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Why The Concorde Is Such a Badass Plane?

The pointy-nosed plane barreled down the French tarmac and into the air. The crowd of 200,000 spectators that gathered near the runway at Le Bourget Airport for the 1973 Paris Air Show watched the star of the day, the Concorde, climb toward the horizon.

Its rival would not be so fortunate. The Soviet-built TU-144, like its British/French competitor, sought to usher in a new era of supersonic passenger travel. But the Soviet plane swerved suddenly during ascent and dropped like a stone onto the nearby village of Goussainville, where it killed six in the plane and eight on the ground.

Though marred by tragedy, the air show of ’73 signaled that the supersonic era had arrived—and that the Concorde would be its vanguard. From 1976 to 2003, the Concorde shrank the Atlantic Ocean in half, ferrying passengers from New York to London or Paris in a just three and a half hours. The plane cruised higher than 50,000 feet, revealing the curvature of the Earth at a casual glance out the window. Tickets were outrageously expensive—the average transatlantic round-trip flight cost approximately $12,000—but living in the future, even for just a few hours, has never been cheap.

Today, that future has come and gone. Because of difficult economics and the physical realities of air travel beyond the speed of sound, the Concorde retired more than 15 years ago. No supersonic airliner has risen to take is place—yet. A half-century after its first flight, the legacy of the Concorde’s engineering genius lives on, especially in the new breed of aviation startups and companies seeking to bring back supersonic travel.

Concorde's First Flight
Marc Garanger//Getty Images

The Birth of the Concorde

On October 14, 1947, Chuck Yeager broke through. Cruising in an experimental Bell X-1 aircraft at an altitude in excess of 40,000 feet, the test pilot made history by crashing through the sound barrier and becoming the fastest man in a plane to date.

Nobody knew it at the time, since the U.S. government’s top-secret project stayed under wraps until 1948. Soon, though, the nations of the world knew supersonic air travel was possible. Just as the 1950s gave rise to a space race, so too did it spur a competition in the stratosphere to build an airliner that could carry passengers faster than the speed of sound, effectively shrinking the globe.

The United Kingdom mostly watched the space race from the sidelines as the USSR put satellites in orbit and the United States rushed to catch up. The supersonic race, however, represented a theatre in which postwar Europe could reclaim some pride. Various groups were in on the directive, such as Britain’s Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee, which was tasked in 1956 with developing a Supersonic Transport (SST) fit for commercial use.

Nationalism fueled the ambition. “The reason it was built was largely politics,” says Bob Van Der Linden, Chairman of the Aeronautics Department of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. The Concorde was a way for Europe to leapfrog the U.S., which had already tried and failed to build its own smaller SSTs in the 1950s, but still dominated the market for commercial planes.

However, Britain’s aviation experts soon discovered the cost of building such a plane would be huge. So Britain sought help. “The British government wanted to split the costs with another country,” says Jonathan Glancey, author of Concorde: The Rise and Fall of The Supersonic Airliner. After unsuccessfully seeking American assistance, Britain found an ally in France. In 1962, the two nations signed the Anglo-French Concorde agreement, ensuring cooperation on a new plane, one they hoped would finally level the aeronautical playing field in Europe’s favor.

Concorde 001
J. Wilds//Getty Images

“[Great Britain and France] let politics and reasons of national pride get in the way,” Van Der Linden says. “This was a way of showing we are as good if not better than the United States than it was building an airplane for the market…“They were the pride of Great Britain and France and they wanted to show it off and had every reason to show it off.”

Befitting its two-nation heritage, the Concorde’s name translates to “harmony” or “union” in French. The two aviation giants charged with building it, Aérospatiale (which later became Airbus) and the UK’s British Aircraft Corporation, faced an onerous challenge. “They almost had to reinvent the airplane to make it work, and they did,” Van Der Linden tells Popular Mechanics.

The speed itself wasn’t the problem. By the early 1960, flying faster than the sound barrier in a military jet had gone from milestone to routine. Going that fast in airliner crammed with 100 paying passengers, however, entailed a different kind of thinking.

The Concorde in flight
Rob Garbarini//Getty Images
The Concorde in flight.

The Concorde was equipped with four Rolls-Royce afterburner engines, the same kind used on fighter jets, each of which generated 38,000 pounds of thrust. The bird used a slanted droop-nose that lowered upon takeoff and landing, enabling pilots to see the runway. Revamped brake systems allowed the plane to touch down on a tarmac unscathed even if it landed at far higher speeds than its subsonic counterparts. Because the plane’s nose temperature could climb to 278 degrees while it flew, it was coated in a highly-reflective white paint that radiated heat.


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