Civil air transport at supersonic speed, the best known product of which is the Concorde, date back to after World War II and suffer from a geopolitical scenario complicated by the Cold War. Could you explain why Britain and France, but also the Soviet Union, “damage their soul” in such risky and complicated undertakings?
The race for supersonic civil air transport began practically in the first half of the 1950s and was the result of two different panoramas, one of a political nature and the other of a technological and scientific nature.
The political landscape began with the end of the Second World War in April 1945 and with the Yalta conference in February of the same year. These two events led to a new definition of the world political structure, and European in particular for an agreement between the Soviet Union and the winning powers, that is, the United States and Great Britain.
The technological aspect, however, we see in a growing development of technology especially in the military field, and therefore also in the military aeronautical field, where the Second World War had a considerable weight. Let’s not forget, for example, the use by the British of the radar and by the Germans the construction and testing of the first jet engines on the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter. Civil air transport was therefore influenced by these two factors and, as we had moved fairly quickly from the propeller to the reactor, the next step would have been supersonic air travel.
Why do we talk about these two panoramas, situations that run practically parallel? If we want to see the political aspect, the Soviet Union had to demonstrate its supremacy, not only political, but also technological, to the United States and the winning powers in Western Europe.
Why does the United States remain apparently out of the way, despite having superior technological and financial resources to the other parties involved?
The United States actually never left the race for civilian supersonic as both Boeing and Lockheed had put two plans on paper: one of Lockheed with a supersonic variable wing airplane and the second of Boeing with an aircraft always supersonic that would have been called Boeing 2707 with characteristics far superior to those of Concorde being able to reach a speed of 3,000 km per hour and carry 250 passengers. It was certainly an extremely ambitious project which, despite the economic solidity of the United States of that time, never materialized because it posed, among other things, a series of technologically insurmountable obstacles at least in the short and medium term . As for Japan, the nation of the Rising Sun did not even participate in the speech having been defeated in the Second World War and also the first and only country to suffer, to date, the only atomic bombing on two cities. This involved all the economic resources in the national reconstruction and therefore there was neither time nor space to think about participating in the race for supersonic air transport.
Obviously the Soviet Union had to deal first with the United States and therefore had launched two supersonic projects namely the Myasishchev M-53, which however remained on paper, and the Tupolev TU-144 (photo) who benefited in part from the studies and drawings of the Myasischev engineers managing to become a real airplane, to take off, to carry out a series of test flights and to enter commercial service although for a much shorter and limited period than Concorde. However, they were apparent scheduled flights since not all of them were open for ticket sales but at times they carried only mail and / or goods and in any case passengers were not always common travelers. England, the European winning power, and France, the winner in a minor tone of the Second World War and always proud of a certain inherited grandeur from Napoleon’s time, were the only two that they could have faced, in a political and economic union and also industrial, the ambitious race for supersonic air transport.
We are not talking about Germany because, after the defeat suffered in the Second World War, it had vetoed the Allies to produce anything that could have had a war implication including the aviation sector which obviously could easily have been converted into a war instrument. Technologically, the jump from the speed of the jet airplane was already much higher than that of propeller planes supersonic was a step considered quite logical. Consequently England and France, to succeed in this project naturally competing both with the Soviet Union but partly also with the United States, despite being an allied nation, they understood that they had to sign agreements that would allow the necessary technology to be developed together in the face of a concrete availability of adequate economic resources.
At some point supersonic planes are ready …
The Concorde that took off, for the first time, on March 2, 1969 from the Toulouse Blagnac airport, a few months later, however, compared to the Soviet competitor Tupolev TU-144 who got up in flight, always for the first time, on December 31, 1968 .
An anecdote says that in the first take-off of the Concorde, the commander Andre ‘Turcat, chief test pilot for the South Aviation then Aérospatiale, talking to his second pilot who pointed out that the Soviets had taken off well three taken before, he told him … “Yes, but the Russians took off because my fellow commander of 144 was ordered to take off, not because the airplane was ready.” In fact, the Concorde had immediately before detaching the wheels from the ground a number of tests of various types, both on the ground and the flight, far higher than that of the TU-144.
