Will we ever fly supersonic again? Unraveling the Concorde’s complex legacy

On a Tuesday afternoon in Paris in 2000, an aeronautical marvel returned to earth in flames. A tire burst on the Concorde, the world’s first and only commercially viable supersonic transport (SST) jet, and started a fire that spread through the plane’s fuel tanks immediately after takeoff from Charles De Gaulle Airport. The crash killed all 100 passengers, nine crew members, and four people on the ground.

Nearly two decades later, the Concorde remains an icon, revered by the British and French in much the same way Americans admire the Space Shuttle. It represented speed, power, and progress. In just fifteen years, engineers sculpted an almost unfathomable idea into the shape of a sleek, mechanical swan.

The Concorde never really caught on in America. For one thing, tickets were prohibitively expensive. At the time of the crash, a one-way trip from Paris to New York cost just under $10,000. And in 1973, the United States banned civil supersonic flights over the continental U.S. because the sonic boom was so loud. Only Americans traveling abroad became passengers.

It was the closest thing to commercial space travel we’ve had yet.

But there was good reason to fly the Concorde. The jet had a cruising speed of 1,350 mph, or Mach Two, meaning a transatlantic trip could be completed in about three and a half hours. And at 60,000 feet, passengers were granted a striking view of the curvature of the Earth. It was the closest thing to commercial space travel we’ve had yet.

The crash didn’t do the Concorde in, but it didn’t help either. The plane had become a burden on airlines that couldn’t sell enough tickets to turn a profit. Plus, it was getting old. It’s worth noting that the Concorde entered service in 1976 and made its final flight in 2003; for 27 years it ferried passengers through the sky at phenomenal speeds. Like Hendrix, Basquiat, and Winehouse, the jet lived fast and died young — and left a lasting impression.

In a new book, Last Days of the Concorde, journalist and author Samme Chittum delves into the mindset that inspired engineers to design this marvel, the series of events that led to its fatal crash, and the possibility that commercial SSTs may someday take to the skies again. We spoke to Chittum about the Concorde and commercial SSTs. The interview is presented here, edited and condensed for clarity.

Digital Trends: Can you give us a bit of background into what first motivated engineers to strive for commercial supersonic travel?

Samme Chittum: We have to put ourselves in the mindset of aeronautical engineers, innovators, and governments at that time. They were looking to the future. There was a clear path in terms of speed. Planes were going faster, starting with military planes breaking the sound barrier. There really didn’t seem as if there were any limits.

concorde jet british airways in flight

The United States and Russia were engaged in a race to get to the moon and the British saw another path forward, as a way to distinguish themselves and become a pioneer in a different area of aeronautics. That was supersonic. There was the dream that caught hold in the U.K. and France. Pioneering designers saw no limit to what they could achieve. It seemed almost predestined that the commercial industry would pursue supersonic flight.

In your book you call the Concorde “an homage to what was then perceived as the future of flight.” You describe how there was a future that engineers were trying to actualize despite huge engineering challenges.

“There are very few pilots out there at the top of their profession who aren’t willing to take tremendous risks to see what a plane can do.”

It’s really mind boggling when you look back. There was a certain romanticism and an amazing can-do spirit born out of World War II. There are very few pilots out there at the top of their profession who aren’t willing to take tremendous risks to see what a plane can do and what they can do in a plane. The engineers are very much the same. My father was an aeronautical engineer who designed engines for jet planes. They get ideas in their heads that they want to realize in design. There were many people who thought it was foolhardy and there are still many reasons for skepticism regarding commercial supersonic flight.

Creating a commercial supersonic jet required engineers to invent technology, some of which is now standard in aircraft. What were some of those innovations?

The wing design was critical. There was a breakthrough in terms of understanding the physics of flight and what was possible and how wing designs could withstand and facilitate supersonic flight. There were also important breakthroughs in terms of the materials used on the airplane. And there had to be a complete re-conception of everything large and small in the airplane. Everything from the tanks to the tires. Some of these were applied and adapted to other planes and some were entirely unique to the Concorde. It was a very idiosyncratic airplane.

last days of concorde samme chittum interview diagram concordesst gray v3

Some of those idiosyncrasies gave the Concorde its signature look. It had its “droop snoot” nose, its pointed tail, and the delta wing, as you mentioned. Really iconic features.

