NOVA takes you inside the historic international race to develop the first supersonic airliner, the Concorde. Hear stories from those inside the choreographed effort to design and build Concorde in two countries at once—and the crew members who flew her. Then, follow Concorde’s legacy to a new generation of innovators reviving the dream of supersonic passenger travel today. (Premiered October 24, 2018)
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PBS Airdate: October 24, 2018
CONCORDE PILOT: Three, two, one, zero.
NARRATOR: It’s a legendary plane that flew at twice the speed of sound: the Concorde...
KATIE JOHN (Journalist): You could go from France or Britain to America and back in the same day.
NARRATOR: …an unprecedented partnership between rival countries...
IAIN GRAY (Aerospace Bristol Museum): Concorde was our “man-on-the-moon” project here in Europe.
NARRATOR: …a triumph of technology and invention that revolutionized air travel...
MIKE BANNISTER (Concorde Pilot): It’s amazing that an airplane that was designed and brought into production in the ’70s can still outperform pretty much everything, including most Air Force jets.
NARRATOR: …the ultimate in luxury for global jetsetters...
JOHN HUTCHINSON (Concorde Pilot): I think the regular passengers on Concorde thought that they were members of a very expensive and very exclusive club.
NARRATOR: …and today, the inspiration for a new generation of supersonic planes.
PETER COEN (National Aeronautics and Space Administration): If I think into the future, I would really like to be able to imagine that I could walk out and get on a sleek, new, quiet supersonic airliner and get to where I’m going in half the time.
NARRATOR: Right now on NOVA, Flying Supersonic.
PILOT: Fifteen seconds.
CONTROL ROOM: Copy, 15 seconds.
NARRATOR: Flying high and fast is everyday business at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. Test pilot Nils Larson routinely flies faster than the speed of sound.
NILS LARSON (National Aeronautics and Space Administration): People always ask, when you’re a test pilot. They say, “What’s your favorite airplane?” The test pilot answer is, “Whatever I’m flying today.”
NARRATOR: Fighter planes like these are on the cutting edge of aviation technology. They can travel more than twice as fast as a 747.
NILS LARSON: From here you drive to Vegas, it’s like a three-and-a-half, four-hour drive. When I go to do a Mach 2 run, it takes about 20, 25 minutes. And then we turn around, and we’re back in about 10.
NARRATOR: What if there were passenger planes that could fly this fast? What if you could go from one continent to another in half the time it takes now?
BLAKE SCHOLL (Boom Technology): Think, today, of the places in the world that are hard to access—think Singapore, think Sydney—that are eight to 16 hours away. When those flights become much shorter, you can just decide to pick up and go and visit Tokyo or Sydney or Paris for the weekend.
NARRATOR: There was a time when flying faster than sound in a passenger jet was possible.
PILOT: Three, two, one, zero.
NARRATOR: It was the Concorde, a revolutionary plane that crossed the Atlantic from Europe to the United States in under four hours. In the average commercial jet, it can take almost twice that long.
Concorde was a triumph of technology, but what people who traveled on it remember most is its beauty and speed.
KATIE JOHN: Flying Concorde was like a fantasy for people. It was partly the luxury but mostly it was the speeds. You could go from France or Britain to America and back in the same day.
SALLY ARMSTRONG (Concorde Flight Attendant): You could see the curvature of the earth, because we were 11 miles high. We would see the sun going down before we took off, and then, as we flew west, it was like it was rising…quite an achievement to go faster than the sun was setting.
NARRATOR: Humans have long dreamed of being able to fly, but when Concorde took off for the first time, aviation itself was only about 70 years old.
One of its legends is Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager. In 1947, he was determined to try to fly faster than the speed of sound.
Like light, sound is a wave that takes time to travel. Depending on the altitude and air temperature, Yeager would have to fly about 700 miles an hour to surpass its speed. It was daring and dangerous.
JAY E. DRYER (National Aeronautics and Space Administration): Prior to that there was even doubts, can people even fly faster than the speed of sound? Because, as you start to get closer and closer, the air compresses in front of the aircraft, and then it creates some instabilities and things that might, lead people to believe, “Is this going to be something that’s too challenging, that we can even survive?”
NARRATOR: Yeager took to the skies in a test plane shaped like a bullet, called the Bell X-1.
JAY E. DRYER: After World War II, that was just a great era of trying to really open up and explore the boundaries of aerospace. So, we were testing all types of aircraft, to see how you could go higher and faster. It was an experiment that was flown in a rocket-powered aircraft, dropped from a bomber.
