OPINION

Back to the Future: The Story of Concorde and the Dawn of a New Race for Supersonic & Hypersonic Air Transport

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The year 2021 has been simply remarkable! at least in so much as concerns world athletics. It tested zeal and resilience. The ability to face headwinds and still rise— soar— higher and faster than before!  It delivered through television the rewarding experience of a win; a waking dream shared with all humanity. And (Finnish athlete, in slow motion, runs past the finish line) a moment savoured in time…

In the field of aviation, one name: Concorde, speaks to this very aspiration. But what was Concorde really (if not a pretty decent name suggestion for Usain Bolt’s next child of course)?

 

Cool Runnings.

Albeit shrouded in controversy, Concorde is the most successful supersonic commercial aircraft to have ever graced the runway. For as sprinter is to track was she to the sky. She not only broke the record for fastest transatlantic trip (February 7th, 1996; 2hrs 52min: less than half the time from JFK to Heathrow), but also the sound barrier; which is what happens when an aircraft flies supersonic. And what that means is, Concorde travelled faster than the speed of sound. In fact, at max speed: Mach 2.04 (about 2180km/h), she was more than twice as fast as a snap in a dark room. And according to Airline Ratings, “Faster than the world turned; faster even, than a rifle bullet”. Not the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise but certainly the stuff of Legend.

The idea for such an aircraft was birthed in the early 50s when France and Britain shook hands to this thought, after many a discus-sion. They then adopted as a name, a French word for ‘agreement’. So for about 20 years, these two nations played their part in Cold War competitive technological advancement aimed at beating Russia in a steeplechase to the most groundbreaking air innovation. Concorde might have come two months after the Communist Tupolev Tu-144 but the undisputed umpire for this face-off was fate, and as she would have it, the Capitalists had developed a more formidable product; better by a country mile. Concorde’s Delta wing and lean body tore through wind, powered by Rolls-Royce olympus turbojet engines, to redefine air travel. She was a thing of beauty.

To fly Concorde however, cost a pretty penny: $7,995 for a 1997 New York to London round-trip ($13,599.12 today), more than 30 times the cost of what was then the cheapest alternative flight. This limited its occupants to a community of affluent travellers. Nevertheless, there were glory days! Elton John, Mick Jagger, Rob Stewart, Piers Morgan, Phil Collins, Diana Ross, Mike Tyson, Robbie Williams, Victoria Beckham, Sean Connery, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II are on an endless, endless! list of notable names to have flown Concord. Why then, you’d ask, was she (Concorde) retired in 2003 if her track record was so glorious? Well, the aforementioned is only half the story. Concorde, right from her inception, gravitated towards her, a lot of controversy.

 

Cast Away.

Expensive air tickets were only the tip of the iceberg. While yes, they caused her many pains, a fusion of other factors worked to cause the aircraft’s desertion. On the proprietors’ end, a single aircraft cost a rather high £23 million in 1977 (£146.6 million today) and had to be subsidised heavily by the British and French governments just to allow their airlines to break even. Not to mention the fact that these airlines were the only two to ever purchase the aircraft. The investment was deemed, by most nations, a precarious one so they opted to stay in their aeronautical lanes and avoid the planes altogether. Airlines that had initially sought to make purchases during the development phase, pulled out following Russian competitor’s Tu-144 crash at the 1973 Paris Airshow which resulted in the death of 6 crew members and 8 French civilians.

Later on in the 2000s, maintenance costs shot through the roof and new manufacturer, Airbus, decided to stop supplying replacement parts for the machine. This, on top of her outdated analogue cockpit which the industry had long abandoned. Outside speed, she was no match for most subsonic commercial aircracts which offered more space, luxury and generally, comfort at a lower cost.

The most controversial point however, was Concorde’s Sonic boom (a thunderclap or explosion-like sound) caused by her breakage of the sound barrier. It was so loud that the aircraft could not fly supersonic over populated areas lest they cause great disturbance. Worse still was the Russian iteration whose only effective on-board communication amongst passengers was the writing and exchange of notes. The public were so disgruntled and, in protest, caused Concorde to be banned in New York for a period.

