, the flight plan was filed to Shannon, Ireland, with en route re-clearance on to London secured later in the flight after the minimum required fuel for London was clearly present. This flight was farther than a sector often claimed as the farthest ever flown nonstop by Concorde: a special charter for Middle Eastern VIPs from Washington to Nice, France.

Concorde G-BOAF. The final flight of Concorde landing at Filton Airfield, near Bristol, on 26 November 2003.

Up to 2003, Air France and British Airways continued to operate the New York services daily. Concorde also flew to Barbados's Grantley Adams International Airport during the winter holiday season. Until the AF Paris crash ended virtually all charter services by both AF and BA, several UK and French tour operators operated numerous charter flights to various European destinations on a regular basis.

Paris crash

Main article: Air France Flight 4590

On 25 July 2000, Air France Flight 4590, registration F-BTSC, crashed in Gonesse, France, killing all 100 passengers and nine crew on board the flight, and four people on the ground. It was the only fatal incident involving the type.

According to the official investigation conducted by the French accident investigation bureau (BEA), the crash was caused by a titanium strip, part of a thrust reverser, that fell from a Continental Airlines DC-10 that had taken off about four minutes earlier. This metal fragment punctured a tyre on the left main wheel bogie. The tyre exploded, and a piece of rubber hit the fuel tank and broke an electrical cable. The impact caused a hydrodynamic shockwave that fractured the fuel tank some distance from the point of impact. This caused a major fuel leak from the tank, which then ignited due to severed electrical wires which were sparking. The crew shut down engine number 2 in response to a fire warning but were unable to retract the landing gear, hampering the aircraft's climb. With engine number 1 surging and producing little power, the aircraft was unable to gain height or speed, entering a rapid pitch-up then a violent descent, rolling left. The impact occurred with the stricken aircraft tail-low, crashing into the Hotelissimo Hotel in Gonesse.

Others have disputed the BEA report, citing evidence that the Air France Concorde was overweight, had unbalanced distribution in the fuel tanks, and lacked a critical spacer in the landing gear which caused it to veer. They came to the conclusion that the aircraft veered off course on the runway, which reduced take-off speed below the crucial minimum.

Prior to the accident, Concorde had been arguably the safest operational passenger airliner in the world in terms of passenger deaths-per-kilometres travelled with zero. After the accident, the death rate was 12.5 fatal events per million flights, more than three times that of the second worst aircraft. However, no aircraft's safety can be accurately measured from a single incident, and safety improvements were made in the wake of the crash. The crash of the Air France Concorde nonetheless proved to be the beginning of the end for the type.

The accident led to modifications, including more secure electrical controls, Kevlar lining to the fuel tanks and specially-developed burst-resistant tyres. In July 2008, a French prosecutor filed involuntary manslaughter charges against Continental Airlines and five persons, and a judge ordered them to stand trial. The defendants include two Continental employees, two employees of Aerospatiale and an employee of the French civil aviation authority. A Continental spokesman called the charges "outrageous". The trial, which is still pending, has been postponed several times.

Return to service

The first test flight after the modifications departed from London Heathrow on 17 July 2001, piloted by BA Chief Concorde Pilot Mike Bannister. During the 3:20 hr flight over the mid-Atlantic towards Iceland, Bannister attained Mach 2.02 and 60,000 ft (18,000 m) before returning to RAF Brize Norton. The test flight, intended to resemble the London-New York route, was declared a success and was watched on live TV, and by crowds on the ground at both locations.

Another BA assessment flight carrying passengers took place on 11 September 2001, and was in the air during the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. This was not a revenue flight, as all the passengers were BA employees.

Concorde G-BOAD on a barge beneath Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York City in November 2003, bound for the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum

Normal commercial operations resumed on 7 November 2001 by BA and AF (aircraft G-BOAE and F-BTSD), with service to New York JFK, where passengers were welcomed by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Retirement

Air France Concorde at Paris-Charles de Gaulle AirportOn 10 April 2003, Air France and British Airways simultaneously announced that they would retire Concorde later that year. They cited low passenger numbers following the 25 July 2000 crash, the slump in air travel following the September 11 attacks and rising maintenance costs.

That same day, Sir Richard Branson offered to buy British Airways' Concorde fleet at their "original price of £1" for service with his Virgin Atlantic Airways. Branson claimed this to be the same token price that British Airways had paid the British Government, but BA denied this and refused the offer. The real cost of buying the aircraft was £26 million each but the money for buying the aircraft was lent by the government (which in turn took 80% of the profits). Subsequently BA bought two aircraft for a book value of £1 as part of the £16.5 million buy out in 1983.

Branson wrote in The Economist (23 October 2003) that his final offer was "over £5 million" and that he had intended to operate the fleet "for many years to come." Any hope of Concorde remaining in service was further thwarted by Airbus' unwillingness to provide maintenance support for the ageing airframes.

