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Concorde: A Majestic Bird Returns

I recall my first flight on Concorde, it was March 1984 and I had the priviledge of participating in the plane's inaugural run from Tampa to London. I remember the thousands of people who came out for the takeoff and the thrill evident on their faces. Even at 500 ft and 300 mph I could see them as we went into a near vertical climb and kicked in the reheaters.


Later in the flight, as we reached a cruising altitude of 60,000 feet at Mach 2.02 (1,370 mph) I became embroiled in an argument - ahem - discussion with fellow journalists, including an editor for Aviation Week and Space Technology, as to whether Hypersonics would ever fly.

I marveled at the dichotomy - maybe the insanity - of the debate because we were having this imbroglio on the edge of space, with "black sky" phenomenon - the result of a thinning atmosphere minimizing solar radiance reflectivity - in evidence and at twice the speed of sound!

"Gentlemen, I chimed in, I think I'll apply a newspaper analogy here, you know, where the editor writes the beginning and end of the story and tells you to fill in the middle?

"Well, I say that somewhere between Concorde, SR-71 and the Space Shuttle exists a hypersonic. As for propulsion in its rarefied atmosphere operational altitude of 100,000 ft plus, the Mach 5 (3,500 mph) hypersonic will utilize "scramjets". This engine technology, a major evolution of the ramjets that powered the infamous V1 Buzz Bombs of WWII, incorporates both rocket and turbojet functional characteristics. Meaning, it can operate quite well in the rare air at the edge of the atmosphere.

"Scramjets, I understand, are well on their way developmentally speaking......." (Maybe I didn't say it quite that well, but we all want to remember such things in a somewhat embellished way).

The disagreement continued though with less intensity. The point, I believe, had been made.


'... I walked the streets of mid-town Manhattan, fighting the growing realization that a Concorde had crashed with no survivors.'

The exhilaration of that day and a later flight in 1985 when I flew in the FAA observer's seat from roll-out to cruising altitude, came into sharp focus as I walked the streets of mid-town Manhattan, fighting the growing realization that a Concorde had crashed with no survivors.


Concorde was never truly welcomed here, the residual effect of a vehement anti-Concorde campaign launched by a New York area public official in the mid '70s. Concorde had just begun regular service, and the claim was it was too noisy, or "the sonic boom breaks windows and if it is allowed to fly cross-country, it'll make cows stop giving milk", and so on.

Never mind that we've been flying supersonically since 1947 and Americans have been putting up with sonic booms since 1955. I've always perceived that as an outgrowth of the "not invented here" (NIH) syndrome.

'These [airline lobbyists] contended that Concorde, no matter its small numbers, relatively (100) limited seating and airfares affordable only by Rock Stars, CEOs and Movie Producers, were a threat to their East/West route profitablilty.'

Congress killed funding for the Supersonic Transport (SST) program in 1971, citing cost overruns in nearly a decade of development. At the time, Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas were all pursuing there own separate programs, while the British and French decided to pool technological and financial resources in a joint collaboration between British Aerospace and Aerospatiale (now EADS) thus the name Concorde.

The Concorde first flew in 1969 and then into regular service in 1976, while setting aviation records for speed, altitude and distance, along the way.

Meanwhile, the killing of government funding for SST in 1971 effectively scuttled the development of a supersonic airliner here. All was not lost for the U.S. effort though, the knowledge pool derived from that advanced research is the basis for Boeing's new Sonic Cruiser.


The disbelief quickly morphed into extreme displeasure as I listened to presumed responsible aviation officials call for the aircraft's grounding "until we find out what went wrong". These were joined by a cacophony of professional Concorde naysayers claiming that their misgivings about this marvelous bird were finally borne out.

In this agitated state, I opted not to call British Airways U.S. PR Director John Lampl, knowing he was having one of the worst days in his life as well. It was Lampl who advised me all those years before that I would be flying Concorde out of Tampa. Instead, I called Allan Dodds Frank at CNN/FN to discuss aircraft history and what could have gone wrong.

Let's see, Concorde's been flying since 1976 in the fleets of British Airways and Air France (the French even derived a supersonic bomber, the Dassault Mirage IV, from the joint British Aerospace, Aerospatiale development program) and has never had a fatal accident. In other words, a perfect safety record unmatched by any other aircraft in the world at any period in aviation history (av buffs, hit the books).

If this logic, that is to say, the immediate grounding of Concorde after a fatal accident that would later be traced to runway debris were applied to other existing commercial aircraft, why, there would be no passenger aviation! Strange, if not disturbingly myopic thinking, indeed.

We are now hearing that the right kind of logic has prevailed and according to both British Airways and Air France, Concorde will fly again this summer. Marvelous, simply marvelous.

'...Sources advise that AIRBUS has been forced to consider immediate development of its own version of Sonic Cruiser.'

The advantage of supersonic flight says it all: New York to London in three hours 10 minutes versus 7 hours 55 minutes for typical aircraft. In a bottom line world, Concorde allows face-to-face meetings with core clientele on critical business despite an ocean separating their executive offices. Conversely, Concorde's speed allows you to leave London after lunch and get to New York in time for breakfast...the same day. The plane's reputation as a time machine is well earned.

We'd like to think that Boeing's recent announcement of Sonic Cruiser is more than a validation of the whole high-performance airliner concept. Therefore, the legitimacy and legacy of the world's fastest passenger jet is assured. In fact, sources advise that AIRBUS has been forced to consider immediate development of its own version of Sonic Cruiser.

Suddenly, hypersonics don't seem so far off.

Vive la Concorde!



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