Concorde Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Name assigned to an Anglo-French fleet of supersonic passenger transport airplanes.

Supersonic Flight

The laws of physics are absolute and mysterious, as aviators in the 1940’s discovered when their planes approached the speed of sound: about 760 miles per hour at sea level and about 660 miles per hour at 50,000 to 60,000 feet. As pilots accelerated toward these speeds, they found their planes shaking violently and running up against some sort of invisible wall, later referred to as the sound barrier.

When a vehicle achieves a speed exceeding the speed of sound, it is said to be traveling at Mach 1. At twice the speed of sound, it enters Mach 2. Mach numbers refer to the ratio of an aircraft’s speed to the speed of sound at the altitude of the vehicle. Speeds from Mach 1 to Mach 5 are designated supersonic; speeds above Mach 5 are hypersonic. When a plane travels at exactly the speed of sound, its speed is described as transonic. Speeds below the speed of sound are considered subsonic.

During World War II (1939-1945), before U.S. Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager first achieved supersonic speeds in the Bell X-1 rocket plane in 1947, numerous pilots unwittingly achieved such speeds during dives. Under such conditions, they could not control their vehicles, because shock waves built up around the controls, locking them in place and rendering them useless. Some pilots ejected under such circumstances; others died when their planes plowed into the earth at supersonic speeds.

Following World War II, U.S. Air Force designers sought to develop supersonic aircraft for the military. Engineers had to cope with the effects of the shock waves that occur as the sound barrier is being breached. They also needed to devise ways for aircraft to endure the extremely high temperatures generated by friction on the craft’s outer surface, as speeds of Mach 1 and higher are achieved. Such heat-resistant metals as titanium were employed to replace the aluminum that covered the exteriors of most subsonic aircraft.

The work of these engineers and designers had broad implications for the commercial aircraft industry. By the 1970’s, both the United States and the Soviet Union had planes, notably the Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor and the U.S. SR-71 spy plane, that could fly at speeds higher than Mach 3.

Supersonic and hypersonic aircraft create shock waves because of sudden changes in air pressure. Although people on the ground experience sonic booms when supersonic and hypersonic craft fly overhead, people within them do not, because the vehicles fly faster than the sound their planes create and remain well ahead of it. Because sonic booms are destructive and annoying, often shattering both windows and the nerves of people on Earth, most supersonic flights are routed over oceans. When supersonic commercial aircraft fly over land, they usually fly at subsonic speeds.

Commercial SSTs

The commercial aviation industry passed through several stages before the 1960’s. Single-engine planes from the first decade of flight gave way to more powerful and safer dual-engine planes. As airmail routes expanded, the size of aircraft also expanded to assure larger payloads and accommodate passengers. As early as 1914, regular passenger service was available between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida, a distance of about 25 miles.

World War II brought about considerable advances in aviation, including the development of jet planes, which, after the war, gradually became used as commercial passenger vehicles. These planes flew faster than propeller planes, often cruising close to 600 miles per hour but still not approaching the sound barrier. The next major development in commercial passenger service was the supersonic transport plane that reduced the transatlantic crossing time from eight or nine hours to three and one-half hours or fewer.

Four major world powers, the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain, began to consider developing supersonic commercial air transport. It was presumed that SSTs would carry passenger loads comparable to those carried by existing jet planes, and that SSTs would offer the same two or three classes of service (coach, business, and first classes) typically available on most long-distance subsonic planes, thereby making supersonic air travel economically feasible.

While the actual SST prototypes were being developed, it became evident that they could not comfortably carry more than about one hundred passengers, although some configurations would permit a maximum capacity of 144. At fares averaging 20 percent more than those of full-fare first class, approximately eleven thousand dollars for a round trip, supersonic air travel attracted an elite class of transatlantic passengers. These fares, however, did not begin to cover the high cost of flying supersonic aircraft. The Concorde, which accommodates about one hundred passengers, requires three times more maintenance than does a 747, which accommodates about four hundred passengers. The Concorde also burns 50 percent more fuel.

During a quarter-century of supersonic air service, Concordes incurred huge deficits for Air France and British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). Keeping the Concordes aloft, however, became a matter of national pride for the French. Britain’s contractual agreements with France prevented its withdrawal from participation, although there was a public outcry from the British public and members of Parliament to do so.

The Anglo-French Alliance

In the 1950’s, once it had become clear that supersonic transport was the next logical step in the development of passenger air transportation, the four major powers began to look into developing SSTs. The British hoped to join with the United States in developing such planes, but the Americans were cool to entering into such a partnership. Finally, in November of 1962, the British and French, realizing it made economic sense to merge forces in the development of this project, agreed to proceed with SST research and development.

