Concordes of the future | Sunday Observer

Concordes of the future

The Concorde flew commercially for the last time in 2000
The Concorde flew commercially for the last time in 2000

I have been writing a lot about planes and I thought I would end this series of musings about planes with just one more article – on supersonic planes.

This was prompted by yet another 50th anniversary (after the Boeing 747) of a groundbreaking (pardon the bad pun) aircraft – the Concorde. It was not the only supersonic or faster than the speed of sound airplane that flew commercially – the Russians did build a similar machine called TU-144 that did 55 trips, but it was literally buried after a crash at the Paris Air Show. On the other hand, the Anglo-French ultra-sleek plane that flew for the first time 50 years ago completed thousands of successful trips.

The Concorde

The Concorde was not a mass-market affair – only 20 were ever built, of which 14 entered regular service. Only Air France and British Airways operated the Concorde, although several other airlines had expressed interest in ordering them. Having taken to the skies in the same year as the 747 and of course, the Moon Lander, the Concorde gripped public imagination in a way that no other plane has done ever since.

Nevertheless, with a one-way London to New York ticket on the Concorde costing US$ 7,500 then (US$ 12,500 in today’s money), only the super-rich could travel on the Concorde. However, they could save five hours off the regular travel time, which has never really improved in the past 50 years at around 8.5 hours. The Concorde had a maximum cruise altitude of 18,300 metres (60,039 ft) and an average cruise speed of Mach 2.02, about 1155 knots (2140 km/h or 1334 mph), more than twice the speed of conventional aircraft. Even today, only a few military aircraft can match or exceed these speeds.

This was so high that the sky started to darken and the curvature of the Earth could be seen. It was so fast that you could look down and see conventional aircraft seeming to fly backwards. It also built up so much air friction that the windows were very warm to the touch and the entire fuselage expanded 6 inches. Inside, the Cabin pressure was equivalent to just 1,800 metres at Earth altitude, making passengers very comfortable. It also helped diners to appreciate their food better because higher altitudes kill the sense of taste. The white livery was chosen because Concorde needed a special heat-resistant, heat-reflecting paint. For all this, the plane burned up to 22,000 litres of fuel per hour.

Tragedy

The Concorde flew commercially for the last time in 2000. An accident in which everyone on board lost their lives on July 25, 2000 ended the Concorde’s time in the sky. The Concorde aircraft serving the flight (registration F-BTSC) ran over debris on the runway during takeoff, blowing a tyre and puncturing a fuel tank. The subsequent fire and engine failure caused the aircraft to crash into a hotel in a nearby town minutes after takeoff.

The plane exploded on impact, killing all 109 people aboard and four people in the hotel, with another person in the hotel critically injured. Ironically, this was the only fatal accident in the aircraft’s history. However, it hastened the plane’s departure and now most of the remaining specimens are in museums and heritage airfields, never to move again.

But the seeds of its death had been sown years earlier, soon after it started flying. In 1973, OPEC states imposed a series of oil embargoes against the West which drove up air fuel costs. Concorde’s ticket prices soared as a result.

The other factor that inhibited Concorde sales and flights was the massive ‘sonic boom’ or sound that it generated when breking the sound barrier. Many airports, built around residential areas with strict noise restrictions, wanted nothing to do with the Concorde.

New

A new generation of subsonic planes was arriving with lower ticket prices and the rich were getting access to new business jets that could fly almost at the speed of sound (Mach 1). Even they no longer wanted the Concorde experience. Thus most Concordes earned their living by being chartered out to tour groups – its last passengers were a similar tour group. Even before the accident, it was clear that this was not going to be sustainable.

But what about the future? Aerospace companies have not given up the idea of supersonic travel, but they are all working on ways to avoid the supersonic boom and of course, bring down the costs. Supersonic travel could hit the sweet spot between two extremes – Ultra Low Cost Travel on Low Cost Carriers and impending space tourism from the likes of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.

Quiet

On the research front, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works team has started building the first part of the X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology aircraft, which could make supersonic commercial travel a reality. The aerospace company is building the jet for NASA’s Low Boom Flight Demonstration program, now that the space agency has committed to a three-year development timeline. Lockheed X-59’s long, slender design will allow it to be relatively quiet, creating a sound only as loud as a car door closing whenever it transitions to supersonic speeds. Since it will fly at an altitude of 55,000 feet and at speeds of 940 mph, it is expected to be barely audible.

The future

There are several other companies working on much the same technology, including Boom Supersonic, Aerion Supersonic and Spike Aerospace which are racing to be the first to slash travel times across the globe, with passenger jets that can travel faster than Mach 1 - the speed of sound (761mph or 1,225km/h at sea level). All plan to have their aircraft in regular service by 2025. Since current regulations only govern supersonic flights over water, the new aircraft will be used by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in drawing up new rules regarding supersonic flight over land.

Again, do not expect them to be mass-market products. They are envisioned as regional or business jets with a premium price tag to match. However, the tickets should be much more affordable than on the Concorde, even with inflation counted in.

The flight time from Shanghai to Los Angeles - currently about 12 hours - would shrink to a little over six hours and cost would be likely US$ 5,000. People already pay that much for First Class anyway.

It is likely that we will see supersonic travel back in vogue by 2030 or so, probably in tandem with another trend – flying taxis. Anything that shortens our commutes – inter-continental or between domestic cities – is welcome.

 

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