Letter From Paris

What Price Supersonic Grandeur?

Concorde's end came not with a whimper but a tragic bang.

By From the May 2010 issue

Tempus fugit, of course, but it's still hard for some of us to realize that the giddy age of supersonic air travel has already come and gone. And a damned good thing, too.

It was in fact just 41 years ago that André Turcat, a 47-year-old test pilot by trade, lined up a spindly, droop-nosed flying machine on the center line of runway 33 at France's Toulouse Blagnac airfield. He spooled up its four puissant Olympus engines to a cosmic roar, switched on after-burners, and released the brakes. As Concorde Prototype 001 took off in its patriotic blue, white, and red livery, excited onlookers were chanting Allez France! Allez France!

No matter that those engines were mostly British, as was roughly half the plane. When Turcat landed 35 minutes later on March 2, 1969, it was clear that France had a proud new symbol. As Le Monde has frankly noted, Concorde "was created largely to serve the prestige of France...[it was] the expression of political will, founded on a certain idea of national grandeur."

Now a months-long trial in Paris illustrates how specious the whole business was. Not to mention potentially more dangerous to your health than smoking. It shows, for those who hadn't already surmised as much, that Concorde was a preposterously expensive accident waiting to happen. The people responsible for perpetrating this sham are not in the courtroom, of course.

Concorde's end came not with a whimper but a tragic bang at 4:44 p.m. local time on July 25, 2000. Air France flight 4590, chartered by a group of 100 Germans heading for a rendezvous with a cruise ship in New York, blew a tire on its left landing gear as it accelerated down runway 26 at Charles de Gaulle airport. Debris slung from the tire and wheel hit the underside of the plane's left wing and penetrated a fuel tank.

President Jacques Chirac, just landed from Tokyo, watched aghast from his taxiing 747 as the Concorde's leaking jet fuel caught fire, trailing a long sheet of flame. The plane lost power in its two left engines. Past the point where takeoff could be aborted, it struggled barely 200 feet into the air as the cockpit crew tried desperately to turn toward nearby Le Bourget airport for an emergency landing. "Too late...no time," were Captain Christian Marty's last recorded words as the uncontrollable plane suddenly flipped over and pancaked onto a mostly empty building in the Paris suburb of Gonesse. All 100 passengers, three flight crew, six flight attendants, and four persons on the ground were killed.

France went into mourning. The crash was compared to the sinking of the Titanic, the Hindenburg bursting into flames, the Challenger space shuttle exploding. Tinkering was done afterward on several Concordes, reinforcing fuel tanks and strengthening tires, but the plane made its final commercial flight in October 2003. Even London's understated Times lamented, "Nothing will ever be quite the same again...This was the superplane, the symbol of progress, the icon of invention, a totem."

And yet. Despite the glamorous image, Concorde was a hard-luck, jinxed project from the beginning, a cautionary tale about doing something just because it was technically possible and politically attractive.

THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM was that Concorde was entirely a public-sector project and ipso facto out of touch with reality. In the 1960s the French and British governments spent $3 billion in public monies developing a supersonic transport (SST). (U.S. plane makers Boeing, Lockheed, and North American also caught the SST fever and did designs, but market realities made them abandon the idea in the early 1970s.) Besides the intense, politically popular satisfaction of beating the Americans at the game of air transport they had dominated for so long, this kept British and French state-owned aircraft manufacturers busy. And when it was built, the reasoning went, they could always sell it to their subsidized national airlines.

Their engineers used some 300 test models in wind tunnels and gave birth to a weird breed of bird. Lift was provided by a combination of wing, vortex, and thrust. Its all-important center of gravity was moved forward or aft by manually transferring fuel among its 14 tanks. At Mach 2, about 1,150 knots, and 60,000 feet, the air temperature is around minus 67 degrees F, but atmospheric friction heated the fuselage so much it expanded to make the plane about half a foot longer. "It's not an easy plane to fly, you have to be constantly alert," Peter Duffey, a retired British Airways Concorde pilot, once told me. "Takeoff time is only half that of a 747. At twice the speed of sound, you're always thinking about where you can land in the event of an emergency, and there are about 50 reasons besides engine failure why you would have to take it down to subsonic flight."

Sales estimates were for 240 Concordes by 1978; optimists hoped for up to 1,500 purchases eventually by the world's airlines. But then the same reality hit that had discouraged American designers: nobody wanted to buy what the French invariably called the beautiful white bird. Grandeur and prestige alone won't keep shareholders happy, and commercial airlines couldn't see how to make money with it.

