Concorde marks 40th anniversary

Forty years after its first flight, Concorde no longer rules the skies – but its grip on the imagination remains strong

21 January 2016

THE SUPERSONIC passenger plane Concorde took off for the first time forty years ago – Connexion looks back at the chequered but never dull history of this feat of French and British aeronautical engineering.

Concorde dominated the skies and headlines for 27 years before being retired in 2003. Launched in 1976, the ‘great white bird’ made its maiden voyage between Paris and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil via Dakar in Senegal in 4hrs 45mins, flying at a speed of 2,200kph.

Concorde’s troubled future was foreshadowed even before it welcomed its first passengers. In 1973 concerns were raised about its commercial viability as a result of the petrol crisis – the plane’s design meant it needed to burn a lot of fuel to achieve supersonic speeds. That same year safety concerns were also raised when Concorde’s Soviet competitor Tupolev TU-144 crashed in Val d’Oise, killing 14 people.

These twin crises led to orders for Concorde being cancelled around the world – leaving just 13 models, belonging to the project initiators Air France and British Airways.

Issues around safety and economic viability would return to haunt Concorde throughout its lifetime. In 1981 Air France and British Airways decided to suspend flights to South and Central America – that year the former had sustained losses of 362million francs as a result of Concorde flights being half full.

By the end of the year Concorde was flying from Paris to just one destination: New York. Curiously enough, the US had initially been a reluctant participant in the Concorde story, finally granting it permission to fly to John F Kennedy airport in 1977 after a two-year struggle to get approval. Its first flight to the Big Apple was completed in 3hrs 39mins.

It seemed that Concorde’s worst days were behind it – the new decade brought with it a period of prosperity for the Paris-New York route, and by 1986 Air France was reporting commercial viability.

On the back of this success, Concorde’s designers decided to revamp the 1976 original, laying plans for a larger ‘super-Concorde’ that would consume less fuel and carry more passengers.

Concorde’s future looked bright. In 1992 it flew around the world in 32 hrs 49 mins, breaking the previous record set by US jet Gulfstream IV in 1988. It took things up another notch in 1995, recording a new record of 31 hrs 27 mins when the AF1995 flew from New York and back again, stopping at Toulouse, Dubai, Bangkok, Guam, Honolulu and Acapulco en route.

But disaster struck in 2000 when the Concorde F-BTSC crashed into a hotel in Gonesse, a suburb of Paris, shortly after taking off from Charles De Gaulle airport, killing 113. A subsequent inquiry found that a metal sliver that had fallen from a preceding flight had punctured one of F-BTSC’s tyres, causing it to burst and damage a fuel tank. The subsequent fire knocked out an engine and caused the plane to pitch and fall before crashing.

Though Concorde would continue flying for three years, its reputation never recovered. The once acclaimed great bird of the skies was now increasingly regarded as a fragile creature, and dozens of previous incidents of damage that had previously gone unremarked on became the subject of intense media scrutiny.

In 2001, to counteract this negative publicity, Concorde launched another revamped model, its fuel tanks protected with Kevlar and wheels hardened to stop them bursting. In a highly publicised demonstration of confidence the then transport minister Jean-Claude Gayssot was aboard its maiden flight.

However it was all to no avail. Two years later Concorde took off for the last time, with thousands of well-wishers gathered to watch it leave Roissy airport. By then the climate of public need had shifted away from speed towards size – the 800-seat super-jumbo A380 would begin flying in 2005, a response to growing concerns about fuel-efficiency and the environment.

Today it takes 8hrs 45mins to fly from Paris to New York. In 1980 it took barely more than three and a half thanks to Concorde. Though it has since been consigned to the scrapheap, the great old bird lives on in the memories of those who experienced it.

And the great bird of the skies might just become a phoenix and rise from the ashes – plans are under way to restore a single model to service. The Concorde Club, a group of enthusiasts, said last year it had secured £160million in funding and planned to use it to purchase and restore the jet on display at Le Bourget airport in Paris. A tentative date of 2019 has been set for it to resume flying – exactly half a century after its first test flight.

Did you ever get to fly on Concorde? Tell us about your experience here if so.

Photo:spaceaero2

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