Concorde Flies Passengers at Supersonic Speeds Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Concorde’s introduction of passenger flight at supersonic speeds proved the technological viability of supersonic air travel despite high initial costs.

Summary of Event

On January 21, 1976, the Concorde became the first supersonic transport (SST) to fly in commercial service. The aircraft had been under development since 1962, when the French and British governments signed an agreement to build a craft that could transport passengers at more than twice the speed of sound. The result was an exceptionally graceful aircraft, 202 feet long with long, slightly curved delta wings and no tail. The nose section was hinged, allowing it to be parallel with the plane’s body while in flight but angled down to enhance pilot visibility during takeoff and landing. The Concorde was powered by four Bristol-Siddeley (Rolls-Royce) Olympus turbojets enclosed in two underwing nacelles. It was capable of carrying up to 130 passengers at a cruising speed of twice the speed of sound (Mach 2, or 1,350 miles per hour). It had a range of four thousand miles and cruised at between fifty thousand and sixty thousand feet, much higher than ordinary passenger jets. Concorde (supersonic aircraft) Aviation;supersonic transport Supersonic transport [kw]Concorde Flies Passengers at Supersonic Speeds (Jan. 21, 1976) [kw]Supersonic Speeds, Concorde Flies Passengers at (Jan. 21, 1976) Concorde (supersonic aircraft) Aviation;supersonic transport Supersonic transport [g]Europe;Jan. 21, 1976: Concorde Flies Passengers at Supersonic Speeds[02300] [g]United Kingdom;Jan. 21, 1976: Concorde Flies Passengers at Supersonic Speeds[02300] [g]England;Jan. 21, 1976: Concorde Flies Passengers at Supersonic Speeds[02300] [g]France;Jan. 21, 1976: Concorde Flies Passengers at Supersonic Speeds[02300] [c]Spaceflight and aviation;Jan. 21, 1976: Concorde Flies Passengers at Supersonic Speeds[02300] [c]Science and technology;Jan. 21, 1976: Concorde Flies Passengers at Supersonic Speeds[02300] [c]Transportation;Jan. 21, 1976: Concorde Flies Passengers at Supersonic Speeds[02300] Amery, Julian Cource, Geoffroy de Gaulle, Charles de Edwards, George Macmillan, Harold Servanty, Lucien Strang, William Trubshaw, Brian Turcat, André Ziegler, Henri

Britain and France had different motives in building the Concorde. Both nations wanted to use the project to enhance their national aircraft industries and give them tools to compete with American manufacturers, which controlled 80 percent of the civil aviation market. Both nations wanted to preserve jobs in their aerospace industries and enhance their national prestige, but the British had an additional reason for initiating the project. France, under the leadership of President Charles de Gaulle, had been blocking British entry into the Common Market because de Gaulle was suspicious of Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of the United Kingdom wanted to use the project to establish Britain’s European credentials. By cooperating on the Concorde, the British hoped to show the French that they could be reliable European partners.

The first Concorde, the 001, takes off on a test flight from its home airport in Toulouse, France, on December 30, 1969.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Confidence in technology was high in the 1960’s, and many assumed that supersonic flight was a logical next step for the world’s aircraft manufacturers. The United States had begun research in the area in 1961, and President John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F. had committed the country to developing an SST in 1963. The Soviet Union began work on an SST in 1962. Neither of these projects was backed by the airline industry, which had been financially devastated in 1958 when the Boeing 707 Boeing 707[Boeing seven o seven] and the McDonnell Douglas DC-8 arrived on the market, forcing airlines to replace their propeller-driven DC-7s and Super Constellations long before they had recouped the costs of these aircraft. Although many of the leading airlines placed options for purchases of the Concorde, they remained skeptical about the SST’s commercial viability. Airline industry;supersonic transport

The Anglo-French Supersonic Aircraft Agreement Anglo-French Supersonic Aircraft Agreement[Anglofrench Supersonic Aircraft Agreement] was signed on November 29, 1962. The agreement was unusual because it was solemnized as a formal international treaty and because it contained no escape clause allowing the parties to break the agreement. The first prototype SST (known as 001), flown by test pilot André Turcat, a popular French hero, took off on March 2, 1969, from its home airport in Toulouse. The British prototype, piloted by Brian Trubshaw, chief of flight operations for British Aircraft Corporation British Aircraft Corporation (BAC), flew on April 9. The two airplanes made an impressive public debut when they flew together at the Paris Air Show in June, 1969.

By that time, the Concorde had evolved into a major industrial project in both France and Britain. The main contractors were BAC and Rolls-Royce in Britain and Aérospatiale Aérospatiale Group and the Société Nationale d’Etude et de Construction de Moteurs d’Aviation Société Nationale d’Etude et de Construction de Moteurs d’Aviation (SNECMA) in France. They, in turn, had subcontracts with many smaller suppliers of components and services. At its peak, the Concorde project employed some fifty thousand workers in France and Britain.