NARRATOR: But just a few minutes into Yeager’s flight, there was loud double bang.
PETER COEN: My guess is that the local community probably had heard a few crashes over the years, and might have suspected that an airplane had crashed.
NARRATOR: In fact, this was the first time a plane created a sonic boom, as Yeager became the first pilot ever to pass the speed of sound. His pioneering feat came to be known as “breaking the sound barrier.” And it started decades of research about sonic booms.
When a plane flies faster than the speed of sound, it compresses the air in front of its nose, which is then suddenly released again behind the tail. This quick compression and release causes a shockwave, and when that shockwave reaches the ground, it creates the noise of a sonic boom.
PETER COEN: If you think about a thunderstorm, when the storm is right on top of you, and you get that lightning flash and the immediate crack of thunder that, you know, causes you to jump out of your chair, that’s a sonic boom.
NARRATOR: In the 1950s, only military aircraft could fly faster than sound, but civilian air travel was a growing industry. A passenger plane this fast seemed like it could be a fantastic asset for airlines that would fly it and the countries that would produce it.
The governments of Britain and France decided to fund work on two competing supersonic airliners. A French firm designed one called the “Super-Caravelle,” a British company planned the “Bristol Type 223.”
But very quickly, the technical challenges proved so enormous that development costs soared. Officials in Paris and London had to face a hard reality: there was only one way to save the dream of civilian supersonic flight.
KATIE JOHN: Neither country could afford to do it by themselves. They had two very similar designs, but they didn’t have the money or the resources to do it separately, so they came together.
NARRATOR: In 1962, British and French officials signed an unprecedented agreement, merging their projects into the Concorde, a supersonic plane that could carry around 100 passengers at more than 1,300 miles an hour. The projected date for its first commercial service was eight years away, in 1970.
IAIN GRAY: It was something that galvanized the industry. There were a lot of political issues about making the program happen, bringing it to reality. But from an engineering point of view, this was a dream.
NARRATOR: Engineers spent years developing the plane’s new shape, an elongated fuselage, a pointed nose and distinctive wings.
IAIN GRAY: Subsonic and supersonic are very different from an aerodynamic performance point of view. The shape of the airplane is very, very different.
NARRATOR: Getting any plane off the ground involves four forces. The engines provide its horizontal forward motion, or thrust. But when the plane is flying, the thrust is opposed by air resistance; this is called drag. The plane is also pulled down by its weight, the force of gravity. So, a fourth force helps keep it in the air; this is lift. And lift is a direct result of the shape of the wings.
Straight wings offer good stability, but don’t allow optimal flying at supersonic speed. A triangular shape, like the wings on fighter jets, reduces drag and is better for fast flying. But neither wing shape could fly a hundred people and tons of fuel at more than 1,300 miles an hour. So Concorde needed something new.
The French and British engineers analyzed air flows and refined the shape, over and over again, until they finally perfected Concorde’s unique delta wing.
BOB VAN DER LINDEN (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum): The techniques were familiar to designers at the time. They just never applied them to an airliner before, because no airliner was intended to fly faster than supersonic speeds. The Concorde itself has a modified delta. There’s this beautiful curve to it. A delta wing is probably the best compromise for high speed cruising ability for supersonics and low-speed handling.
NARRATOR: Supersonic travel was an exciting new possibility at the 1963 Paris Air Show. One of the biggest attractions was the first model of the Concorde, and its daring new shape was not the only news.
American Juan Trippe, president of the most powerful airline of the time, Pan Am, had placed an order for six Concordes. In Washington, President Kennedy was furious when he learned about the order, because he had already decided that the American aviation industry was not going to be left behind.
JOHN F. KENNEDY (President of the United States, 1961–1963): Hello.
C. DOUGLAS DILLON (Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, 1961–1965): Yes, Mr. President.
JOHN KENNEDY: Did you see what Juan Trippe did?
DOUGLAS DILLON: No, I did not.
JOHN KENNEDY: He put out an announcement this afternoon that he is going to buy six planes from the British and the French. How could he do that when he knew we were about to go ahead?
Well, now, will you give him this message from me? And make it very clear that I think he ought to retract that, that he ought to wait now and see what the United States is going to do. Otherwise it is going to be very clear that Pan Am is contributing in a significant way to the United States being in a secondary position in the air and also to our balance of payment problem. We’ll give him all the trouble he wants, because there isn’t going to be anything that’s going to make me more excited than doing that.
