Lure of a flying beast conceived in another age

Supersonic Era
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The Independent Online

More than 30 years after it first took to the air, people still stand and stare at its stark outline. In an era in which standardisation is the mantra of the all-powerful accountant, Concorde is something special.

More than 30 years after it first took to the air, people still stand and stare at its stark outline. In an era in which standardisation is the mantra of the all-powerful accountant, Concorde is something special.

This is aeronautical style. This is a flying beast conceived in another age. A perfect paper dart in flight and a rather supercilious, if elegant, game bird on the ground.

Concorde is powered not by the namby-pamby engines used on run-of-the- mill civil aircraft. This baby is powered by technology normally used for military planes. The Olympus engines have after-burners - a system that injects raw fuel into the tail end of the jets to give additional thrust.

It is not especially kind to the passengers who are sufficiently privileged to board her. Acceleration forces them back into their seats. The steep take-off is more Nasa than British Airways. But everyone wants to fly on it - if only once.

Concorde is long and sleek, and there seems little window space for the intrepid pilots to see from. The flight crew preside over the familiar, long nose. Passengers who first set eyes on it on the ground are amazed how small it is - almost as if they will be unable to stand up in it.

On entering the passenger cabin of 100 seats, travellers are struck by the difference between this ageing technical marvel and the standard Boeing used on trips to Malaga. The jet has been built for speed, not necessarily comfort.

The flight attendants recite the familiar litany of safety advice - although such an announcement can seem superfluous on such a super-fast aircraft. There is a deafening roar and a shudder and within seconds the Concorde is airborne. Ten minutes later, the pilot prepares passengers for the further surge of acceleration before breaking the sound barrier.

Many fighter aircraft would have difficulty in keeping pace with the machine. Pilots are misty eyed about controlling it; it is demanding to fly, but instantly responsive.

Yesterday's accident, however, will put a question mark against the future of the aircraft which, arguably, should have been consigned to the museum some years ago. Has it finally succumbed to the march of time? Will passengers necessarily think the same way about Concorde now that the beautiful bird has claimed its first victims?

It has been the pride of both Britain and France since the first aircraft left the ground in 1969. But at £6,000 return from London to New York, few who fly on it pay for the privilege themselves. Senior businessmen rub shoulders with the rich and the famous who enter the somewhat cramped narrow tube to be hurtled at the speed of a bullet on the edge of space.

For some, the seats are a touch narrow. The late, disgraced tycoon Robert Maxwell used to buy two tickets to accommodate his ample frame. But the claustrophobia can be relieved with a selection of complimentary fine wines and vintage champagnes.

By the mid-Eighties, the Concorde flight had become the perfect accessory for the celebrity. Regular passengers included the Dynasty star Joan Collins, Sir Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Sir Sean Connery and Diana, Princess of Wales. More recently, the hotel and restaurant connoisseur Egon Ronay extolled its virtues, praising the service, which "oozed luxury and refinement".

Despite the fares, some 2 million passengers have flown on British Airways Concordes since commercial service started in 1976. But the passengers on yesterday's ill-fated flight were unusual for being package tourists - albeit well-heeled ones.

The first Concorde, the 001 prototype, was a joint venture between Britain and France costing an estimated £950m. Britain and France started working separately towards a supersonic aircraft in 1956, but they were working along such similar lines that in 1962 they decided to develop it jointly, a partnership that led to 16 aircraft being built.

Much to the chagrin of some British observers - the project was the idea of the UK government - the first Concorde took off from the Aerospatiale airfield in Toulouse, France, on 2 March 1969. The British version, Concorde 002, first lifted off five weeks later. By November 1970, both prototypes had flown at mach 2, twice the speed of sound.

Since then, the fleet has logged more than 130,000 flying hours, two-thirds of which have been above the speed of sound. And despite the technical advances, the jet is still considered the best way to travel - by passengers and pilots alike. It remains the only supersonic civil aircraft in service.

The second prototype, the British-built Concorde 002, made a successful maiden voyage from Filton aerodrome, Bristol, on 9 April 1969. Two months previously, in an attempt to make history, the Soviet Union rushed into production an aircraft that appeared to be a triumph of the black arts of industrial espionage. However, the TU-144, nicknamed "Concordski", crashed at the 1973 Paris air show.

The Americans also tried to produce such an airliner, but technological difficulties led to the cancellation of the project. The prospects for a "daughter of Concorde" are not good. According to some analysts, a replacement design would cost $10bn (£6.6bn).

Concorde is powered by four Olympus 593 engines jointly developed by Rolls-Royce and the French company Snecma. Each engine is capable of producing 38,000lb thrust and powering Concorde at mach 2.

Concorde's first pre-production aircraft flew in December 1971 and the first production aircraft took to the skies two years later. On 21 January 1976, the first commercial Concorde services were flown simultaneously by British Airways to Bahrain and by Air France to Rio de Janeiro.

The aircraft had been subjected to 5,000 hours of testing by the time it was certified for passenger flight.

Air France had a fleet of six Concordes, while British Airways operated seven. They fly at 1,336mph at a cruising altitude of 55,000 feet - far above troublesome weather and the more prosaic aircraft with which they compete. Cruising at that speed - twice as fast as sound - Concorde's typical New York crossing takes little more than three and a half hours. When flying westward from London, the aircraft arrives before it has taken off - because of the time difference. The record for a transatlantic crossing stands at two hours 52 minutes 59 seconds - at an average speed of about 1,300mph.

Concorde measures 204ft in length, but that stretches between six and eight inches in flight because the air-frame heats up at high speed. The aircraft is only allowed to "go supersonic" over water because of the noise of the sonic boom. The aircraft has never been seen as politically correct by environmentalists.

The jet has an enviable safety record but yesterday's crash came just 24 hours after thedisclosure that a British Airways Concorde had been taken out of service after a crack developed in its wings.

BA's other six supersonic jets also had cracks in the rear of their wings, but were deemed "no risk to safety" by the Civil Aviation Authority and BA.

Mere technical explanations of Concorde's airworthiness might not be sufficient to keep the airliner going. Much of the glamour has been irretrievably tarnished by the crash near Paris.