More still, to perform the feat she was most famous for, Concorde demanded ludicrous amounts of fuel and produced nitrogen oxides in its exhaust which posed considerable environmental risk. This volatile reality was dealt multiple shocks in 1973 and 1974 during the oil crisis and stock market crash.

On July 25th, 2000, the very first Concorde plane crash was registered at Charles de Gaulle Airport when debris from a burst tire raptured a fuel tank which burst into flames, not long after take-off. All 100passengers and 9 crew members on board died alongside 4 civilians on ground. This appeared to be, not just the culmination of apprehension but also vindication of many skeptics. Ultimately, the straw that the camel forever cursed turned out to be al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks that caused prospective travelers to hold out, in terror.

Was Concorde a victim of circumstance, say, turbulent times? Did they give up on her too soon (like a prospective athlete with an unprecedented capacity for locomotion, who, in doubt, prematurely abandons that train of thought)? Or was it an unrealistic, overly ambitious, amorphous project to begin with, that would only last as long as her proprietors’ wits could be stretched?

 

Back to the Future.

Whatever the case, we are soon to find out since after nearly two decades of commercial Supersonic silence, ‘BOOM’, a Denver based start-up reignited the flame and is working to develop ‘Boom Overture Supersonic Jets’ that it hopes shall be test-flown next year. All this comes in the wake of Hollywood film, Sonic the Hedgehog (perfectly irrelevant submission). So the button has indeed been handed over to Overture, a seemingly more feasible undertaking; considering technological advancements that allow for simulations and precision testing. Though, question remains, will it be able to overcome the hurdles that ended its predecessor’s run?

So far, she is faring considerably well. Overture shall fly about 65 passengers as opposed to Concorde’s 100, which (for the sake of profitability) would raise the concern of air ticket prices though Founder, Blake Scholl, addressed this by stating that he hopes to make these flights most affordable and slowly “displace subsonic flight as the best way for everyone to travel over long distances.” This is however subject to stipulation by the airlines that fly Overture.

As per Reuters, United Airlines have committed themselves to purchasing 15 and possibly 35 more of the aircraft in question, in hopes to start operations by 2029 (BBC). This development seems to address, to a certain extent, the concern of demand.

As to whether this iteration is similarly thirsty, specifics are foggy. Boom however says that the aircraft shall use 100% sustainable alternative fuels which is a giant plus for the environment. Aerion, a company with a 12 seater AS2 supersonic jet in the pipeline (scheduled for 2026) expects that it shall run on biofuels and is purportedly, “as quiet as other planes”, according to CEO Tom Vice.

And now onto the much dreaded Sonic Boom: Boom States that it shall fly supersonic only while over oceans (CNN) to avoid sonic boom disturbance which showcases little difference in that aspect, when compared to its predecessor. So are we really back on track or is our back still on the track (for pun’s sake)?

 

Need for Speed.

The star of the show: a sprint creature for whom we are waiting with bated breath, is an experimental hypersonic aircraft. Not Supersonic, Hypersonic. The Quarterhorse, developed by Hermeus, in partnership with the US Air Force will be capable of flying at a mindwarping Mach 5 (6174 km/h: from New York to London in 90min rather than the usual 7hours); five times the speed of sound! At this rate, our next stop is teleportation.

With the addition of commercialised trips to outer space, many eyebrows have been raised at the medley of tech, billions and celebrity. So a skeptical estimation would question whether these projects are the aviation equivalent of allowing athletes in a luxury league to dope, for the sheer excitement of seeing: how high or far in leap; fast or strong in performance, the human body can go. Might it be an unnatural and potentially self-destructive rig of prevailing interests key to only a few? Or rather, a technological advancement pushing the boundaries of a species, many amongst whom are not yet aware of support? This argument could be collapsed into a case of conquest and capital versus necessity and utility. One thing is for sure though: whoever boards these machines is in for a thrilling experience; another giant leap for mankind, onto the podium of history.

 

By Nelson Rotino

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