These nations had their own reasons for wanting to proceed with the Concorde, which cruised at 60,000 feet with an average speed of 1,320 miles per hour over water. For the British, the project would keep design teams employed when the economy was lagging. It might also enhance British attempts to join the European Community. For the French, the project would result in enhancing the image of France’s national aircraft industry.

The estimated cost of the Concorde project was between $420 and $480 million. By the time the first Concordes were aloft, however, the cost had reached more than ten times the earlier estimates. Nevertheless, the prototypes, 001 and 002, were ready in September, 1968.

The initial flight of 001 from Toulouse, France, occurred in March, 1969. The following month, 002 flew in Bristol, England. Both prototypes were displayed at the Paris Air Show in June, 1969. By April, 1970, after various design changes, the production of sixteen Concordes was confirmed. BOAC ordered five. Air France ordered four.

Both Trans World Airlines (TWA) and Pan American had taken options to buy Concordes. However, as environmentalists began to rally against permitting these noisy planes to fly into the United States, both TWA and Pan American dropped their options. When the first commercial Concordes were launched in January, 1976, the British Concorde flew the London-to-Bahrain route, and the French Concorde flew from Paris to Rio via Dakar.

In February, 1976, the Concordes won their battle to fly into both New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Washington’s Dulles International Airport. Regular New York-to-London and Washington-to-Paris service began, continuing until July, 2000, when, after Concorde’s long accident-free history, Air France Flight 4590 to New York crashed after takeoff from Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris. The death toll was 113. All Concordes were grounded pending a thorough investigation and modification of the remaining aircraft. Air France resumed Concorde flights on November 7, 2001, and British Airways followed suit two days later.

American and Soviet SSTs

In December, 1966, the United States commissioned Boeing to build a swing-wing aircraft with General Electric engines capable of carrying three hundred passengers at a cruising speed of about 1,800 miles per hour, or Mach 2.7. In early 1971, this project, for which the U.S. Congress had appropriated about $425 million between September, 1966, and October, 1967, was well under way, with both presidential and congressional support. In March, 1971, however, the House of Representatives voted to discontinue all SST funding. The Senate lacked sufficient votes to pass an amendment to restore this funding.

The Soviet Union was far ahead of the other three national powers that were directly involved in the development of passenger SSTs. The Soviet Tupolev-144 (Tu-144) was shown at the Paris Air Show in June, 1965. The first prototype flew in December, 1968, exceeding Mach 1 for the first time the following June. In May, 1970, shown off at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, it exceeded Mach 2 for the first time.

A production model of the Tu-144 crashed at the Paris Air Show in June, 1971, killing all on board. The crash was attributed not to mechanical problems but to other factors. The Soviets, however, did not give up. By December, 1975, scheduled freight and mail flights were instituted between Moscow and Kazakhstan. Regular Tu-144 passenger service began between Moscow and Kazakhstan in November, 1977, lasting until June of the following year, while modifications were made in the aircraft. The route reopened in June, 1979, and continued to function until August, 1984, when Aeroflot discontinued such service.

The present fleet of Concordes is expected to operate until 2007. Meanwhile, research is afoot to produce an entirely new generation of SSTs, most of them capable of carrying relatively large numbers of passengers at speeds approaching Mach 3.

  • Feldman, Elliot J. Concorde and Dissent: Explaining High Technology Project Failures in Britain and France. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. A striking analysis of the tensions present in the Anglo-French Concorde partnership.
  • Knight, Geoffrey. Concorde: The Inside Story. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976. An intriguing, behind-the-scenes account of the Concorde’s development by the French and the British.
  • Moon, Howard. Soviet SST: The Technopolitics of the Tupolev-144. New York: Orion, 1989. The best book in print on the development of Soviet SSTs.
  • Owen, Kenneth. Concorde and the Americans: International Politics of the Supersonic Transport. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. A riveting account of the politics involved in the development of the SST. Thorough and easily accessible for general readers.
  • Sobieczky, H., ed. New Design Concepts for High Speed Air Transport. New York: Springer, 1997. Chapters 1, 6, and 16 through 19 are especially relevant for those interested in SSTs. Clearly written, intelligently conceived.

Accident investigation


Air France

British Airways

Mach number

Sound barrier

Supersonic aircraft

Transatlantic flight

Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev

X planes

Chuck Yeager

The Concorde 2 takes off on its maiden flight from Bristol on April 9, 1969.

(Hulton Archive)
Categories: History