NAJEEB HALABY (United States Federal Aviation Administration, Administrator, 1961–1965): All right.
JOHN KENNEDY: Thank you.
NAJEEB HALABY: Yes, sir.
NARRATOR: The very next day, at graduation ceremonies at the Air Force Academy, Kennedy threw the United States into the race.
JOHN KENNEDY: I am announcing, today, that the United States will commit itself to an important new program in civilian aviation. It is my judgment that this government should immediately commence a new program, in partnership with private industry, to develop, at the earliest practical date, the prototype of a commercially successful supersonic transport, superior to that being built in any other country of the world.
NARRATOR: On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union was also jumping into the supersonic plane race.
Two years earlier, Premier Nikita Khrushchev watched a demonstration of Russia’s first supersonic military bomber, the Tu-22.
Standing behind Khrushchev was the plane’s designer, Andrei Tupolev. He became one of the leaders of the Soviet effort to build a supersonic passenger plane, and the K.G.B. was put into action gathering information on Concorde.
AMELUSHKIN ALEXEI NIKOLAIEVITCH (Aeronautics Engineer): (Translated from Russian) When we heard the news of the creation of such a fascinating airplane as Concorde, Andrei Tupolev was tasked with investigating this subject. All in all, our goal was to design a similar plane and perhaps do it even faster, if possible.
NARRATOR: It was now a three-way race, and the engineers on each team faced unprecedented technological challenges, at a time when computerization was in its infancy.
IAIN GRAY: It is remarkable. The development and design of this airplane was long before the advent of high performance supercomputing. There were many hundreds, thousands of engineers working across the supply chain, trying to optimize and get the right design solutions, the right aerodynamics. People joined the industry because they wanted to be part of this remarkable project.
NARRATOR: Concorde was the first time that British and French aerospace designers, former competitors, built a plane together. And that meant overcoming some very basic differences.
DOMINIQUE BERGER (Concorde Certification Engineer): (Translated from French) The British measured the plane’s weight in pounds, we measured in kilos. I remember a session when we said, “It’s a pity, because the takeoff mass of 90 tons, it’s not far from 180,000 pounds,” to which an Englishman replied, “But in pounds, it’s more precise.”
MICHEL POLACCO (Journalist): (Translated from French) The British would build their prototype and the French their prototype. Everybody talked to each other, exchanged views, but there still were two assembly lines, one in France and one in Great Britain.
NARRATOR: Each team was responsible for building specific parts of the plane, and each had a full-scale prototype and assembly line.
And without the internet to quickly share information, the project required not only high precision craftsmanship, but high stakes logistics. All through its development, sections of Concorde were shipped back and forth between Britain and France.
DOMINIQUE BERGER: (Translated from French) The British would send to Toulouse a full-scale model of the end section of their part, and Toulouse would check whether its section would fit that part. Conversely, the French would send their end sections to the British to check. You had to interface parts with precision down to a hundredth of a millimeter.
IAIN GRAY: It was a remarkable bit of technology achievement, with the brains and the intellect and the enthusiasm of young engineers at the time. It just shows what can be done when people want to achieve something.
NARRATOR: But the double production lines came at an enormous cost. The two governments spent an estimated $3-billion developing Concorde, more than 10 times the original estimate, and the equivalent of almost $20-billion dollars today.
The high development costs didn’t curb the enthusiasm of pilots who were eager to learn a new way to fly.
MIKE BANNISTER: Concorde pilot starting to reduce speed, rolling back to 220.
NARRATOR: Before Concorde was ready for passengers, they had intensive training in simulators, like this one.
MIKE BANNISTER: As you can see, this airplane is more complex, there are far more instruments, far more systems. It’s like four airplanes in one. It’s a high airplane, a low airplane, a fast airplane and a slow airplane. So, consequently, we have so many more systems to manage, and the crew are doing twice as much work in half the time. There’s a lot to learn. And it takes a pilot who’s very experienced—maybe been with British Airways for 25 years—six months to learn to fly Concorde, as opposed to just two months to learn to fly a conventional airplane like an A380 or a 747.
NARRATOR: One of the most important new features to master was Concorde’s unique nose. In addition to the distinctive shape, the nose actually moved into different positions. In the air, at supersonic speed, the nose was up, and a visor reinforced the plane’s streamlined aerodynamics. But it had to land at a very steep angle, and this created a problem. The long nose blocked the pilot’s sightline to the runway.
JOHN HUTCHINSON: You’re coming in to land at quite a high angle of attack, and sitting in the pilot’s seat, with the nose up, you simply would not be able to see the runway, at all.
