Concordes 001 and Sierra Delta at Le Bourget, 2007
When Concorde 001, the initial prototype of the supersonic jet airliner, took flight for the first time on March 2, 1969, it was hailed as a vision of the future. Paris to New York, in less than 4 hours! Half the time of a conventional jet! Routinely! The British-French consortium that designed Concorde quickly lined up 100 orders, from airlines such as Air France, BOAC, Lufthansa, Pan Am, United, Braniff, TWA, Eastern, American, and Japan Airlines. But by the time the plane was ready for production, development costs had spiraled, the 1973 oil crisis had driven up the price of fuel, and environmentalists had raised a public outcry over the impact of sonic booms. During a single week in 1973, Pan Am, TWA, and Lufthansa cancelled their orders and in the end, only Air France and BOAC (the predecessor to today's British Airlines) stayed on as customers, taking a combined total of just 16 aircraft.
The first flight of Concorde prototype 001, March 2, 1969
(Image via concordesst.com)
Instead of blazing a trail to the future, Concorde raced into a cul-de-sac. Though few would have predicted it at the time, history's big winner turned out to be Boeing 747 jumbo jet, which Boeing had originally been envisioned as a stopgap aircraft to meet market needs temporarily until the company introduced its own proposed SST during the late 1970s. (As fate would have it, the 747 prototype made it's first flight on Februrary 9, 1969 -- less than a month before Concorde 001.) Ultimately, however the 747's economics proved vastly suprerior; and not just because Concorde burned 3 times as much fuel on a per-passenger-mile basis. Instead of building just 400 of 747s, as Boeing inititially envisioned, the 747 total now stands at almost 1400 aircraft, and counting.
For Concorde, the end came in 2003. A fatal Concorde crash in 2000 triggered a temporary grounding (and public-relations tarnishing) of the entire fleet, but the post-9/11 decline in air travel was the final straw. British Airways and Air France announced plans to retire their Concordes, and the remaining aircraft were doled out to aviation museums around the world.
Le Bourget Air and Space Museum outside Paris was already the custodian of Concorde 001, the first prototype. Then, in June 2003, Le Bourget also received "Sierra Delta," Concorde F-BTSD, a former Air France Concorde that had carried passengers since 1978. So today, Le Bourget is the only place in the world where two Concordes sit side-by-side -- and open to visitors.
Concorde Sierra Delta's final landing at Le Bourget in 2003
(Image by Philippe Noret)
Telstar Logistics recently brought several members of our senior executive team to Le Bourget, to tour the two Concordes.
Though we're ashamed to admit that our corporate expense account was never quite lavish enough to enable a flight while Concorde was still in service, our visit didn't disappoint. Indeed, in some ways, it may have been more intimate than riding along as a paying passenger. After all, few passengers ever had the opportunity to stand under Concorde, to see how the whispy delta-shaped wings sweep backward ever-so-gracefully, like modern sculpture. Nor did they get the chance to peer into red hot engine nacelles, or gaze down the entire length of the aircraft, from the very tip of the pointy nose all the way to the tail.
Few passengers probably realized that Concorde is almost as long as a 747 -- 202 feet, versus 232 feet for the 747-100. You'd certainly never guess that from the interior of the cabin, because inside, Concorde looks a lot like a very cramped (though leather-clad) commuter jet. Concorde was less than 9 feet wide inside, and its 100 passengers sat in narrow seats arranged in a cozy two-by-two configuration. No inflight movies were shown, but the food was famously good, and besides, you only had to sit there for three and a half ours. Here's how former passenger Bruce Graham described his 1989 flight experience:
As Concorde breaks the sound barrier, there is no unusual sensation inside the cabin. You experience only an increase in engine thrust. No "sonic booms" are heard inside your plane at any time. The only sound is a unique "sizzle" of rushing air, higher in pitch than is heard in subsonic air travel. If your flight lifts off after sunset, as mine did, you may see a sunrise in the west. The sun appears to move backward in the sky, as your conveyance outruns it. At 60,000 feet, you can enjoy a view of the curvature of the Earth. Concorde is so far above the clouds that all clouds appear to sit on the surface of the ocean, as if viewed from space. All weather and turbulence of any kind is far below you. Tiny dots, far below, appear to be sitting on top of the clouds. These are 747's and other jumbo jets, laboring to cross the Atlantic. The jumbos are about five miles below you. You leave them quickly behind, since you are moving ahead of the jumbos faster than they are moving across the surface. You notice a gentle, pleasant warmth radiating from your window. How can this be? The outdoor temperature at 60,000 feet altitude is minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit. The very high speed of Concorde produces enough friction with the atmosphere to cause the outside air temperature to rise by over 400 degrees as it passes the tip of the aircraft's nose. As the air streaks past your window, it's still hot enough to boil water, hence the gentle warming of your window. Going west, you land several hours before you took off. In a word... WOW!
Sigh. Okay, yeah, so maaaybe we would have preferred to visit Concorde as a passenger. There. We said it. Since that's not currently an option, however, seeing the two immaculately-preserved Concordes at Le Bourget will have to suffice... at least until a group of aviation entusiasts realize their improbable dream of returning Concorde Sierra Delta to flight in time for the 2012 London Olympics.
We're already talking with our finance people, just in case.
The Concordes of Le Bourget (A Telstar Logistics photoset)
Concorde (Wikipedia page)
Concorde SST (a very complete Concorde history site)
Save Concorde Group (British enthusiasts who hope to resume Concorde flights)