It has been suggested that Concorde was not withdrawn for the reasons usually given, but that during the grounding of Concorde it became apparent to the airlines that they could actually make more revenue carrying their first class passengers subsonically.

Rob Lewis suggested that the precipitous Air France retirement of its own Concorde fleet was the direct result of a secret conspiracy between Air France Chairman/CEO Jean-Cyril Spinetta and then-AIRBUS CEO Noel Forgeard, and stemmed as much from a fear of being found criminally liable under French law for future AF Concorde accidents as it did from simple economics. Further, on the British Airways side, a lack of engineering (maintenance) commitment to Concorde by then-Director of Engineering Alan MacDonald was cited as undermining BA's resolve to continue operating Concorde from within.

Air France Concorde at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport

Air France

Air France made its final commercial Concorde landing in the United States in New York City from Paris on 30 May 2003. Fire trucks sprayed the traditional arcs of water above F-BTSD on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy airport. The final passenger flight for the airline's SSTs was a charter around the Bay of Biscay. During the following week, on 2 June and 3 June 2003, F-BTSD flew a final round-trip from Paris to New York and back for airline staff and long-time employees in the airline's Concorde operations. Air France's final Concorde flight took place on 27 June 2003 when F-BVFC retired to Toulouse.

An auction of Concorde parts and memorabilia for Air France was held at Christie's in Paris on 15 November 2003. Thirteen hundred people attended, with several lots exceeding their predicted values by an order of magnitude.

After the end-of-service, French Concorde F-BVFC was retired to Toulouse, and kept functional (including engine runs) for a short while, in case taxi runs were required in support of the French judicial enquiry into the 2000 crash. The aircraft is now fully retired and no longer functional. It is open to the public.

French Concorde F-BTSD has been retired to the "Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace" at Le Bourget (near Paris) and, unlike the other museum Concordes, a few of the systems are being kept functional, so that for instance the famous "droop nose" can still be lowered and raised.

This led to rumours that they could be prepared for future flights for special occasions. Without the necessary maintenance organisation, or spares, this is no longer possible.

British Airways Concorde, at Heathrow Airport

British Airways

British Airways' last Concorde departure from Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados was on 30 August 2003. BA conducted a mini North American farewell tour in October 2003. G-BOAG visited Toronto Pearson International Airport on 1 October 2003, after which it flew to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport as part of the tour. G-BOAD visited Boston's Logan International Airport on 8 October 2003, and G-BOAG visited Washington Dulles International Airport on 14 October 2003. G-BOAD's flight to Boston set a record for the fastest transatlantic flight from east to west, making the trip from London Heathrow in 3 hours, 5 minutes, 34 seconds.

In a final week of farewell flights around the United Kingdom, Concorde visited Birmingham on 20 October, Belfast on 21 October, Manchester on 22 October, Cardiff on 23 October, and Edinburgh on 24 October. Each day the aircraft made a return flight out and back into Heathrow to the cities concerned, often overflying those cities at low altitude. Over 650 competition winners and 350 special guests were carried.

Concorde (G-BOAC) at the Manchester International Airport Aviation Viewing Park

On 22 October, Heathrow ATC arranged for the inbound flight BA9021C, a special from Manchester, and BA002 from New York to land simultaneously on the left and right runways respectively.

On the evening of 23 October 2003, the Queen consented to the illumination of Windsor Castle as Concorde's last west-bound commercial flight departed London and flew overhead. This is an honour normally reserved for major state events and visiting dignitaries.

British Airways retired its aircraft the next day, 24 October. G-BOAG left New York to a fanfare similar to that given for Air France's "F-BTSD", while two more made round trips, G-BOAF over the Bay of Biscay, carrying VIP guests including many former Concorde pilots, and G-BOAE to Edinburgh. The three aircraft then circled over London, having received special permission to fly at low altitude, before landing in sequence at Heathrow. The two round-trip aircraft landed at 4:01 and 4:03 p.m. BST, followed at 4:05 by the one from New York. All three aircraft then spent 45 minutes taxiing around the airport before finally disembarking the last supersonic fare-paying passengers. The captain of the New York to London flight was Mike Bannister.

All of BA's Concorde fleet have been grounded, have lost their airworthiness certificates and have been drained of hydraulic fluid. Ex-chief Concorde pilot and manager of the fleet, Jock Lowe, estimated in 2004 it would cost £10-15 million to make G-BOAF (at Filton) airworthy again. BA maintains ownership of their fleet, and has stated that they will not fly again, as Airbus ended support of the aircraft in 2003.

