vol 6 issue 4

Classic engineering projects - Concorde

15 April 2011
By Nick Smith
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This month's classic engineering project: Concorde

One of the icons of engineering design, the supersonic airliner Concorde was a collaborative project between two countries, as well as a passenger airliner with a difference

There can't have been many better sights than Concorde for showing cutting-edge technology in its pomp. From the graceful tip of its tapering nose to the imposing broad spread of its delta wings, Concorde was symbolic of engineering at its best. Flying at up to Mach 2.04 (that's around 1,350mph), it was twice as fast as any other commercial airliner in the sky. You could get from London to New York in well under four hours.

Concorde was the product of two nations – Great Britain and France – working in tandem to turn science fiction into reality. From the highest level of government to the mechanics who serviced it, the project was a technical and political collaboration. The name is the French word for 'agreement', although the British tried to change it to Concord. Unlike almost every other commercial airliner, Concorde sparked such affection that 'she' needed no preceding definite article or proceeding marquee number.

Despite Concorde's technological breakthroughs, only 20 of the machines were ever made, which meant that for most of its career the plane was a financial burden. Although Concorde had an incredible track record on safety, there was one fatal crash in 2000. This, combined with the appalling wake of financial disaster the project trailed behind it, led to the plug being pulled and by 2003 Concorde's 27-year service came to an end.

Project briefing

To build a long-range (4,500-mile) supersonic commercial passenger airliner capable of flying at twice the speed of sound (Mach 2) at a height of up to 60,000ft (11 miles). Format of ogival delta-winged aircraft with fly-by-wire flight-control system, supercruise capability and droop nose section for increased pilot visibility. Objective to provide trans-Atlantic and other non-stop long haul flights for passenger complement of about 100, in half the time of existing commercial airliners.

Budget and costs

Due to high costs, UK government sought international co-operation. The manufacturers were BAC (now BAE Systems) and Aérospatiale (now EADS). When the first Concordes rolled off the production line in 1977, they came in at £23m (about £200m in today's money). Concorde's development costs were around £1.134bn, underwritten by UK and French government. The cost to build the 16 production Concordes was £654m, of which only £278m was recovered through tickets and selling spares.


Concorde was designed to be constructed mainly out of aluminium to keep weight down. The famous droop nose is a design compromise that allowed decreased drag and increased aerodynamic efficiency in flight, while ensuring that the pilot had good visibility during taxi, take-off and landing. The delta-wing configuration meant that Concorde had to take off with a high angle of rotation, which also accounts for the unusual wheel beneath the tail, which is there to literally prevent the plane from scuffing its rear end if the takeoff angle is too great.


Concorde's main designer was Pierre Satre, with Sir Archibald Russell as his deputy. Pilot Brian Trubshaw made his name when he flew the first UK-built Concorde from Filton to RAF Fairford in April 1969. In 1983 managing director of BA Sir John King persuaded the UK government to sell its Concordes to BA for £16.5m plus the first years profits. On 10 April 2003 entrepreneur Richard Branson offered to buy BA's fleet for £1, intending to operate the aircraft 'for many years to come'. His offer was refused.

Controversy and disaster

The only fatal accident involving Concorde happened on 25 July 2000 in Gonesse, France. Air France Flight 4590 failed when debris from a Continental Airlines DC-10 punctured one of Concorde's tyres. This culminated in a fuel leak that led to the shut down of engine No2. The aircraft became unstable and crashed, killing all 100 passengers, nine crew and four people on the ground. Prior to this, Concorde had one of the best aircraft safety records, with no crashes and a passenger deaths per kilometre rating of zero.

Facts and figures

Although the manufacturing consortium originally took orders for more than 100 units, the vast majority of these failed to materialise and (including prototypes and pre-production test models) only 20 Concordes were ever built.

Concorde's legacy

Concorde might still be flying today if not for the Paris crash in 2000. But the crash wasn't the only factor in its demise. After the 9/11 attacks on New York in 2001, the slump in confidence in air travel hit the luxury end of the market and the number of travellers choosing to use the exclusive service dwindled. For all its technical achievements, the real legacy of Concorde is that it paved the way for the Airbus programme that goes from strength to strength. Will we ever see Concorde in flight again? There are rumours that a restored Concorde will take part in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

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Construction of two Concorde prototypes begins in February


Both prototypes make first public appearance at Paris Airshow


Demonstration and test'flights start


Scheduled flights begin on 21 January on the London'Bahrain and Paris'Rio routes


25 July Air France Flight 4590 crashes killing all 100 passengers and nine crew members on board the flight


Air France and British Airways simultaneously announce Concorde's retirement

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