Category: Opinion

Opinion letters
by Various Authors

The original race to build a supersonic was rather interesting.

Story on the Concorde
by Richard R. Tryon
Drafted in March of 1999 and updated in March of 2000

Concorde’s Greatest wonder...

Recent news stories around the world reported on the 30th birthday of the first flight of the Anglo-French built supersonic jetliner the Concorde. One written by Geoffrey Thomas of the West Australian newspaper in Perth, Australia was typical in its representations about the controversial, to some, airplane that has enjoyed an unprecedented success in term of reliable service and outstanding achievements.

But, it was not allowed to be mass produced. Only 16 were built and only 13 are in service.The production record set have not been allowed to expand in terms of quantity of these planes, thanks to a variety of governmental responses to those who protested such concepts as noise and possible damage to the stratosphere.

That supersonic noise might be more dangerous to our collective health than say, boom boxes in autos that blast noise in our streets, is questionable. While leaking freon that may have a slight impact on nature's inexorable ability to change the world’s temperature with such explosive force as is found in a volcano, the Concorde is not a serious threat to nature.

Two more important items of real significance are overlooked by most of the stories that note this birthday. One involves the Russian entrant into the “race” (to them) to prove a superior technology to that of their supposed inferior capitalist opponents. It was called the Concordski, otherwise known as the Tupelov 144. Their plane actually was rushed into service shortly before the Concorde was certified safe for passengers; but, it suffered a fatal flaw. The Russians did not have the sophistication in computer technology that was provided by Sir Robert Hanson of England, whose company designed and built the triple redundant computer driven flight control system. I was able to sit with him on a flight from Washington, D.C. to London in May of 1980.

He explained to me how the Concorde could not be flown routinely by a pilot at 60,000 feet at Mach 2.0 or twice the speed of sound at that altitude! If the aircraft pilot gets the nose only 2 degrees high of the horizon, it will suffer a high speed stall and cause a jolting fall until it recovers the needed speed to sustain level flight; if it gets 2 degrees nose lower than the horizon, then it will speed up and cause wear of the surface skin of the plane from excess heat of the friction against the thin and cold air at that altitude. Only a computer, matched with sophisticated sensing equipment and an ability to control the flight control surfaces can keep the plane in level flight. Sir Robert’s career of 30 years made that possible! If he still lives, it is a wonderful testimonial to his skill. The Russians lost not only that battle, but the cold war as well.

The second point to observe is that the pioneering work that made the Concorde a reality is still practical, albeit a more expensive choice than the wide bodied jets that carry so many more people, and it could be replicated today with greater passenger capacity at an affordable investment cost, if governments would sanction a program that presented acceptable solutions to the matters of noise and pollution as contrasted to what is acceptable to man and nature as seen from a rational perspective. Unfortunately, we live in an age of interventionist governments, each of which claims to be doing its best to “save us from ourselves” and with such an attitude in an age of civil liberties, it is hard to see a way for politicians to be willing to open the pathway for innovation without it being done in the name of social good for the masses.

Nobody yet has demanded that the masses move at supersonic speeds, but it should be reasonable to say that a large enough customer base is growing that such a development could make sense, if a way can be found to solve the political question. Cutting the 16 hour flight from Sydney to Perth to S. Africa to 8 hours would be well received by quite a few travelers. So too with a lot of long over water flights.

As of March of 2000 nothing has yet been reported to indicate any change in the Concorde story. It just keeps on flying.

Additional comment on Aug. 8, 2000

Several weeks have passed since the tragic accident in Paris, France where one of the 13 flying Concordes crashed shortly after take-off. The fiery crash killed 109 people on the plane and 4 more on the ground.

Initial speculation on the cause related to the idea that the pilot had required a mechanical repair that involved the engine thrust reversers, used to slow the plane on landing, on the #2 portside engine which somehow caught fire on take-off. The speculation, of course, wanted to allow that the work for the repair was the cause of the crash.

Shortly thereafter, words were printed to suggest that the real cause was probably related to exploding tires on the landing gear on the same side of the plane. One report noted the discovery of a 16" long metal piece on the runway that may have been there just before the speeding jet reached the point of rotation for flight.

At the point where this rotation begins, there is probably no way for the pilot to abort the take-off and expect to stop without ending up in an explosive disaster at the end of the runway. His only option it to somehow try to control a crash away from the runway or at some other runway. So, the most feared type of disaster training probably presented a flying problem for which there is no solution. It is one that gives little, if any chance of survival for the flight characteristics of almost every plane. Certainly this one is virtually uncontrollable when power is off on one side, speed is barely above the minimal to fly and landing gear are dragging the ship down.

The British fleet of seven planes was grounded for a day and then put back into service. The French are taking a more deliberate time to gain further evidence to show that this was a freak accident for which the plane's design did not create any excessive contribution.

We hope that this conclusion will be the one found by the French to be the controlling one.

November 11, 2000 update

With all of the other news of the world to take our minds off of the magnificient Concorde, the general public is almost totally unaware that nothing has been done to put the Concorde back into service. The truth seems to be now rather obvious to all who want to speculate.

The French authorities called for a thorough review of the cause and therefore the need for a study to determine what might be considered to make the plane be subject to a new certification of airworthiness. Some speculation at the time noted that perhaps new material would be needed to protect the fuel tanks from a repeat of the accident that caused the only serious failure of a Concorde in all of the years of use.

What was not said would be more profound. The Concorde was not a money making machine, although it was not going to cause failure of any great economic consequence to the airlines that proudly flew it. But, it had little future remaining in its product life and so the temporary suspension became the 'kiss of death'for several obvious reasons. Management avoided making the decision. It was made for them.

First, the crews able to fly it are already disbanded and the chance of recruiting the same folks back into the service of a bird now even closer to retirement is remote.
The maintenance crews, spare part inventory, and specialists needed to keep such a plane in service are already dispersed. So, even if the French recertified the plane tomorrow and said that the freak accident should not have caused anyone to fear using it, it is just too late to put the team back together again.

What will happen to those magnificient birds? Some 12 remain reasonably ready to fly, but why and to where? They are most likely destined for museums or monuments. But getting them anywhere may be easier said than done, unless they can be towed from one side of the airport to another!

What a shame that such a brilliant success story has to have such an inglorious ending. Thousands of aviation enthusiasts will continue to remember the image of the beautiful Concorde either lifting off or landing or even speeding along the course charted for it. For me, I shall always recall meeting Sir Robert Hanson and seeing the sun rise in the West, courtesy of the Concorde. Perhaps one day a new plane will be designed and built to become the Concorde II.

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