On 1 December 2003, Bonhams held an auction of British Airways' Concorde artifacts at Kensington Olympia, in London. Items sold included a Machmeter, nose cone, pilot and passenger seats, cutlery, ashtrays and blankets used on board. Proceeds of about £750,000 resulted, with the first half-million going to Get Kids Going!, a charity which gives disabled children and young people the opportunity to participate in sport.

Mike Bannister (left) in the cockpit of BA002

BA announced in March 2007 that they would not be renewing their contract for the prime advertising spot at entrance to London's Heathrow Airport, where, since 1990, a 40% scale model of Concorde was located. BAA, the owners of the site, wanted to charge £1.6 million per year to let it. The Concorde model was removed and transported for display in Surrey, under the care of the local Brooklands Museum.

Restoration

A dedicated group of French volunteer engineers is keeping one of the youngest Concordes (F-BTSD) in near-airworthy condition at the Le Bourget Air and Space Museum in Paris.

Although only a "static" example, Concorde G-BBDG was restored from essentially a shell at the Brooklands Museum in Surrey.

Environmental impact

Prior to Concorde's flight trials, the developments made by the civil aviation industry were largely accepted by governments and their respective electorates. However, the opposition to Concorde's noise, particularly on the eastern coast of the United States, forged a new political agenda on both sides of the Atlantic, with scientists and technology experts across a multitude of industries beginning to take the environmental and social impact more seriously. Although Concorde led directly to the introduction of a general noise abatement programme for aircraft flying out of John F Kennedy Airport, it was later found that Concorde was actually quieter than some aircraft, partly due to the pilots temporarily throttling back their engines to reduce noise during overflight of residential areas.

Concorde produced nitrogen oxides in its exhaust, which, despite complicated chemical interactions with other ozone-depleting chemicals, are understood to produce a net degradation to the ozone layer at the stratospheric altitudes it cruised. It has been pointed out that other, lower-flying, airliners produce ozone during their flights in the troposphere, but vertical transit of gases between the two is highly restricted. The small fleet size meant that any net ozone-layer degradation caused by Concorde was for all practical purposes negligible.

From this perspective, Concorde's technical leap forward can be viewed as boosting the public's (and the media's) understanding of conflicts between technology and the environment. In France, the use of acoustic fencing alongside TGV tracks might not have been achieved without the 1970s controversy over aircraft noise. In Britain, the CPRE have issued tranquillity maps since 1990 and public agencies are starting to do likewise.

Concorde travelled, per passenger, 17 miles (27 km) for each imperial gallon of fuel — 17 miles per imperial gallon (17 L/100 km; 14 mpg-US). This efficiency is comparable to a Gulfstream G550 business jet (16 miles per US gallon (15 L/100 km; 19 mpg-imp) per passenger), but much less efficient than a Boeing 747-400 (91 miles per US gallon (2.6 L/100 km; 109 mpg-imp) per passenger).

Records

Concorde was the more successful of the only two supersonic airliners to have ever operated commercially, the Tupolev Tu-144 being the other. The Tu-144 was nicknamed "Concordski" by Western Europeans for its outward similarity to Concorde. Soviet espionage efforts had resulted in the theft of Concorde blueprints, ostensibly to assist in the design of the Tu-144. The Tu-144 ultimately flew first, achieved a higher maximum speed, but was hampered by higher fuel requirements that restricted its range compared to Concorde.

The fastest transatlantic flight was from London Heathrow to New York JFK on the 7th of February 1996 on a (British Airways) G-BOAD in 2hrs 52mins and 59secs from take off to touch down.

Concorde also set many other records, including the official FAI "Westbound Around the World" and "Eastbound Around the World" world air speed records. On 12-13 October 1992, in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first New World landing, Concorde Spirit Tours (USA) chartered Air France Concorde F-BTSD and circumnavigated the world in 32 hours 49 minutes and 3 seconds, from Lisbon, Portugal, including six refuelling stops at Santo Domingo, Acapulco, Honolulu, Guam, Bangkok and Bahrain.

The Eastbound record was set by the same Air France Concorde F-BTSD under charter to Concorde Spirit Tours (USA), on 15-16 August 1995. This special promotional flight circumnavigated the world from New York/JFK International Airport in a time of 31 hours 27 minutes 49 seconds, including six refuelling stops at Toulouse, Dubai, Bangkok, Andersen AFB (Guam), Honolulu and Acapulco. Concorde continues to hold both records.

By its 30th flight anniversary on 2 March 1999 Concorde had clocked up 920,000 flight hours, with more than 600,000 supersonic, much more than all of the other supersonic aircraft put together in the Western world.

Public perception

Parade flight at Queen's Golden Jubilee

Concorde was normally perceived as a privilege of the rich, but special circular or one-way (with return by coach or ship) charter flights were arranged to bring a trip within the means of moderately well-off enthusiasts.