NARRATOR: The ingenious solution was a mechanism that tipped the nose down, so the pilot had a clear view.
MIKE BANNISTER: Start turning towards London, down comes the nose, 100 feet above, in, out, looking at the runway all the time. Take the auto-throttles out. Fifty, 40, 30, 20, 15, and that starts to bring Concorde to a halt, using brakes that are underneath my feet. She’s such a delight to fly. The six months that you take to learn is worth every single moment of it.
NEWSREEL AUDIO (December 11, 1967, Concorde 001 Unveiling): Toulouse: the giant hanger at Sud Aviation’s headquarters was the focal point of the world, for inside, was the most exciting new thing in the world of aviation: Concorde Number 001.
NARRATOR: In 1967, after five years of intense effort, the very first Concorde prototype was unveiled to an eager audience. Despite the fanfare, it was not yet ready to fly. And the three-way race for a supersonic transport plane, or S.S.T., was heating up.
BOB VAN DER LINDEN: There was a technological race between the West and the former Soviet Union. There was competition between Europe and the United States, as well. And Great Britain and France got the leg up on the United States, and many in the United States wanted to build an S.S.T. just to compete.
NARRATOR: The American entry into the race came from Boeing, a supersonic passenger plane called the 2707.
Like Concorde, the project was financed by government money. But the design was even more ambitious, over 100 feet longer, carrying more than twice as many passengers and flying about 500 miles an hour faster. But it would ultimately be the Soviet Union that became Concorde’s biggest competitor. Today, a museum east of Moscow features the plane that gave Concorde a run for its money, the Tupolev-144.
YURI VALKIN MARKOVICH (Museum of Civil Aviation): (Translated from Russian) Here is a legendary flying machine. The name of that legend is Tupolev-144. It’s the first supersonic airliner in the world. The first flight of a supersonic airliner in the world took place in the U.S.S.R. We were the ones to win the first stage of the supersonic race.
NARRATOR: In the throes of the Cold War, the Tu-144 was not only a technological challenge for the Soviets, but a political one, as well. The Kremlin issued a mandate: get the Tu-144 off the ground by the end of 1968, before Concorde.
At the last possible moment to reach that goal, the Tu-144 took off, on December 31, 1968. Thirty-seven minutes later, it landed at an airfield near Moscow, and its pilots were given a hero’s welcome.
The plane had not broken the sound barrier. But in the three-way supersonic flight race, the soviets could claim the first victory.
YURI VALKIN MARKOVICH: (Translated from Russian) It’s an enormous success for our country, comparable in scope to launching a space rocket or to Yuri Gagarin’s space flight.
NARRATOR: When western journalists saw the first photos of the Tu-144, they were struck by its remarkable resemblance to Concorde. The similarities were so obvious that the Russian plane was instantly nick-named “Concordski.”
JOHN HUTCHINSON: I have no doubt that there was industrial espionage on the part of the Russians, and probably, there was industrial espionage on the part of the French and the British, as well.
VLADIMIR RIGMANT (Tupolev Design Bureau Museum): (Translated from Russian) Let’s just say that the intelligence services had specific goals that made development somewhat easier. The West and our country met with similar technical problems, so we did try to obtain some information on the Concorde. That is to say, when certain issues arose, they were passed on to the intelligence services. Then these services completed the tasks.
NARRATOR: The K.G.B. had a dedicated network of spies around Concorde. Russian agents even managed to smuggle microfilm, containing blueprints and other documents, out of France, in toothpaste tubes. French security forces eventually caught up with the Kremlin’s spies, some of whom were tried and expelled from France.
VLADIMIR RIGMANT: (Translated from Russian) If I remember well, some of our diplomats were thrown out of France at the time. It’s just work, not espionage, like any other work.
NARRATOR: Whatever the Russians wanted to call their efforts, it soon became clear that the Tu-144 was not just a simple copy of Concorde. Its wings were a modification of the delta shape. It had different landing gear, and its fuselage was longer and wider. It had the same number of engines, four, and a tipping nose. But there was one distinctive feature: whisker-like front winglets.
JOHN HUTCHINSON: The Concordski had these little winglets that came out for takeoff and landing. Those winglets modified the air flow over the wing in such a way that you could come in at a lower angle of attack, which meant less engine power required and therefore less noise. So, it was a very, very good feature, that of the Concordski design. And I think, as I said, that if there’d ever been a second generation Concorde built, they would have incorporated winglets into it.
