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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: January 18, 2005


Supersonic Dream homepage

Between 1976 and 2003, the fastest, highest flying, and most elegant way to travel between Europe and the U.S. was aboard the British-French Concorde, a marvel of aircraft engineering that had to battle protestors, politicians, and nervous accountants to earn its place in aviation history and also win the hearts of an adoring public, including many who could never afford to fly it. In "Supersonic Dream," NOVA explores the mystique of this technological wonder of the world.

Among those paying tribute to the plane is former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a Concorde frequent flyer with hundreds of trips to his credit. Rock singers and movie stars were also devotees, along with a staple clientele of elite business executives. But Concorde was also popular with lovers, who would typically wait until the cabin speedometer hit Mach 2—twice the speed of sound—to pop the question.

Mach numbers were what Concorde was all about. No other civilian aircraft could even approach its top speed of Mach 2.04, or 1,350 mph, since every other passenger aircraft flies subsonic. And for good reason. Supersonic shock waves, wind friction, and high fuel consumption make flying faster than sound an expensive technical challenge.

Even so, when Concorde began to take shape in 1959, conventional wisdom held that "speed sells seats." Industry executives expected supersonic travel to be the logical evolution of the subsonic jet, then being introduced. Daunted by the cost of the project, which would eventually reach 10 times the original estimate, the British and French governments teamed up to finance Concorde in 1962, hoping to beat the expected American entrant, which in the end was never developed.

NOVA examines the innovative solutions that the British-French team devised, from the world's most efficient jet engines to the first computer-based flight controls for a commercial aircraft. Concorde's most distinctive feature—its elegant shape—also emerged from the engineering demands of supersonic flight. Its long, narrow body reduces drag, as does the cone-shaped nose, which can be tilted down during takeoff and landing for better pilot visibility. The delta-shaped wing provides high performance across a wide range of speeds. (For a closer look at the plane, see Anatomy of Concorde.)

British designer Dudley Collard points to the gracefully curved wing tip and says proudly, "It's that shape because that was the one that came out to be best. It's not because it was beautiful." But it is. "Beauty is a by-product," proclaims Jean Reich, Concorde's chief engineer. (For a former pilot's take on the plane, see Flying High.)

Concorde's first test flight was in 1969, ironically around the same time that the wide-body Boeing 747 was introduced. With its ability to carry large numbers of passengers efficiently at subsonic speed, the wide-body, not Concorde, was the wave of the future.

Concorde soon ran into another hurdle. As with all planes flying faster than sound, Concorde dragged a big shock wave behind it whenever it flew supersonic, creating a sonic boom as it passed. Citizens along the projected flight path began to pressure their governments not to buy planes and not to grant over-flight privileges. In the mid-1970s, Concorde barely survived a campaign to ban it from New York and Washington airports, which might have killed the plane outright.

Instead, its daily trans-Atlantic crossings became the status symbol to end all status symbols—"the only way you can in human life be in two places at once," according to frequent-flying British talk show host Sir David Frost. Plane spotters, who could never afford a ticket, also fell in love with the graceful aircraft.

Concorde eventually succumbed to the forces of economics, to a tragic accident in Paris that traced to a tire and fuel tank problem, and to the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, which killed a large number of the plane's best customers. But the dream of supersonic flight lives on as a new generation of engineers eyes the challenges of fulfilling the vanished promise of Concorde (see Shock Treatment).

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The love affair with Concorde extended from designers to engineers, passengers to never-to-be passengers, and pilots to attendants, such as this British Concorde flight crew.

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Supersonic Dream
Shock Treatment

Shock Treatment
Can engineers silence the sonic boom?

Flying High

Flying High
Brian Calvert reminisces about piloting Concorde.

Anatomy of Concorde

Anatomy of Concorde
Examine a detailed cross section of the plane.

Innovative Aircraft

Innovative Aircraft
See planes, including Concorde, that broke the mold.



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