The presence of a Concorde flying overhead would frequently temporarily halt day-to-day business as people would stop to watch as the plane flew by. A noteworthy example can be found in the TV programme Scrapheap Challenge, where the mechanics drop all their tools and wave as Concorde flies over the yard.

The aircraft was usually referred to by the British as simply "Concorde", whilst in France it was known as "le Concorde" due to "le", the definite article, being used in French grammar to distinguish a proper name from a common noun of the same spelling. In French, the common noun concorde means "agreement, harmony, or peace" and the aircraft's name was almost certainly chosen for its allusion to the collaboration between the British and French governments. Concorde's pilots and British Airways in official publications and videos often refer to Concorde both in the singular and plural as "she" or "her."

HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh disembark Concorde

Concorde remains a powerful symbol, both for its technology and sculptural shape. It is a symbol of great national pride to many in Britain and France; in France it was thought of as a French aircraft, in Britain as British.

As a symbol of national pride, an example from the BA fleet made occasional flypasts at selected Royal events, major air shows and other special occasions, sometimes in formation with the Red Arrows. On the final day of commercial service, public interest was so great that grandstands were erected at London's Heathrow Airport to afford a view of the final arrivals. Crowds filled the boundary road around the airport and there was extensive media coverage.

Thirty-seven years after her first test flight, Concorde was announced the winner of the Great British Design Quest, organised by the BBC and the Design Museum. A total of 212,000 votes were cast with Concorde beating design icons such as the Mini, mini skirt, Jaguar E-type, Tube map and the Supermarine Spitfire.

Comparison with other supersonic aircraft

The only other supersonic airliner in direct competition with Concorde was the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144. It entered service earlier, and was retired in 1978. Lockheed, North American Aviation and Boeing prepared supersonic airliner studies, but only the Boeing 2707 proceeded even to the mock-up stage, the sole American entry into the supersonic transport sweepstakes.

As a result of a rushed development programme, the first prototype of the Tu-144 was substantially different from the preproduction machines, and even these were cruder and less refined than Concorde, with notably higher cabin noise. The Tu-144S had a significantly smaller range than Concorde, largely due to its low-bypass turbofan engines. It required reheat to maintain Mach 2.0 and cruised at Mach 1.6. The vehicle had poor control at low speeds because of a simpler, dedicated supersonic wing design. In addition, the Tu-144 required parachutes to land while Concorde had sophisticated anti-lock brakes. The Tu-144 also had two crashes, one at the 1973 Paris Air Show, which made further sales impossible, and another during a pre-delivery test flight. Later production versions had retractable canards for better low speed control, and a research version used turbojet engines that gave them nearly the fuel efficiency and similar range to Concorde. It had 126 seats. With a top speed of Mach 2.35 (made possible due to titanium and steel leading edges) and a cruise of Mach 2.16 it was potentially a more competitive aircraft, but it did not sell.

The American designs (Boeing 2707 and Lockheed L-2000) were to have been larger, seating 300. They were also intended to reach higher speeds of up to Mach 3.0, which would have made the construction more difficult: high temperatures ruled out the use of duralumin with design calculations that showed that the extra speed would have only cut Concorde's transatlantic travel by 20 minutes. Running a few years behind Concorde, the winning Boeing 2707 was redesigned to a cropped delta layout; the extra cost of these changes helped to kill the project. The discovery from flights of the XB-70 Valkyrie that sonic booms were quite capable of reaching the ground and the experience from the Oklahoma City sonic boom tests debacle led to the same environmental concerns that contributed to hindering commercial success of Concorde. The American government cancelled the project in 1971, after having spent more than $1 billion.

The only other large supersonic aircraft comparable to Concorde are strategic bombers, principally the Russian Tupolev Tu-22/Tu-22M and Tu-160 and the American B-1B Lancer; only the Russian designs are capable of sustained Mach 2 flight and none of these aircraft are designed for extended supersonic flight like Concorde.

Possible replacements

In November 2003, EADS, parent company of the Airbus aircraft manufacturing company, announced that it was considering working with Japanese companies to develop a larger, faster replacement for Concorde. However, recent news reports suggest only $1m is being invested every year into research, much less than the $1bn needed for the development of a viable supersonic airliner.

In October 2005, JAXA, the Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency, undertook aerodynamic testing of a scale model of an airliner designed to carry 300 passengers at Mach 2 (working name NEXST). If pursued to commercial deployment, it would be expected to be in service around 2020 - 2025.

The British company Reaction Engines Limited, with 50% EU money, are engaged in a research programme called LAPCAT, which is examining a design for a hydrogen-fuelled plane carrying 300 passengers called the A2, capable of flying nonstop from Brussels to Sydney at Mach 5+ in 4.6 hours.

In May 2008, it was reported that Aerion had $3 billion of preorder sales on its supersonic business jet.

Research into supersonic business jets continues.