NARRATOR: Ten months after the Concordski’s debut, Concorde was ready for the ultimate challenge: flying supersonic for the first time.
In the cockpit was Andre Turcat, the first European to break the sound barrier, and test pilot Jean Pinet. Neither of them knew how a plane this big would react at supersonic speed.
JEAN PINET (Concorde Test Pilot): (Translated from French) The hour-long flight was about the gradual increase of speed from Mach 0.9 to Mach 1.05. So, at each step, I would test whether everything was working well. And it was going so well that, at one point, I asked Turcat, “Okay, can we keep going?” And he said, “Certainly not! The flight plan ordered Mach 1.05, we stop right there.”
When we landed, I was surprised to see so many journalists, and the mechanics, who hung a sign on the nose of the plane: “They made it!”
IAIN GRAY: Concorde was our “man-on-the-moon” project here in Europe. Getting Concorde, that first flight, that was our space race. We did it. We built Concorde. We flew it successfully, and it’s an icon.
NARRATOR: In the U.S., President Nixon was in the White House. In 1971, with the cost of the Vietnam War escalating, congress decided the Boeing S.S.T. was too expensive and cancelled it.
BOB VAN DER LINDEN: The country wasn’t completely behind the idea of building an S.S.T., certainly not with taxpayer dollars. So, the aircraft was defeated in Congress, by a very narrow vote. But it was defeated, and so, the U.S. S.S.T. program failed.
NARRATOR: In an ironic twist, at the end of that same year, at a meeting in the Azores, Nixon met French president George Pompidou, who flew in on the first Concorde prototype.
RICHARD M. NIXON (President of the United States, 1969–1974): When I arrived at the airport on the Spirit of ’76, a Boeing 707, I saw, parked in front of me, a Concorde, which had carried the President of France. And our ambassador to France, Mr. Watson, pointed out that he had come from France at a speed three times as fast as we had come from the United States.
JEAN PINET: (Translated from French) At the end of the conference, each president was walking back to his own plane, and then I suddenly see Nixon stop. So his delegation stops, too. He turns around and comes towards the Concorde. President Nixon walks up the stepladder and greets us. We explained the Concorde to him. He stayed in the cabin for a few minutes, and then he said, “Well, in the end, it’s you who were right,” and he left.
NARRATOR: Even though Concorde was not yet certified for commercial flight, Queen Elizabeth and President Pompidou were already posing on board to promote the new plane. But there were significant concerns about its profitability. Fuel prices were rising sharply, and the potential for Concorde to ever make money was questionable.
Still, by 1972, the excitement about supersonic passenger travel led 16 airlines, around the world, to place sales options on Concorde.
BOB VAN DER LINDEN: In the airline business, when there’s a new airplane, especially one that promises, you know, great new performance, many airlines are interested in, to get on board and place options on the aircraft. They’re not orders, they’re options. And quite a few aircrafts placed options, including Pan Am. But when Pan Am and every other airline actually looked at the numbers after the test flights, and they realized this aircraft could not make money, they canceled their options.
NARRATOR: In the end, the only sales were to the French and British government-owned airlines. They bought 14 Concordes in all, seven for Air France and seven for B.O.A.C., which later became British Air.
The 1973 Paris Air Show was the first time the Russian Tu-144 and the Concorde were presented together, for fly-by demonstrations at subsonic speed. Concorde went first, taking off and landing smoothly. Then the Soviet plane roared down the runway.
A few minutes later, to the shock of everyone watching, it broke up in flight and crashed. Everyone on board and eight people on the ground were killed.
ANDRÉ TURCAT (NEWSREEL CLIP): (Translation from French) We clearly saw pieces come off the plane before it crashed, hitting the ground in two different places, it seems.
REPORTER (NEWSREEL CLIP): (Translation from French) It’s a big setback for the Soviets.
ANDRÉ TURCAT (NEWSREEL CLIP): (Translation from French) Yes, and for us. We share…
REPORTER (NEWSREEL CLIP): (Translation from French) Do you think that it will compromise their supersonic program?
ANDRÉ TURCAT (NEWSREEL CLIP): (Translation from French) I don’t think so. I think they have more guts than that, just as we would if such a situation occurred.
NARRATOR: The cause of the crash was never officially determined. The Tu-144 was put into service in 1977, but it was plagued by mechanical problems and another crash. It stopped flying passengers after only 55 flights and was retired for good a few years later.
But in Paris and London, the long wait was over at last. After more than 13 years of joint effort, the dream plane was finally taking off. On January 21, 1976, for the first time, passengers arrived at their boarding gates with tickets stamped “Concorde.”