Could one venture a parallel between the space race and the civil transport race with supersonic aircraft?
Definitely yes, although they are two different things, with different objectives. The race to space is an extremely ambitious goal while a little less ambitious, but in any case not of less importance, it was, but still is today, to transport ordinary passengers in a really short time, especially from one side to the other ‘Atlantic Ocean. The Concorde was born, in fact and essentially, to serve the routes between London and Paris and the United States even if it would not have arrived in the USA immediately after the commencement of commercial flights, which occurred in January 1976, but a few months later as the States United initially prohibited their landing at their airports on the basis of an official reason, namely the sonic bang that would not have been appreciated by the population on the US coast of the Atlantic Ocean, and an offensive, and certainly not declared, that is, the US flop in the realization , of a civil and commercial supersonic aircraft.
What was the technological osmosis between military and civil industry to put Concorde on track?
As previously mentioned during the Second World War, military technology, and in particular aviation technology, has made a significant step forward with radar on one side and jet engine on the other. But not only because there has been progress in the use of metals, in the construction procedures, in the instrumentation of the aircraft and so on.
Certainly the Air Force has contributed to the development and birth of the Concorde bearing in mind that the sound barrier had already been overcome well in advance of the first take-off of the Concorde, which took place on March 2, 1969, by US and other military aircraft by discovering, among the other, which was not an insurmountable barrier which would have destroyed the same aircraft but an obstacle that could be overcome as it happened.
Let’s talk now about “Concordsky”.
It was the response of the Soviets to both Concorde and the attempts by the United States to design a supersonic civilian commercial aircraft such as that of the Lockheed variable wing and the Boeing 2707 both remained on paper or in some scale model.
The Tupolev TU-144 was born in the same period as the Concorde but beyond the Iron Curtain. We talk about the 1950s until almost the end of the 1960s when, on December 31, 1968, he made the first 37-minute flight, by order of the Government and the Soviet Air Force on which the pilots who had the responsibility to carry the air for the first depended turn the Soviet supersonic with tests and inspections, in times and numbers well below those of Concorde.
The TU-144, however, was not the only one signed by the Soviets as the Soviets had launched a second supersonic airplane, the Myasishchev M-53, which remained on paper but which would have had characteristics quite similar to 144 to the point that 144 he used studies done by Myasishchev engineers and designers. After the baptism of the air on December 31, 1968, the 144 carried out the first commercial flight by embarking only goods placed in December 1975 in the aftermath of a serious accident that saw a 144 crash on the ground in June 1973 at the French Air Show in Le Bourget with the death of only the crew members and technicians on board being fortunately a demonstration flight without passengers. In November 1977 the first passenger flight took place from Moscow to Alma Ata. 144’s life was rather short. In fact, the last flight with passengers on board was dated June 1st 1978 practically only seven months later. In its operational life between flights with marches and / or mail and those with passengers in total, the Soviet supersonic has made 102 flights of which 55 with travelers for a total of 3284 people. The characteristics that differentiated the 144 from the Concorde, despite being both of the SST, or Super Sonic Transport, was the fact that the Soviets, for example, had used, to neutralize an unwanted dive attitude on take off and on landing, two canard fins retractable respectively mounted on the right left of the cockpit.
Another feature of the 144 was that while the Concorde used post-combustion only for take-off and for the passage of the sound wall, therefore from the subsonic regime to the supersonic regime, the Soviets had to keep the post-combustion constantly on throughout the flight, which, of course, significantly increased both fuel consumption and internal noise, significantly reducing comfort in the passenger cabin compared to the Concorde.
In the 1990s, NASA was interested in the TU-144 by purchasing, in November 1996, a specimen at this point from the Russians, no longer Soviet, painting it in its own colors and using it as a training platform for future astronauts. Some say that Americans have chosen a Tupolev TU-144 and not a Concorde considering it better for their needs compared to the supersonic Anglo French.
