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Happy Birthday, Concorde

The supersonic airplane turns 40.

12:00 AM, Mar 12, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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This year will make the 40th year since the Anglo-French commercial aircraft, the Concorde, made its first flight. Aircraft number 001 first lifted off on 2 March 1969 piloted by Andre Turcat from the aerodrome at Toulose, France, which is today the home of assembly plant for the Airbus A380 superjumbo aircraft. Ironically, it is the success of the A380 and the economies of scale that it brings to airline operations that have made sure that there will probably never be another Concorde-type passenger aircraft again.

In the latter 1990s, Boeing and a consortium of American aerospace firms teamed with Russian industry to convert one of the last-built models of the Tupolev Tu-144D aircraft that were Soviet aviation's answer to the Concorde, and were christened with the nickname "Concordski."

This one aircraft was turned into a testbed by retrofitting it with four new, Kuznetsov NK-321 engines that are used in the Tu-160 Blackjack bomber (and are several generations advanced beyond the Tu-144's original power plant), and fitting the wing of the aircraft with a "glove" of aerodynamic sensors. This Tu-144D (registry number 77114) was originally built in 1981 and had only 82 hours and 40 minutes total flight time on its airframe. It was taken out of storage and after these modifications, which cost $350 million, it was designated the Tu-144LL -- the "LL" is the Russian abbreviation for Летающая Лаборатория or "Flying Laboratory." The aircraft made a total of 27 flights between 1996 and 1997.

At the press conference given in Moscow upon the completion of these test flights, Boeing senior officials explained that the basic objectives of these experimental flights were to examine the viability of future commercial supersonic aircraft--a next-generation Concorde. As such, they sought to validate three main factors in supersonic aircraft design: 1) environmental and ecological issues that affect the use of supersonic aircraft in commercial applications, 2) the question of a supersonic aircraft's technically acceptability in a commercial environment--the requirement to fly day in and day out in airline service and last for years without laborious maintenance requirements, and 3) if such a design can be economically feasible for a commercial airline operation.

While the first two issues were resolved in the affirmative by this program, present day evidence is that the economics of supersonic commercial flight are still too difficult to overcome. A profile of the Concorde program reveals just how lopsided the numbers are. The Concorde cost the France and UK jointly about $2 billion to develop, which was six times the original program estimate, and the bill for developing any next-generation supersonic commercial airliner would be just as expensive if not more. The Concorde burned 22 tons of fuel per hour, which is twice the consumption rate of a Boeing 747. The Tu-144LL, it was revealed in the press conference, burns 100 tons of fuel in just one average flight, so it is no more economical than its Anglo-French analogue.

However, a 747 carries four times the number of passengers and cargo as a Concorde or a Tu-144. Concorde aircraft operated by British Airways and Air France also required 22 maintenance man hours per flight hour (about the same as an F/A-18), where the Boeing 747 requires eight and the Boeing 777 several times less than a 747. Furthermore, for an aircraft to be operated profitably by an airline it needs to be in the air 10-14 hours of the day. Both the BA and AF Concordes were in the air only about a quarter of that amount.

With these numbers, it is no wonder that a round-trip ticket on the Concorde in the late 1990s was almost $3,000 more than a first-class ticket on a 747. Add to this the limited range of the Concorde that eliminates the possibility of regular flights to profitable Pacific Rim destinations, the fact that many air routings have noise restrictions that prohibit Concorde from taking advantage of its supersonic speed, and the limitations of supersonic commercial aircraft become clear.

Analysts point out that if we knew then what we know now the Concorde would never have been built. When the Concorde, the US SST program, and the Tu-144 were being designed, the world price of oil was only $1.70 per barrel, but had zoomed to over $11 per barrel by the time these aircraft were to enter service. Because of even much higher oil prices today none of the major aircraft manufacturers are developing supersonic designs. The future belongs to 787-type and large capacity Airbus A380-class airliners with highly fuel-efficient, subsonic turbofan, "green-friendly" engines that can carry large numbers of passengers.