First there was the oil shock of the 1970s, driving fuel prices up -- and Concorde consumed four times as much fuel to carry one-quarter as many passengers as a 747. Besides that, engineers and marketers greatly underestimated the problem of the sonic boom. Resembling the dis-concerting crack of a high-velocity rifle shot, it would be heard by millions on the ground as the plane passed overhead. That ruled out lucrative American routes like New York to Los Angeles. And Concorde's thunderous engines made so much noise on takeoff that some major cities were unwilling to accept it.

Finally all prospective buyers canceled their options except the captive Air France and British Airways, which got the plane at bargain prices from their governments. Only 14 Concordes entered service. To be sure, it became an instant hit with the fashionably hurried, who lined up to pay about $10,000 for a round-trip transatlantic ticket to race the sun, leaving London or Paris for New York and arriving about three and a half hours later -- a few minutes before they left. But personally, I found the one trip I made an unpleasant experience: sealed in a narrow tube with windows about the size of a man's hand, passengers could barely converse with their seatmates for the deafening engine noise. Compared with the quiet, palatial luxury of first class in a 747, it was a chore to gain a few hours.

"The economics of Concorde never made sense and there was never a market for it," Ronald Davies, curator of air transport at Washington's National Air and Space Museum, once told me. "For every hour in the air, it spent 14 on the ground. And for every seat transported across the Atlantic, it had to carry one ton of fuel. It was so inefficient it's unbelievable." And all that money spent on the development of this prestige project? "Taxpayer-funded executive air transport. It's one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated."

BUT THE PERPETRATORS aren't on trial in Paris. Instead, it's Continental Airlines and two of its maintenance men, accused of manslaughter along with two hapless retired French former employees of the company that originally built Concorde and a former member of the French civil aviation authority.

Continental is the ideal scapegoat. Besides the offense, in French eyes, of being foreign, a small titanium strip fallen from a Continental plane taking off before the Concorde was found on the runway. This, French investigators -- often loyal former employees of Air France -- conveniently concluded, slashed the Concorde's tire and caused the accident. Case closed, with victims' families already paid generous financial settlements and sworn to silence.

That overlooks a few awkward things pointed out by Continental's lawyers and a dogged investigative reporter for a French TV channel. Like the plane being overloaded with baggage. Like a wheel spacer that, due to an Air France maintenance error, was missing from the left main gear, leaving it skewed. (Air France itself, whose careless maintenance was noted even by French investigators, is bumptiously suing Continental in the trial. Malicious gossips wonder why it's not a defendant instead.) Like testimony by a number of reliable eyewitnesses, including airport firemen and the veteran captain of Jacques Chirac's taxiing plane, that the Concorde caught fire several hundred yards before it could have struck the titanium strip.

But the most damning argument against Concorde is its record of near disasters. "French civil aviation authorities should have stopped Concorde service years ago," argues Olivier Metzner, Continental's lead lawyer. "They wanted to protect the image of France it projected." If the Paris disaster was Concorde's first and only fatal crash, facts emerging in the current trial make clear that many passengers are lucky to be alive today: from 1976 to 2000 they unwittingly survived no fewer than 57 tire-related incidents. Thirty-two blowouts damaged the aircraft's structure, engines, or hydraulics, and six resulted in penetration of one or more fuel tanks.

The worst, uncannily like the Paris crash, occurred in Washington on June 14, 1979. Air France Flight 054 to Paris blew two tires on its left main gear on takeoff from Dulles airport, hurling rubber and wheel rim debris at the left wing and engines. After a frantic passenger practically forced a crew member to look through his window at a 12-square-foot hole in the wing, the flight crew barely managed a landing at Dulles with Jet A-1 fuel spewing from a dozen holes in fuel tanks, engine damage, severed electrical cables, and loss of two out of three hydraulic systems.

The near-catastrophes continued. James B. King, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, wrote to his French counterpart on November 9, 1981, expressing his "serious concern" about "the repetitive nature of these incidents." Besides the tire problems, Concordes occasionally lost parts of their elevators and rudders in flight. In 1998 the Federal Aviation Agency, noting "an unsafe condition" might exist on the Olympus engines that could result in shutdown or fire, ordered special inspections. As the resulting study warned presciently, "A major technical event would probably end Concorde operation."

That event occurred 10 years ago this July. It ended not only the Concorde myth and the lives of more than 100 trusting people, but France's brief, costly moment of supersonic grandeur.

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.