Although it may sound counter-intuitive, the Mach 2, 128 seat Concorde proved to be a triumph of European and British understatement. This statement actually makes complete sense when you compare the Concorde with the very ambitious American plans to build a Mach 3 SST supersonic airliner that could carry up to 300 passengers.
The American supersonic airliner – the SST
The United States is the land of the bigger, faster and better. A land where you bite off more than you can chew, and then chew like crazy. That is not a criticism – on the contrary – it reflects the unstoppable spirit and progress of American technology and innovation.
The admirable and prevailing American attitude is to look beyond the normal rules and limitations that hamper others, having great confidence that there are very few challenges that can not be overcome by the sheer force of persistence, engineering and science.
There is no doubt that the US could have built a SST that would have surpassed the Concorde. You only have to look at the North American Aviation XB-70 to see that they had engineering chops. Yet it was precisely because of XB-70 research into sonic boom footprints that it became clear that no matter how high a plane of this size flew, the impact of the sonic over-pressures, let alone the general noise footprint, would be unacceptable.
The proposed SST’s economics were marginal at best; there would also likely be an impact on the ozone layer, and the project costs would be staggering. For all these reasons the American supersonic airliner project – the ‘SST’ – was eventually dropped, when on March 24th 1971 the US Senate voted 52 to 41 to end further funding.
As mentioned above, the Concorde design specifications indeed look understated, but only by comparison with what the Americans were striving to achieve. Whether deliberately or not, the smaller and slower Concorde actually had far fewer technical issues to overcome.
For example, fuel burn at Mach 2 is substantially lower that at Mach 3, thus allowing less fuel to be carried and reducing the weight of the aircraft. Lower weight in turn reduces the total thrust requirement.
Temperatures in critical sections of the airframe at Mach 2 are a fraction of the Mach 3 numbers, eliminating or reducing the need for highly exotic and expensive materials.
This in turn reduced the need for highly advanced manufacturing techniques like the titanium milling system developed by Lockheed for the SR-71, or the brazed stainless steel honeycomb sandwich skin developed for the XB-70.
The comparison really ends there. The Concorde’s first flight was five years later than the XB-70 and it benefited from significant engineering and technical advances in that period.
A technological tour de force
Yet the Concorde was a technological tour de force in its own right. With a fly-by-wire flight control system and variable geometry exhaust nozzles to name just a few of those advances, it was sophisticated and advanced – and extremely photogenic.
It’s economics were never viable however, and it was ultimately restricted to operating over oceanic areas, limiting its revenue-generating potential to a handful of routes.
It was an incredibly safe aircraft, especially given that it was a supersonic airliner operating at Mach 2 at nearly 60,000′. There was only one crash – the infamous loss of Air France flight 4590 in July 2000 – and that was caused by a piece of metal left on the runway by a preceding departing aircraft.
|Model||BAe Concorde Type 1 Variant 100, 1976|
|Role||Civilian supersonic passenger transport|
|First flight||2 March 1969|
|Last flight||24 October 2003|
|Unit cost||US$33.8M (1972)|
|Maximum weight||412,000 pounds (187,000kg)|
|Engines||4 x 32,000-38,050lb thrust Rolls Royce/SNECMA Olympus 593 Mk610 afterburning turbojets|
|Length||202′ 4″ (61.7m)|
|Range||3,900 nautical miles (7,223 km)|
|Combat radius||Not applicable|
|Cruise speed||Mach 2.02|
|Maximum speed||Mach 2.04 (temperature limited)|
|Claim to fame||World’s only viable supersonic passenger aircraft|
Books about the Concorde
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