Hats off to the engineers. These were ingenious innovations and adaptations that made it possible for the Concorde to get off the ground, and to allow it to get through this very difficult and dangerous transition from the takeoff to miles above the earth, flying at supersonic speed. It was a wild dream made possible by an incredible amount of engineering innovation. With all the advantage of hindsight people can now say it’s amazing that there wasn’t another catastrophic incident. And not surprising that there was.

Without taking any anything away from the engineers and mathematicians, there seems to be a sense of vanity in tackling such a huge task.

“At the time, everything was wide open in terms of what could be conceived and dared to be built in aeronautics.”

No doubt. It was a great deal of vanity married to technological genius. At the time, everything was wide open in terms of what could be conceived and dared to be built in aeronautics. The Concorde was definitely an expression of that. It will be a harder hurdle to clear when we talk about safety and supersonic flight today than it was then because of the cultural mindset at the time that really made the Concorde possible.

What ultimately led to the Concorde crash in 2000?

I don’t think anyone would disagree that the key to it all was the tires. The Concorde’s weakness was shown to have been the tires susceptibility to blowouts. That was known but it was never properly addressed or corrected. There were other factors involved that allowed the fire to spread, but you have to look at the tire burst as the precipitating cause of the crash.

concorde jet crash
Ami Vitale/Getty Images

Considering the potential for a return to commercial SSTs today, is that something that that could be addressed with current technology?

Yes, it could. They say the lessons in the airline industry are written in blood. When there’s something this catastrophic that happens and it’s actually tracked down to the root cause, there can be remedies applied retroactively. In this case, more advanced tires would address the Concorde’s Achilles heel at the time. Of course, that’s not what did the Concorde in. It was a costly boutique plane and it was aging out. The death of the Concorde began with this really horrific crash. Could the Concorde have been flown safely with proper corrections and updates? I think so. But there would be other issues to confront.

In the book you mention that the future of supersonic flight has two potential routes to reality. One is a sleek and exclusive business model. The other is more of a mid-sized model for more of the masses. Which of these is more likely?

Within the industry there’s more confidence that private supersonic jets for wealthy travelers are a more viable option. That flying experience will be very different from the original Concorde. Instead of looking out a window and being able to see the curve of the Earth, you might be staring at a digital screen. Travelers could be connected online and have a little office in the sky. The new experience would be private, exclusive, and comfortable. The Concorde was exclusive but it was not that comfortable.

aerion supersonic luxury interior concept
Aerion Corporation

This generation of innovators may come up with designs using new technology that will make it possible to build a plane that is safe and has a price tag that airlines can afford to pay, while turning a profit from. That’s challenging but there are many impressive visionary people who think that it is doable. Since we’re talking about commercial travel, profitability will be key. Can a supersonic commercial plane be designed and flown? The answer to that is yes. But will the market conditions welcome it and make it viable? That’s much harder to predict.

The Concorde came with a significant environmental burden. It was a huge gas guzzler, so there were emissions issues. And it was really loud, so there were concerns about noise pollution. What barrier might these environmental factors pose to future commercial options?

Environmental impacts will be even more pronounced now than [they were] then, when the foot was pushing down hard on the pedal of progress. Environmental groups were just catching up in terms of organization and articulating their facts. You’ve hit upon what might be prevent a resurgence of supersonic flight — the noise around airports where these planes are taking off and landing. The innovators who are working on this know they need quieter planes because all of the millions of people across the country, who would have to live with this on a daily basis, would not want to if the boom cannot be brought down to some kind of noise level that is tolerable. It really isn’t tolerable for anyone living around airports to be subjected to this. It’s going to be rejected literally at the ground level, at the political level, at a public level.

“Our new heightened concerns about noise and environmental impacts — that could kill it right there.”

Our new heightened concerns about noise and environmental impacts — that could kill it right there. There’s a push now to say, “Oh we can make them quieter.” But it’s not by any means certain that they can make a supersonic plane quiet enough to be accepted by the general public. And if they don’t, I would be very pessimistic about government’s wanting to have planes take off and fly over land as opposed to over the ocean. But I think you’ve hit on the biggest issue. And that’s the boom problem.

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