It is also said that 144 was the result of intense and prolonged and in-depth espionage. Certainly there are elements that confirm the agents of the KGB, the Soviet espionage service, the manufacturers had infiltrated the factories in both England and France, therefore the British Aircraft Company in England and the Aerospatiale in France as those of the motorists, the Rolls- Royce in Great Britain and Snecma in France, gathering information and drawings but, in reality, it is more truthful that the Soviets managed to spy secrets, information and documents on Concorde by participating in the international air shows in England in Farnborough which, in in particular, in France in Le Bourget more than hanging out in the factories of French Anglo-speaking motorists and motorists.
What did the partial failure of the Soviets taught to the French Anglos?
Practically nothing, being an aircraft that really had a long list of flaws, and something that pleased both the British and the French but, perhaps, not so much the Americans who were practically out of the race in the speech of the supersonic commercial civilian.
We now remember the accident of 20 years ago.
On July 25, 2000, an Air France Concorde departing from Parisian Charles de Gaulle airport with 100 German tourists on board, who were supposed to embark across the Atlantic for a cruise in Central America, shortly after take-off crashed to the ground killing all occupants, therefore not only the 100 passengers but also the 9 crew members, to which were added four guests of a hotel in Gonesse, the place where the Concorde had crashed.
The causes of the accident are manifold. Flight AF4590 in fact left with two hours of delay because the commander Christian Marty, at the moment of starting, found a technical anomaly to the thrust reverser and, consequently, delayed the departure of about two hours asking for the intervention of the technicians on the track to repair the anomaly.
When ready, the Concorde left the parking lot but before him a DC-10 of the American Continental Airlines had taken off which, probably due to bad maintenance, left a few centimeters slat on the runway itself. During the take-off run, the Concorde pecked this blade with one of the tires, which cut it by literally firing a piece of it towards one of the tanks, puncturing it and thus causing a fuel leak, being, among other things, the tank completely full. This immediately brought fire to one of the two engines on the left side of the airplane and at the same time, once the pilots noticed the engine fire in the cockpit, the navigating mechanic also turned off the other engine of the same part .
At this point the Concorde not only lost power but became uncontrollable by skidding and crashing on the ground. It should not be forgotten that the Concorde was also overweight having been embarked a ton and 200 kilograms more fuel, which should have burned during taxiing from the parking lot to the runway but actually burned less, and there were also about twenty bags, put on board without being recorded on the loading documents, for another 500 kg. So the Concorde was overweight at the time of take-off, a situation that lengthened the take-off run in which, if it had been shorter, the airplane’s landing gear itself would probably not have met the reed. It should be noted that the navigating mechanic turned off the engine next to the burning one without waiting for the commander’s order, a maneuver considered, during the investigation, to be an error by the flight crew of the airplane.
Due to this serious accident, the French immediately stopped the airplane, followed almost by the British. The manufacturers who then made a series of technical interventions, especially on the tanks and tires of the plane, intervened. This was done fairly quickly because in less than a year the Concorde returned to normal flight in both Air France and British Airways colors. Air France, for the remaining six Concordes, had also modified the passenger cabin by reducing the number of seats from 100 to 90.
Concorde was therefore certainly the victim of the Gonesse accident, but not only because two other important factors decreed its end. First of all, there was a significant increase in fuel prices, and the Concorde consumed a lot to transport only 100 passengers, and secondly, the increase in the costs of the maintenance parts to the point that the two companies using the Concorde deemed appropriate, also with the drop in passengers that took place after the accident in Gonesse, decide on the end of this airplane by placing it, in 2003, definitively on the lawn.
What is left of the technological point of view and how much has it influenced the development of civil aviation or if it was only a chimera?
I can say that the Concorde was not just a chimera since it was designed, built and has flown 23 years with a rather long life compared to the competition or the Tupolev TU-144 built by the Soviets in the same period.
