Last Days of the Concorde

Last Days of the Concorde by Samme Chittum

Why are flights so slow? It seems like the same flight takes longer every year. Why does it take 6.5 hours to fly from Boston to SF – without delays? For someone who flies a lot, I don’t know much about planes at all. The physics of how it works is obviously out of the question, but even the business/economics of airlines is a blind spot. I tried to take a class senior fall, but it was senior fall, and classes were low on my priority list. So here I am, learning about the Concorde for the first time.

1) The Concorde cruised at about 60K ft, compared to 30K-40K for normal commercial planes.

This made it much easier to see Earth’s curvature . Maybe we need to bring the Concorde back.

2) Only 20 Concordes were ever built, and only 14 were for commercial service. British Airways and Air France each had 7.

I had no idea that the Concorde was a British-French project. I don’t really think of either country as a leader in aviation.

3) There are 3 critical speed thresholds during a takeoff: V1, VR, and V2min.

At V1, the plane cannot abort takeoff. At VR, the pilot raises the nose of the plane. At V2min, the plane has reached the necessary speed to achieve a safe takeoff.

4) 96 of the 100 passengers onboard 4590 were German.

Given the high price, it was common for Concordes to be booked for specific purposes. In this case, a German tour group was on its way to New York.

5) Because the delta wings could not provide enough lift at subsonic speeds, the tires were crucial for bearing the weight of the Concorde during takeoff.

The tires turned out to be the weakest link (or at least one of them). It’s humbling to think how much thought and engineering go into one successful flight.

6) Sonic boom is continuous once the plane surpasses the speed of sound.

The loud noise generated by the Concorde severely limited the routes it could fly, as it was mostly restricted to transatlantic flights. Even during takeoff – before hitting Mach 1, the Concorde is way louder than the average commercial plane. I watched some Youtube videos and had to turn the volume down.

7) Ultimately, the crash was caused by the plane running over a metal strip left over by a previous plane.

Talk about butterfly effects. The metal strip caused pieces of the tire to break off and hit the fuel tank at high speeds. This sent a shockwave through the tank, which started leaking fuel. The fuel then was ignited by an electric arc in the landing gear bay which could not be retracted. The fire then caused 2 engines to surge. After the incident, maintaining the Concorde became too costly, and now we have 20-hour long flights.

8) While the metal strip was the main culprit, there were a few other controllable factors.

The Concorde had a long history of tire issues – with tires deflating or bursting once every 4000 flying hours, which was 60x normal aircraft. The plane that day was also a bit overweight, and the takeoff took place with tailwind. Both of these factors added to the difficulty of the take off. Finally, the full tank was the perfect scenario for the internal shockwaves within the fuel tank.

9) French President Chirac was taxiing nearby during the Concorde crash.

It’s unlikely that the pilots knew this, but at one point, the Concorde was veering towards Chirac’s plane.

10) The Concorde actually regained its certificate of airworthiness on Sep 6, 2001.

While the crash certainly indirectly led to the end of the Concorde, the plane was back in service for a bit before it ultimately became too expensive to maintain, as it no longer made economic sense for Airbus to produce and maintain the parts and for the airlines to operate the flights.

I was shocked that the Concorde flew until 2003. That’s only 16 years ago. Somehow, the idea of supersonic flying seems to be completely out of the question now. This is a perfect example of the cognitive dissonance I experience when I juxtapose human achievements and our mundane struggles. We can build supersonic planes but we can’t get people to pay for them. We can fly into space but we can’t change lanes properly.  That’s humanity.


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