Throughout the period of development and production, cost estimates for the Concorde multiplied. Originally, the partner nations had estimated that they would need to spend approximately 160 million pounds sterling to develop and test the airplane over an eight-year period. This estimate proved to be hopelessly optimistic, however. The technical problems involved in building a Mach 2 aircraft turned out to be much more formidable than anticipated. Capacity, noise, and pollution requirements changed, and inflation took its toll. By the end of 1975, the British and French had spent a little more than a billion pounds in thirteen years on an airplane that had yet to transport a single paying passenger.

In addition to the financial burden placed on the British and French governments, the Concorde faced many other challenges during its development that probably would have killed the project if the initial agreement had not been so ironclad. The Concorde provided a highly visible target of protest for those who thought that the advanced technology it represented was of little social value and that the vast sums invested in it could be put to better use.

The most powerful argument used by the Concorde’s opponents was the plane’s potential harm to the environment. Because the Concorde flew much higher than conventional jets, it deposited its exhaust into the stratosphere. Some critics thought that the carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the exhaust would deplete the earth’s ozone layer and contribute to the greenhouse effect. Others thought that the sonic booms produced by the SST would cause physical damage to structures below and create intolerable conditions for anyone living beneath the Concorde’s flight paths. The most serious argument used by the project’s opponents concerned airport noise. The plane’s immensely powerful engines created very high noise levels—about 118 decibels—on takeoff, and critics thought that such noise would make life miserable for those living near airports.

These arguments were powerful, especially when coupled with the great expense involved in producing a supersonic transport. Although such arguments killed the completion of the American SST project in May, 1971, the Concorde’s supporters worked tirelessly to refute these arguments, and the project stayed alive.

The Concorde’s most serious problem, however, was financial. Originally, the British and French thought there might be a market for nearly two hundred Concordes produced in various configurations. Initially, sixteen airlines had placed options to purchase seventy-four Concordes. The key to the Concorde’s commercial viability, however, rested in the hands of two large American airlines, Pan American World Airways Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) and Trans World Airlines Trans World Airlines (TWA). If Pan Am followed through on its options, the Concorde’s developers assumed, other airlines would have to follow to remain competitive. Unfortunately, the argument also worked in reverse, and when Pan Am announced that it was canceling its options for the purchase of Concordes on January 30, 1973, the other airlines followed suit. The French and British national carriers, Air France Air France and British Airways, British Airways alone operated the sixteen Concordes ultimately produced.

The airlines’ decisions to drop their Concorde options involved several factors. First, the world’s airlines were in great financial difficulty. They had made massive purchases of wide-body Boeing 747’s and were suffering from overcapacity. Fuel costs had risen dramatically in the wake of the energy crisis that had begun with the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The environmental movement had become increasingly powerful, especially in the United States, and environmentalists protested the Concorde by demonstrating around airports and by trying to persuade U.S. officials to deny the SST landing rights.


In spite of its financial and commercial difficulties, the Concorde was a remarkable technological and political achievement. The plane cut the trans-Atlantic voyage to approximately three and one-half hours and placed every major city on the globe within twelve hours of all other urban centers. Its supersonic flights connected London and Paris to cities around the world, including New York, Washington, D.C., Melbourne, and Singapore. It set new passenger aircraft speed records, including a 213-minute crossing from Washington to London.

By cooperating with France, Britain established its European credentials and eventually became a full member of the European Economic Community. In addition, the Concorde project tested the viability of cooperative high-technology ventures; its ultimate success was a major factor leading to the development of the European Airbus.

The safety of the aging Concorde fleet came into question when an Air France Concorde crashed on July 25, 2000, killing all 109 on board as well as 4 people on the ground. The remaining twelve Concordes in service at that time were immediately grounded until safety modifications could be made. Although the British and French Concordes resumed flights, the economics of SST travel became increasingly problematic, and by October of 2003, both the French and the British airlines ceased operational flights, ending an era of commercial supersonic flight. Concorde (supersonic aircraft) Aviation;supersonic transport Supersonic transport

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. 3d ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Comprehensive view of American aviation by one of the most prominent historians of the space program. Provides a balanced survey of the history of flight. Includes bibliographic notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Costello, John, and Terry Hughes. The Concorde Conspiracy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976. Easy-to-read survey of the Concorde program examines the motives of its proponents and opponents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardner, Charles. Concorde: The Questions Answered. London: British Aircraft Corporation, 1975. Short work written to defend the Concorde against its enemies. Provides many useful details in a concise format.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gidwitz, Betsy. The Politics of International Air Transport. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1980. Survey of the relationships among various national governments, their national air carriers, and the American airline industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">March, Peter R. The Concorde Story. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2005. Brief history of the development and service years of the Concorde. Includes eighty photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trubshaw, Brian. Concorde: The Complete Inside Story. 3d ed. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2005. The story of the Concorde’s development and years of passenger flights as told by a former British test pilot. Includes many photographs.

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