Just before noon, a British Airways Concorde left the gate at Heathrow airport. Its destination: Bahrain.
At the very same second, an Air France Concorde to Rio de Janeiro rolled down the runway in Paris. The double takeoff was broadcast live. A-hundred-and-ninety-nine people were the first commercial passengers in the world to fly over 1,300 miles an hour.
KATIE JOHN: They did something that nobody else in history has ever done. You had this airplane that operated like a fighter plane but carried people in comfort. You weren’t wearing an oxygen mask. You were sipping champagne and enjoying fine food.
ALAIN VERSCHUÈRE (Concorde Flight Attendant): (Translated from French) Passengers loved that party feeling, when you toasted with champagne glasses on a magic plane. And, ideally, it was when the Mach meter indicated the breaking of the sound barrier, and then at Mach 2.2. Those were the moments when passengers liked to be photographed in front of the Mach meter.
NARRATOR: While passengers were enjoying the ride, many amazing innovations were at work in flying Concorde.
When it went from subsonic to supersonic speed, the shockwave pushed its center of lift backwards, increasing drag. In order to keep the cabin horizontal and stable, engineers came up with an ingenious system.
JOHN HUTCHINSON: So, what did the designers come up with as a solution? They said, “Okay, if the shockwave is pushing the center of lift back down the wing, why don’t we change the position of the center of gravity as well?”
NARRATOR: The only weight that could be moved around in flight to change Concorde’s center of gravity was the fuel, more than 31,000 gallons in 13 separate tanks.
BOB VAN DER LINDEN: One of the most technologically significant features of the Concorde you can’t see was the ability to transfer fuel from fuel tanks at the front and fuel tanks in the back as the aircraft transitioned to supersonic speed and back to subsonic speed. They had very high-speed pumps that were able to transfer the fuel fore and aft, depending on what was required. And that helped balance the aircraft out and change the center of gravity.
NARRATOR: Supersonic speed also meant that the exterior of the plane, made of aluminum, got so hot that it actually stretched during flight.
BOB VAN DER LINDEN: The Concorde was designed to expand almost nine inches in flight. The floor itself sits on rollers, and the aircraft expands and contracts underneath it. But you never notice it when you’re in flight. The only thing you notice, after about three hours, is it’s getting kind of warm in the airplane, and the window, which is no larger than your hand, is actually hot to the touch.
NARRATOR: But while Concorde was a technological success, concerns continued to grow about whether it would ever be a financial one. Its biggest potential market, New York, was off limits.
Because of the sonic boom and the noise from takeoff and landing, the Port Authority would not allow it to fly into the city.
BOB VAN DER LINDEN: In the United States, there was a great deal of pushback in New York, because of environmental reasons, particularly sound. The Concorde on takeoff is extremely loud. It’s got four bomber engines on it, with afterburners. And when those engines are lit, it’s very, very loud. It shakes the windows. So, you’re flying a very loud airplane over one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. There’s going to be a lot of unhappy people on the ground.
NARRATOR: Without New York routes, there was no guarantee that Concorde could survive.
The noise from supersonic flight was a bigger problem than just landing in New York. In fact, any supersonic flight over land by civilian planes was banned in 1973, and is still against U.S. law. That’s because the sonic boom is heard on the ground under the entire flight path of a supersonic plane.
PETER COEN: We call it the “carpet.” It’s essentially right directly under the flight path of the airplane. Up to 25 miles on either side is exposed to the sonic boom sound. If you do fly over land supersonic, there is a lot of people that could be disturbed by the sound.
NARRATOR: But there are almost five times as many people flying on U.S. airlines today as there were in the 70s, so any breakthrough that could speed up travel would be a huge advantage.
NASA RESEARCHERS: NASA ground, cover zero seven control.
NASA ground copy 12,000, and we are ready for you on the ground.
Okay, you guys ready?
NARRATOR: For decades, scientists at NASA have been trying to answer a key question: could they design a quieter supersonic plane? The solution might lie in changing the shape of the shockwaves that produce sonic booms in the air.
PETER COEN: We call the sonic boom the “N Wave,” and that’s because, if you plot it on paper, you have a large spike, a gradual decrease in pressure and then another large spike. So you hear the “bang, bang.” What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to change those spikes into a more gradual pressure rise. So instead of an “N” you’ve got more like an “S” lying on its side. And you don’t get a bang anymore.
