A Brief History of the Concorde Supersonic Jet

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The Concorde took its final flight in 2003, but the legacy of the groundbreaking aircraft endures. It traveled at more than twice the speed of sound, flying from New York to London in just three-and-a-half hours. A marvel of engineering and design, the Concorde ushered in the supersonic age — at least for an exclusive set of passengers willing to shell out the premium to cross the Atlantic in half the time of traditional jets. Along with the Russian-built Tupolev Tu-144, the Concorde was one of only two supersonic commercial passenger jets in history — a void yet to be filled. And despite being generally considered a commercial failure and retired after 30 short years, the Concorde remains one of the most famous airplanes ever made.

Design and Development

Close-up of the nose of the Concorde jet.
Credit: Lisa Bronitt/ iStock

The governments of France and Great Britain developed the jet together starting in 1962. The name Concorde represented the international partnership: The French concorde, and its English equivalent concord, both refer to an agreement or union.

The partnership hoped to compete with the United States and Russia, who not only had supersonic jet designs in progress but were also engaged in the infamous Space Race. France and Great Britain wanted a hand in the game and sought to establish themselves as international players in commercial aviation. The cost was tremendous, but residents of both countries rationalized the overruns — the Concorde was destined to become a source of national pride.

The resulting jet featured double delta-style wings, which improved navigation at ultra-high speeds, and a pointed nose that adjusted downward during takeoffs and landings for better pilot visibility. Its electric white paint job established a reflective finish that radiated heat, as the vessel’s temperature could reach 278 degrees Fahrenheit while in flight.

Powering the aircraft were four ultra-advanced engines developed by Rolls Royce, which propelled the Concorde to a maximum cruising speed of 1,354 mph — more than twice the speed of sound. In comparison, traditional jets travel at around 575 mph. Even before it lifted off the ground, the aircraft could hit 250 mph!

Entry Into Service

Close up of Concorde engines.
Credit: Piotr Przyluski/ Shutterstock

The Concorde debuted to great fanfare in Toulouse, France in 1967, and its first flight was in 1969. The capability of the aircraft captivated airline brass and the general public. Initially, 16 airlines placed orders for the jets.

Unfortunately, the Concorde’s launch coincided with the Six-Day War and the resulting oil crisis in 1973, which saw skyrocketing prices for jet fuel. The Concorde’s fuel efficiency was famously poor — a flight from London to New York required over 100 tons of fuel, more than double what a modern day Boeing 777 would burn on the same trip. Further, the jet’s unprecedented speeds created a sonic boom loud enough to shatter glass on the ground below. Several countries banned the Concorde from flying overhead, and this limited regular routes to those over open water.

Nonetheless, 20 Concordes were produced, including six prototypes. The remaining 14 were split between only two airlines: Air France and British Airways. On January 21, 1976, two of the jets took off simultaneously, marking the Concorde’s first supersonic commercial flights. The British Airways flight flew from London to Bahrain while the Air France flight left Paris for Rio de Janeiro.

British Airways flights from London to New York City began later that year. The flights allowed travelers to avoid jet lag and return home without an overnight stay — in fact, between supersonic speed and differences in time zones, a London-to-New York flight would actually land earlier than it departed. They commonly traveled at a cruising altitude of up to 60,000 feet. From that vantage point it was possible for passengers to see the curvature of the Earth.

What Was It Like to Fly?

Interior of the Concorde
Credit: kickstand/ iStock

Though glamorous on the surface, the Concorde’s cabin was extremely noisy, with famously low ceilings and tiny windows. A cramped single aisle divided two seats on either side, for a total of 100 seats. Front and rear sections were identical, separated only by a miniscule lavatory section. Nonetheless, it was considered a status symbol to be seated in the front area, where passengers could watch a meter on the bulkhead displaying the jet’s incredible speeds.

Despite these quarters, the experience was exclusive and the service impeccable. Almost immediately, the Concorde became the preferred mode of transatlantic travel for business magnates and A-list celebrities. Passengers utilized exclusive check-in counters, security lines, and a private lounge before boarding.

Once seated on the jet, passengers were treated to champagne and caviar. Upon reaching cruising altitude, a multi-course meal and rare wine would be served with the finest china, glassware, and silver. Passengers received gifts and souvenirs as well — tie clips, flasks, and frames in sterling silver; logo-emblazoned china, stationery, and luggage tags; and even a certificate as proof of travel aboard the legendary Concorde.

Regulars became a part of the Concorde family — passengers and staff often knew each other by name, with attendants reserving specific seats and particular treats for returning guests. Some of the most famous guests? Paul McCartney, Cindy Crawford, Richard Gere, Sarah Ferguson, John Denver, Piers Morgan, Dolly Parton, Sting, Claudia Schiffer, Richard Branson, Mick Jagger, Barbra Streisand, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, Andre Agassi — the list goes on and on.

The Beginning of the End

Concorde airplane mid flight.
Credit: agsaz/ Shutterstock

While the Concorde was initially profitable for British Airways, Air France lost millions on its operation of the jet. They were simply too expensive to fly, burning through 22 tons of fuel each hour — 2,000 pounds of fuel per passenger — and requiring an inordinate amount of maintenance hours between flights. Towards the end of the Concorde’s run, roundtrip flights could cost upwards of $12,000 USD. Meanwhile, the aircraft’s gas guzzling and high emissions levels made it the ire of multiple environmental groups.

Despite a sterling safety record prior, an Air France Concorde tragically crashed on takeoff in Paris in 2000. And just a year later, the 9/11 terrorist attacks slashed corporate travel budgets, which profoundly affected ticket sales. Both airlines grounded the iconic jets in 2003 as a result. Air France’s last commercial flight ran from New York to Paris on May 31, 2003; and British Airways followed suit on October 24, 2003 with a flight from New York City to London. That final flight was joined by two other Concorde jets that landed in quick succession at Heathrow Airport, creating an unforgettable spectacle.

Today, aviation enthusiasts can see some of the remaining Concordes preserved at various museums around the world, including at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, and the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

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