At the Speed of Sound

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There are few aircraft which capture the imagination quite like Concorde. This revolutionary aircraft could cross the Atlantic in roughly three hours, at more than twice the speed of modern commercial planes. It is often forgotten, however, that Concorde was not alone in the field of supersonic commercial aviation. Both the United States and the USSR competed with the Anglo-French Concorde in a race as much about propaganda and national pride as profit.

During the Second World War, US aerospace companies developed a number of successful transport aircraft. Thousands of these planes were subsequently converted for civilian use after the war, allowing the USA to establish a stranglehold over the burgeoning civil aviation industry. By contrast, British companies had focused their wartime efforts on developing heavy bombers, which were not suitable as civil aircraft. To challenge American domination of the market, any prospective British manufacturer would have to make ground-breaking technological advancements.

Initially, this advance would come in the form of the De Havilland Comet, the first commercial jet airliner. Upon its introduction on 2 May 1952, it seemed as though Britain would soon outcompete American manufacturers. However, within just two years, the Comet suffered three fatal crashes, leading to the grounding of the entire fleet. It was revealed that the Comet had a critical flaw – the concentrations of stress on the metal in the fuselage fatally weakened the Comet’s structure. The reputational damage to this leading British manufacturer allowed American competitors to respond with their own jetliners, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, which went on to convincingly outsell the Comet.

In the fallout of the Comet’s failure, the government established a Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee in March 1956. Many in government believed supersonic transport (SST) would be Britain’s last and only chance to break into the commercial aviation market. The Minister of Aviation, Duncan Sandys, remarked that “If we are not in the supersonic aircraft business, then it’s really only a matter of time before the whole British aircraft industry packs in.” Over the following six years, British companies made rapid advances in the field of supersonic travel, including the development of the ‘Slender Delta’ wing found on the Concorde. Simultaneously, a French company, Sud-Aviation, had been working on a similar concept and so, on 29 November 1962, the British and French governments merged their projects. To reflect the collaborative nature of the programme, the jet was aptly named ‘Concorde.’

The Anglo-French merger worried Najeeb Halaby, the administrator of America’s Federal Aviation Authority. In a memorandum to President Kennedy, he outlined a potential scenario in which the USA would be surpassed as the world leaders of civil aviation, threatening thousands of jobs. As Kennedy had announced the American intention to land on the moon only the year before in 1961, the US public was enamoured with flight. Moreover, if the USA failed to win the race to develop supersonic transport, their technological capabilities would be called into question. As such, on 5 June 1963, Kennedy set up the National Supersonic Transport Programme and offered government funding to the best design entries.

Meanwhile, in the East, Soviet officials had already begun to work on a supersonic transport. The Soviet aerospace industry was wholly state run: when the government required an aircraft, it ordered an OKB (Secret Design Bureau) to make a prototype aircraft for mass production. On 16 July 1963, the Council of Ministers approved the development of an SST, assigning its design to the Tupolev bureau. The plane would be designated the Tu-144.

In England, Concorde’s development continued steadily. The British prototype was more advanced than its competitors due to its development of an ogival wing (which enabled both supersonic and subsonic flight) and its powerful Rolls-Royce Olympus engines. By contrast, the Soviets struggled due to their lack of prior experience with such designs. As such, Soviet intelligence illicitly obtained technical documents relating to Concorde, allowing the Tu-144 to be rapidly developed. Indeed, it took its first flight on 31 December 1968, two months before Concorde. However, its rushed production led to serious technical problems, including dangerously high landing speeds and short range.

The Americans were in an even more severe predicament. The FAA demanded a plane far bigger and faster than Concorde, and thus they chose to fund the most ambitious entry – Boeing’s 2707. However, the weight of the plane meant that it could not be faster than Concorde and, amidst spiralling costs, the US Senate cancelled further funding for the prototype. The effect was disastrous, with nearly 50,000 aerospace workers laid off in Seattle, the home of Boeing, alone.

The race was thus between Concorde and the Tu-144. With the Boeing 2707 dead, Concorde was left to represent the West against the Soviet design. On 3 June 1973, both aircraft attended the Paris Air Show. 250,000 spectators looked on as Concorde took to the sky, gracefully flying above the airstrip before landing safely once again. The Pilot of the Tu-144, Mikhail Kozlov, had bragged about his plane’s superiority. However, soon after the plane took off, it stalled and fell into a steep dive. The airframe then disintegrated, causing the deaths of all six crew members as well as eight bystanders on the ground. After this embarrassing incident, the Tu-144 saw limited use, and was retired from passenger service in 1983.

Concorde emerged as the sole survivor of this ambitious, costly and ultimately deadly race to achieve the supersonic dream. And yet, Concorde itself would not be the great revolution which so many were expecting. Concerns over its sonic boom and damage to the ozone layer severely reduced its commercial potential, as did the FAA’s ban of supersonic passenger flights over mainland America. Indeed, only 20 Concorde aircraft were ever produced and they were all retired from service in 2003 – an ignominious end for a pioneering form of transport.

Conway, E., 2005. High-Speed Dreams: NASA and the Technopolitics of Supersonic Transportation, 1945-1999. John Hopkins University Press.

Chambers, J., 2005. Innovation in Flight: Research of the NASA Langley Research Center on Revolutionary Advanced Concepts for Aeronautics. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.,flight.%20STAC%20delivered%20its%20report%20in%20March%201959.,restaurants.%20At%20its%20height%2C%20general%20Puget%20Sound%20unemployment