NARRATOR: Test pilots like Nils Larson already know that certain flight maneuvers make a lot less noise, and he helps the researchers make recordings with a daring dive.
NILS LARSON: We start up at about 49,500 feet, roughly, and then they give us a point based on winds and where they have the microphones and that kind of stuff. And so you point the nose at the ground, 53 degrees. It feels just like you’re going straight down.
It can get pretty exciting, pretty quickly. And that produces a shaped boom, and it sounds a little bit more like distant rolling thunder instead of the typical N wave that kind of gives you that “crack, crack” sound.
NARRATOR: A passenger plane would never be able to fly like this. But Peter Coen and David Richwine lead a team that’s designed a model of an experimental plane they hope will produce this kind of softer boom. It starts with a nose that’s even longer than Concorde’s, to help dissipate the shockwave in front of the plane.
PETER COEN: So, normally, what would happen with a conventional nose is you would have a fairly strong shockwave on the nose of the airplane. So, by giving it this long slender shape, we’re replacing that shockwave with a more gradual compression, which essentially makes for less noise of when the whole signature actually reaches the ground.
NARRATOR: Another new feature is putting the engine on top of the wings, instead of underneath them. This will send part of the shockwave at the back of the plane up, into the atmosphere, instead of down to the ground.
DAVID RICHWINE (National Aeronautics and Space Administration): So, you’re not going to hear that startling boom. You’re going to hear more like a thump that you might hear, like, in an apartment next door, if someone was closing their door or something like that.
NARRATOR: The recordings from Larson’s test flights and computer models of the sound a new design might make are used to test how people on the ground react.
ALEXANDRA LOUBEAU (National Aeronautics and Space Administration): We bring in people from the general public, and they, basically, rated their annoyance on a scale of “not at all annoying” to “extremely annoying.” And then, in yet other studies, we added a vibration component, so they were sitting on chairs that were shaking. And so you don’t necessarily hear that, but you feel the vibration, and so that changed the overall experience.
NARRATOR: When they find sound levels that people think are acceptable, they’ll try to replicate them with a full-scale, operational plane, based on the model. It will fly over communities across the country to see how the sound plays out in different altitudes, different seasons and different weather.
No one is sure of the outcome, but the data will be presented to the F.A.A. If regulations about supersonic flight over land change, that could open up the market for a new generation of passenger planes, almost as fast as Concorde, but much quieter.
PETER COEN: So, really, we would like to take the boom out of the boom. If I think into the future, I would really like to be able to imagine that I could get on a sleek, new, quiet supersonic airliner and get to where I’m going in half the time.
NARRATOR: Ultimately, it was a court decision that allowed Concorde to land in New York. But the pilots changed their approach, slowing down to subsonic speed while they were still over the Atlantic, so that people on the ground would not hear the sonic boom on landing.
DOMINIQUE BERGER: (Translated from French) So, British and French engineers and pilots had to come up with incredibly complicated flight maneuvers, ingenious maneuvers, to prevent Concorde from making too much noise over residential areas. As a result, New York takeoffs and landings were no picnic for the pilot. It was tough.
NARRATOR: Despite the tricky landing procedures, in November, 1977, two Concordes, one French and one British, finally arrived in New York. And the opening of the first supersonic routes between Europe and New York kicked off what came to be called “Concorde mania.”
ALAIN VERSCHUÈRE: (Translated from French) All the fashion models took the Concorde, show business people, actors and politicians, of course. When there were U.N. General Assemblies in New York, in the front cabin, you’d have five or six prime ministers, two presidents. It was the world’s rich and powerful who traveled on Concorde.
NARRATOR: Flying on Concorde was also the ultimate assignment for the cabin crews.
SALLY ARMSTRONG: It was such a privilege, because you were flying the flagship of the airline. And we were so nervous, even though we had years of experience flying. It was a whole different game.
ALAIN VERSCHUÈRE: (Translated from French) Michael Jackson was a frequent Concorde flyer, and his little indulgence was to get a Big Mac®. Not a big deal, but not so easy to make on a plane. So, we’d get the Big Mac at the airport and reheat it on board, to please him.
NARRATOR: But the speed and glamor came with a very high price tag.
In 1978, a roundtrip ticket from New York to London or Paris cost about $1,500, which would be almost $6,000 today. Over its time in service, the roundtrip price went up to the equivalent of more than $14,000.
As oil prices skyrocketed through the ’70s and early ’80s, Concorde’s huge fuel consumption also became a problem. It burned at least twice as much fuel per passenger as a 747, and that meant that longer, transcontinental flights were impossible.
