Happy Mach 1 Week! This Friday, October 14 marks the 69th anniversary of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, something I honor by calling the day Mach 1 Day (it sounds better than Opening of the Cuban Missile Crisis Day). On this blog I have celebrated Mach 1 Day with posts about Yeager and some of his other exploits, as well as a look at the fastest airplane ever flown. Today I’m moving away from the military aspect of fast flight to marvel at the Mach 2-exceeding passenger plane that is the only successful commercialized civilian aircraft to surpass the sound barrier: Concorde.
Following Yeager’s supersonic breakthrough in 1947, crafting planes that could go beyond Mach 1 was all the rage for aerospace engineers. After a few more small jets were produced and used to push past Mach 2 and more, the focus for Earth-bound flights was shifted to making a viable aircraft that could blaze across the globe with more than a couple people on board. Imagine carrying hundreds of people at thousands of kilometers per hour! Trips to faraway destinations could be cut in half for the common man. The dreams of tomorrow’s travel could come true today! There was no shortage of hopeful technological advances in the wake of World War II, but in this pursuit of accelerated aviation humanity actually nailed it! Not without some trial and error, though.
The United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France all tried to develop a supersonic (faster than the speed of sound) passenger plane, or SST (supersonic transport) aircraft, with differing results. The US got some serious mojo rolling with Boeing, but there were issues of cost, as well as the fact that flying across a large country with many populated areas while dishing out sonicbooms (the super loud bangs that occur when something breaks the sound barrier and goes Mach 1) does not make for happy residents on the ground. The Soviet Union did produce a plane called the Tupolev Tu-144 that flew 55 passenger flights from November 1977 – June 1978 before being recommissioned for cargo only until it was permanently grounded in 1983. The British and French opted to team up and made the most of their combined intellects with Concorde as the result.
The name Concorde is taken from the French word meaning “harmony” or “union”, the same as the English word that drops the “e”. (There actually was a heated backlash from citizens of the UK who disliked the use of the French spelling. This was somewhat assuaged with the explanation that the “e” stood for a number of buzzwords that began with “e”, most notably “England”.) It seemed fitting for the men and women who made Concorde to give it a name that reflected their joint effort and achievement.
Concorde is one of the most recognizable aircraft to have graced the sky due to its impressive and well-engineered design. A design that some speculate the Soviets appreciated enough to swipe the plans for it to aid in their Tupolev’s manufacture. According to some sources, the Soviets took some key features for their SST airplane directly from blueprints of Concorde. A few proud Westerners even maintain that Concorde’s team anticipated this design theft and allowed the Soviets to take a set of faulty diagrams. While none of this has been confirmed, none of it seems too ridiculous for that era. It was the Cold War, after all. What is certain is that many Western aviators referred to the Tupolev as the Concordski.
Concorde was a unique and intriguing arrival from its first flight on March 2, 1969. When it went into service actually transporting passengers on January 21, 1976, it made flights for British Airways and Air France to select cities on the other side of the Atlantic, briefly contending with some supersonic bans in the US before beginning a long and prosperous back and forth between London/Paris and New York City/Washington D.C./Barbados. These were the regular stops for most of the 27 year reign of Concorde, with London and Paris almost always being the departure or destination. Other flights saw Concorde landing in Brazil, Singapore, Mexico, and Bahrain.
During flight, Concorde would not only accelerate to great speed but also ascend to great height. Similar to the SR-71 Blackbird I highlighted in last year’s post, the Concorde made the most of its supersonic capabilities for travel by taking advantage of the thinner air at higher altitude because it was built for such travel where other passenger planes are not able to go up as high due to structural design.
Nevertheless, Concorde served as the preeminent experience in air travel not simply because of its technical engineering, but because of its stellar service on board, and the fact that it made flights in less than half the time it took other aircraft. This was a big deal for many potential passengers who had the moola to put down for a ticket. Not to mention, there is an appeal to travelling faster than the speed of sound as relatively few people have done it, and Concorde provided the only commercially available way to join this exclusive club. (Most of us are still out of luck on this front until private space ventures flourish enough to offer a more affordable ticket.) With all of these things working for Concorde, why did the famous flyer ever stop? For that answer, and some additional information, let’s take a look at this excellent Vox video:
Thanks for reading and watching! I hope your Mach 1 Day is an enjoyable one. If you want to learn more about Concorde, I found this sight to be helpful and interesting: www.concordesst.com. For anyone who lives near an aircraft museum with a Concorde be sure to check it out. In the meantime, feel free to contact me with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to come back next week for more fun.
P.S. For those of you in the United States, remember to register to vote if you have not already. Election Day is only one month away on Tuesday, November 8th.