Last updated: 05:04 PM ET, Thu January 21 2016

Concorde: The Coolest Plane Ever Turns The Big 4-0

Airlines & Airports | Paul Thompson | January 21, 2016

Concorde: The Coolest Plane Ever Turns The Big 4-0

PHOTO: The majestic Concorde made quite a splash with every landing. (courtesy British Airways)

The most revolutionary passenger aircraft ever to fly made its first commercial flight on this day in 1976. It’s hard to believe that it has already been 12 years since its retirement! Let’s take a look at what made the Concorde such a unique and incredible plane.

The Concorde was a marvel of collaborative design, between the British and the French — unlike anything that had ever flown before. Only twenty of them were built. It’s maiden flights were for British Airways from London Heathrow to Bahrain, and with Air France from Paris to Dakar and Rio de Janeiro.

The Federal Aviation Administration originally blocked the Concorde from landing on U.S. soil, due to protests over its noise and pollution. It finally made its first flight to Washington Dulles on May 24, 1976. Flying into New York took intervention from the Supreme Court, who ended Concorde's Big Apple ban and paved the way for its NYC debut at JFK Airport in 1977.

PHOTO: Preparation for Concorde's first flight truly showed how it dwarfed the planes of its era. (courtesy British Airways)

What made the Concorde so unique? First, its shape was striking. It just screams “SPEED!” It is untraditional in its design, being shaped like a dart, rather than the more conventional bullet-nosed shape of other jets. Its pointed nose was able to be raised and lowered. Lowering the nose allowed the pilots to see the ground better during takeoff and landing, and while taxiing on the ground. Its wings essentially shaped a large triangle, known as a “delta wing.” It spent seven years in testing, making it the most tested commercial aircraft, ever.

Over 5,000 hours were spent in wind tunnel testing tweaking the shape to make it just right. Normal planes typically have a wingspan about the same as the plane’s length, but the delta design created more lift, and therefore allowed a shorter wingspan. It’s landing gear was the first to contain carbon fiber brakes for a commercial aircraft, which are only now becoming more mainstream. It also had a 4th landing gear under the tail, or what some call a “kickstand,” in case the pilots took off or landed at too steep of an angle.

PHOTO: Inside the cabin of the Concorde. (photo by Paul Thompson)

In flight, the Concorde flew to the edge of space, up to 11 miles high. Typical commercial flights cruise at about six or seven miles above the earth. The forward cabin wall of the plane displayed the flight speed. Optimum cruising speed was Mach 2.04, or 1,354 miles per hour. Even then, the plane still consumed 4,800 gallons of fuel per hour. Its speed created so much heat that the plane would actually stretch 6 to 10 inches during the flight, and the cabin walls would become warm to the touch. In 1986, British Airways flew a Concorde around the world, covering 28,238 miles in 29 hours, 59 minutes.

On board, the flight experience was like no other. In the cabin, passengers sat two-by-two, in seats that aren't any wider than most of today’s economy seats on airlines. The menu for British Airways’ first flight included 1969 Dom Perignon champagne, caviar and lobster canapes, grilled fillet steak, palm heart salad with Roquefort dressing and fresh strawberries with double cream. Cuban cigars were also offered. Its trans-Atlantic crossing took just under three hours from New York to London (later flights improved the new record to 2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds.

Aviation enthusiasts are hoping to see the Concorde fly again one day, at air show displays or even small-scale charter service. But most people agree that plan is highly unrealistic, due to the scale of cost along with the environmental factors that put it out of business in the first place. All of the retired Concordes now rest in museums, including three in the United States.

There is a new supersonic jet in development. It is called the Aerion AS2. This particular plane is a business jet, so we won’t expect to board one at any of our local airports. European aircraft builder Airbus is a partner in the development of the AS2, so it stands to reason that the company could benefit from at least some aspects of the design and engineering process.

I do believe the airline industry will eventually see another supersonic jet as well, as long as it can be operated somewhat profitably. There will always be a select crowd with fat wallets, willing to spare no expense to get somewhere quickly and luxuriously. The technology exists. The only real question is who will pony up billions of dollars it will take in order to bring it to life.


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