And pollution from the plane’s high-altitude exhaust emissions was becoming a serious environmental concern. So, even as it kept flying, there was more and more doubt about a supersonic future.
BOB VAN DER LINDEN: It was just not affordable. And you have to understand, it’s an airliner. It’s a tool for airlines to make money. This is a case of the economics trumping everything else. If it doesn’t pay its way, it won’t survive.
NARRATOR: On the afternoon of July 25, 2000, an Air France Concorde to New York left the gate in Paris. On board were 100 passengers and nine crew. Just as it was taking off, an air traffic controller told the pilot he saw flames at the rear of the aircraft.
JOHN HUTCHINSON: My mobile phone rang. I picked it up and answered it, I said, “Hello?” And the voice said, “Is that Captain Hutchinson?” I said, “Yes, it is.” They said, “It’s the B.B.C. here. We want to interview you about the Concorde crash.”
NARRATOR: A cascade of events had gone wrong. The plane was overweight; there was a sudden change in wind direction but no change in runway; and then a small piece of metal on the tarmac caused a tire to explode. The debris hit a gas tank, fuel escaped, instantly caught fire and caused a catastrophic loss of two of the engines.
The death toll was 113, including four people on the ground.
SALLY ARMSTRONG: I was at home, and somebody phoned me up. And I put on the TV, and it was the same impact as, almost, just the Twin Towers, where you couldn’t believe your eyes.
ALAIN VERSCHUÈRE: (Translated from French) Everybody thought I was on board. But I was home, and it was very distressing.
BOB VAN DER LINDEN: The irony for the Concorde is, until that loss, it was statistically the safest airplane in the sky. After the loss, it was statistically one of the least safe. That’s only because it flew so seldomly.
NARRATOR: After the crash, all Concordes were temporarily grounded. But even when flights resumed, the supersonic plane’s days were numbered. Concorde would only be in service for two more years.
The dream of flying faster than sound still makes headlines today. Boeing is working on a plane the company hopes will fly almost three times as fast as Concorde. And Airbus has a concept for a plane that could go from New York to London in an hour. This research will likely take decades before it’s known if flying that fast, at hypersonic speed, is really possible.
But startup companies, like Boom Technology, in Denver, are already working on new planes that build on the legacy of Concorde, despite the continued existence of regulations against supersonic flight over land.
BLAKE SCHOLL: It’s not just New York to London. It’s San Francisco to Tokyo, L.A. to Sydney. There are about 500 routes on the planet that have enough traffic for supersonic flight to exist with our airplane, without flying supersonic over land.
NARRATOR: Using computer simulations, newer composite materials and different engine technology, today’s pioneers want to build supersonic jets that will be more environmentally friendly and more affordable.
BLAKE SCHOLL: The way we’ve approached it at Boom is to say, “Hey, let’s start with Concorde. There’s a design that we know worked. And what we have to do is improve upon it.”
Let’s do something that’s going to make economic sense for airlines, that’s going to make economic sense for passengers. And as a result, this is going to be sustainable. This isn’t going to be, you know, a couple routes on the planet for some very wealthy people. Ultimately, this is something that’s going to go mainstream and change the way all of us get around the planet.
NARRATOR: The very last flights of Concorde were in 2003.
MIKE BANNISTER: Watching millions of people around the airport waving and cheering, it was a very emotional moment and something I shall remember for the rest of my life.
JEAN PINET: (Translated from French) This was the time when I realized that I had participated in something exceptional.
NARRATOR: The remarkable breakthroughs of Concorde will always be a milestone in aviation history. And if a quieter, more cost-effective version of the legendary plane can be built, another new chapter will begin.
PETER COEN: The U.S. was the first country to break the sound barrier, with Chuck Yeager, in the ’40s. I like to think of what we’re doing as going to break the sound barrier for the rest of us. So, that is pretty cool.
ALAIN VERSCHUÈRE: (Translated from French) Even now, on all the flights I worked, there is someone on the crew who tells me: “My regret is that I never flew on the Concorde.”
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Concorde The Supersonic Race
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- Sally Armstrong, Mike Bannister, Dominique Berger, Peter Coen, Jay Dryer, Iain Gray, John Hutchinson, Katie John, Nils Larson, Alexandra Loubeau, Yuri Markovich, Amelushkin Nikolaievitch, Jean Pinet, Michael Polacco, David Richwine, Vladimir Rigmant, Blake Scholl, André Turcat, Bob van der Linden, Alain Verschuère