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.

Concorde

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.

SPECIFICATIONS
ModelBAe Concorde Type 1 Variant 100, 1976
OriginUK/France
RoleCivilian supersonic passenger transport
First flight2 March 1969
Last flight24 October 2003
Production20
ConstructionAll metal
Unit costUS$33.8M (1972)
Maximum weight412,000 pounds (187,000kg)
Engines4 x 32,000-38,050lb thrust Rolls Royce/SNECMA Olympus 593 Mk610 afterburning turbojets
Wingspan84′ (25.6m)
Length202′ 4″ (61.7m)
Height40′ (12.2m)
Payload128 passengers
Range3,900 nautical miles (7,223 km)
Combat radiusNot applicable
Service ceiling60,000′
Cruise speedMach 2.02
Maximum speedMach 2.04 (temperature limited)
Claim to fameWorld’s only viable supersonic passenger aircraft

More Aircraft

This link provides a list of the location of every Concorde in a museum or on display, and you can read more articles like this in our Aircraft section here.

Books about the Concorde

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