Certainly in technological terms it has brought a series of benefits in the development of civil aviation in various aspects. They range from the use of materials for the construction of the aircraft with the adoption, for example, of titanium which has proved to be a material also suitable for high temperatures, has demonstrated the possibility that an engine can operate at supersonic speed for longer hours and not just minutes as in military aircraft, it has certainly carried out procedures for the construction of civil aircraft that did not exist before. This is also thanks to the introduction and evolution of computerized design with increasingly modern manufacturing techniques. But not only because the Concorde has influenced, in different ways, other technological and industrial sectors, leaving signing important and significant benefits.
Materially, what is left today of the Concorde or better of the Concorde produced?
What remains of Concorde today? The Concorde has been present since 2003, when it ceased the scheduled services with Air France and British airways, in some European museums and where it is always a rather important “piece” We remember the French museums in Paris the Musée de l’Air and de l ‘Espace, that of Toulouse, a museum in Germany in Sisenheim and in England in Brooklands and Manchester. Let’s not forget the Concordes on display in the United States of America in New York and Washington and the one found in Barbados.
In addition to the complete aircraft, there are also many Concorde memorabilia around the world. Some years, in fact, some important auctions took place, first in France in Paris then in London in England, of parts of the Concorde with an excellent economic result for the respective auction houses and for the satisfaction of the buyer, both private and museum or a public institution.
Of Concorde memorabilia around, as I repeat, there are really many. From coffee cups for on-board services to “first day” postal envelopes for the inaugural flight of Concorde, for example over Caracas. There is certainly no shortage of important pieces such as the complete Olympus 593 engines of the Rolls Royce / Snecma, the seats of the pilots of both the commander and the first officer, elements of the fuselage and I quote complete maintenance manuals of the airplane.
Concorde has not been flying for some time now but has remained the mind in the soul in the hearts of many people. In France as in England there are Club Concordes, one in particular in England where mainly pilots, flight attendants, engineers but also simple enthusiasts are registered. In France there are even three Concorde Clubs, one of which specifically named after the Olympus 593 engine, which bring together enthusiasts, people who worked on the Concorde together with pilots and flight attendants mostly, obviously, Air France.
Does supersonic speed transport have a future?
Thinking about the future, the idea of supersonic trains is a bit of a utopia. The supersonic flight is certainly destined to return, in a relatively short period from today, of actuality since there are a number of US companies which are working to create a supersonic that will no longer have the characteristics of a commercial civil aircraft but will be a business or business jet aircraft. So much so that we no longer speak of SST, or Super Sonic Transport, but of SSBJ or Super Sonic Business Jet. They will be aircraft that will have some of the same characteristics as the Concorde, other completely new peculiarities being intended to business traffic, and therefore no longer to scheduled flights but to executive flights for companies therefore with a variable capacity from 10-12 seats up to a maximum of fifty seats in a single cabin configured with all comforts.
The Europeans, after the retirement of the Concorde, have not returned to the race for a new supersonic aircraft and the Russians much less. Therefore there are only Americans who have, both economically and technologically, a real world supremacy that allows their companies to fly a future supersonic plane.
On the subject, it is interesting to report two airplanes in particular. I am an SSBJ, signed by the American company Aerion and christened As2, which will fly to Mach 1.6, while we remember that the Concorde was flying to Mach 2.2, it will be able to transport, in an extremely large and fully equipped cabin, a maximum of 11 passengers and should in principle be present with the first specimens in the 2023.
A slightly more ambitious project is instead that of the company, also in the USA, Hyperstar which is designing an aircraft that will be called Hyper Mach SonicStar (image) and should be ready in 2028. It will transport, in an equally extremely luxurious and spacious cabin, a maximum of 55 people at a speed of Mach 6.6, therefore three times that of the Concorde, equal to 5500 km per hour and can fly at an altitude of 24,000 meters ( the Concorde was limited to 18,000 meters), two rather ambitious objectives that, today, even certain military and strategic airplanes are unable to reach or reach the pilot in an anti-G suit and not certainly jacket and tie, with only on board.
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Photo: web / RIA Novosti / André Cros / Daniel Schwen