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Concorde

The Aerospatiale-BAC Concorde supersonic transport (SST) is the only supersonic airliner in service. Only 20 planes were ever built; 12 remained in commercial service as of April 2003. On May 31, 2003 the final flight of an Air France Concorde took place. British Airways plans to retire its Concorde fleet at the end of October.

Concorde reaches a speed of Mach 2.04 and a cruise altitude of 60,000 feet (18,000 meters) with a delta wing configuration and an evolution of the afterburner-equipped engines originally developed for the Avro Vulcan strategic bomber.


British Airways Concorde.
Larger version

In a 1960s joint venture between France and Great Britain, the countries' respective national aerospace companies Aerospatiale and British Aircraft Corporation set out to design and build the world's first supersonic passenger transport. The consortium secured orders for over 100 new airliners from the leading airlines of the era. Pan Am, BOAC and Air France were the launch customers with six Concordes each.

Concorde 001 took off for the first test flight on March 2, 1969 and the first supersonic flight followed on October 1. The flight program of the first development aircraft progressed as planned, but trouble was brewing on the commercial side of the project. A combination of factors, including the 1970s oil crisis, acute financial difficulties of the partner airlines, a spectacular failure of the competing Tupolev Tu-144, and environmental issues such as sonic boom noise and ozone depletion in the stratosphere caused a sudden cascade of order cancellations. Air France and British Airways ended up as the only buyers for the plane. All the unsold aircraft and parts were later sold to them for a nominal price.

Both airlines operated demonstration and test flights to various destinations from 1974 onwards. Sheduled flights started on January 21, 1976 on the London-Bahrain and Paris-Rio routes. The United States Congress had just banned Concorde landings in the US, preventing launch on the coveted transatlantic routes.


Air France Concorde

When the US ban was lifted in February, New York quickly followed by banning Concorde locally. Left with little choice on the destination, AF and BA started transatlantic services to Washington D.C. on May 24. Finally, in late 1977, the noise concerns of New York residents gave way to the advantages of Concorde traffic, and scheduled service from Paris and London to New York's John F. Kennedy airport started on November 22, 1977.

The average flight time on either route is just under 3.5 hours. Both Air France and British Airways continue to operate the New York services daily. Additionally, Concorde flies to Barbados during the winter holiday season and, occasionally, to charter destinations such as Rovaniemi, Finland.

Concorde was considered to be the safest airliner in the world as measured by passenger-deaths per passenger-mile, until a plane crashed during take-off in Paris on July 25, 2000 that killed 113. As a result, all Concorde flights were shut down for an investigation into the cause of the crash and possible remedies. After safety updates on the aircraft, both routes were re-opened on November 7, 2001.

The investigation into the crash determined that a scrap of titanium metal that fell onto the runway from an earlier Continental Airlines DC-10 flight punctured a tire in the latter stages of takeoff. Chunks of shredded tire penetrated the skin of the aircraft's wing, rupturing a loaded fuel tank. A tremendous fire rapidly ensued, disabling the aircraft, which then stalled and crashed into a hotel just miles from the airport, killing all aboard and four persons on the ground.

On April 10, 2003 British Airways and Air France simultaneously announced that they would retire the Concorde later that year. They cited low passenger numbers following the July 25, 2000 crash that never fully recovered and rising maintenance costs. That same day Sir Richard Branson offered to buy British Airways' Concordes for 1 for the use of his Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Air France made its final Concorde landing in the United States in New York City from Paris on May 30, 2003. Trucks sprayed arcs of water above the plane on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy airport. The plane made its final commercial flight back to Paris the following day. British Airways planned to retire the aircraft later in the year.

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