Why did the Concorde supersonic plane fail?


Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2016/07/20/why-did-the-concorde-supersoni.html


Man I would have LOVED flying on this. I thought the issue was that the fleet started to get old and it was too expensive to repair/replace? I will have to watch the video later.


It’s my understanding that it was massively fuel inefficient compared with subsonic jets, it was loud as hell and airport neighbors didn’t like that, and it noticeably contributed to airport pollution a lot worse than subsonic jets.


We used to be able to hear the sonic boom as it flew over my mum’s house in South Devon, at about 9:10 every weekday night, very faint, quieter than a neighbour’s car door. Some nights we’d miss it just because there was something louder on the TV.

My first sight of it was at the Farnborough Air Show in 1972, and it was smokey as a very smokey thing. I think they cleaned that up sometime in the seventies, though.


The Concorde was fast but expensive and lost money, and it turned out that to make it cheaper you have to slow down and to make it profitable you need a bigger plane, and by then the Concorde has turned in to a 747 and we already have those.


Yeah, I can’t watch the video at work, but I was pretty sure that the final nail in the coffin was Airbus pulling their engineering support, with the reinforced cockpit door issue being the cutoff point. Combine that with tiny aging fleet with analog controls and it’d be kind of weird if they were still flying.

That being said, I’d love it if there was a SST for pacific crossings. The Concorde couldn’t do them anyway and that’s one nightmarishly boring trip.


Ah, Sydney to LAX, enjoy your 16 hours trapped in a loud, arid, aluminum can with mediocre bathrooms and bad food.


Oh good god yes, Flying between Seattle and Japan was one of the most tortuously boring flights I’ve ever taken. The only real entertainment on the return leg was watching the sun going up and down repeatedly.


Its heyday was in the 1970s and it finally stopped operation in 2003.

An unusual definition of failure.


I was lucky enough to visit The Aeropsatiale site in Toulouze, as an engineering student, back in 1973 (or 74?) and walked through a fitted Concorde body.
Felt like a fat cigar! Tiny, tiny cabin.
The rest of the Toulouze site visit was a blast. The Airbus body stress/fatigue room was enormous. After seeing a “naked” plane structural stuff, one feels a bit different about flying…!


Of course the price of fuel skyrocketed between the time it was designed and the time it entered service. Add to that the elimination of the CAB and deregulation of the airline industry and the Concorde not only cost more, but now the slower alternatives were significantly cheaper than they had been.


My company (which makes engineering software) took a tour of Boeing’s F-15 factory a year ago or so; at least the non-classified parts (so no avionics or the like).

Great big factory floor, divided up into lots of stations. Every few days they move assemblies from one station to the next, all in sync, and a finished plane comes off the end of the line. There’s still a lot of hand-done sheet metal work and only a few automated stations. Most of the machinery is either for moving assemblies between stations, or for holding and rotating them in place while they’re being worked on (or getting people above them toward the later sections). There’s an enormous emphasis on cleanliness. It was surprisingly quiet, with just the occasional zip of a power tool and not some continuous stereotypical “factory” noise.


Well when it was supposed to be The Future Of Air Travel that would eventually be used for every trip of that length…


I thought that the last straw was the crash in 2000 causing the whole fleet to be grounded for over a year.


I moved to Northern Virginia near Dulles Airport in 1991. I think the Concorde flew once a week into and out of Dulles. Regardless, it was an unmistakable and captivating sight, and I looked forward to it!

I’ll cherish that memory as I do the memory of the Space Shuttle flyover when they grounded the program and played musical chairs with the locations.


A lot of the problems with Concorde’s history were just a combination of negative factors that all turned up at the same time.

  1. The design happened before the 1970s oil crisis, but it went into service just as it the world was reeling from a tripling in the price of fuel. This completely messed up the business case.
  2. It was shut out of the US market due to the ban on supersonic flight above US territory. This was partly due to noise concerns, and partly due to lobbying from US aircraft makers, who no longer had SST designs, and didn’t want competition.
  3. A lack of buyers meant a lack of economies of scale. Specialist techniques and manufacturing couldn’t be scaled up without strong demand, so the unit price was horribly expensive.Also, a lack of mass orders meant that spares were scarce.


All of the above and I understand that suitable runways were few and far between.


My recollection (from a book I got in 1983) is that a wide-bodied SST would be too large for any airport. I assume this means when the body is scaled up to keep it streamlined etc. I don’t know if they meant too large for runway lengths, or shoehorning it into the gate area, or both. The Concorde’s interior was narrow, like that on a regional jet, but longer.


Super sonic aircraft are almost always a loser for long range travel because… PHYSICS.

The reason is simple: for a given distance, a Mach 2 plane will consume 4 times as much fuel as a Mach 1 plane ( the key fromula: 1/2 p v^2 , where v = velocity and p = air density)

While quadrupling the fuel load is an economic problem, the real problem is that the plane has to lift all the extra fuel at take off, making it tough to carrying much anything else.

If you don’t want to increase your fuel load, you lose range. If you want to be able to carry stuff a long way, you have to go slower. The physics are unforgiving.

This is why the US Air Force, which can have all the fuel it wants, uses exclusively sub-sonic transports ( C-17, C-135, the now-retired C-5) and bombers ( B-52, B-2, Long Range Strike Bomber – the B-1 is effectively already retired).

Long range air transport pretty much has to be subsonic as long as one has to push air molecules out of the way to get where you are going.

This isn’t rocket science.

(actually, it is. Von Karman figured this out in the 20s. )


Which reminds me, Braniff used to operate the Concorde between IAD and DFW. Singapore Airlines briefly flew Concorde, as well. The Other Concorde Airlines

When I was a kid, during Concorde’s heyday, I figured BA and AF each had a couple of aircraft, but I think there were 16 or so built. IIRC there was also a route to Rio, and one to Bahrain (but this may have been part of the same route Singapore flew).

EDIT: Here’s some promo footage about the Braniff Concorde; IAD’s in there at 05:23.