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Time machine

Passengers would leave London’s Heathrow Airport at 10:30am aboard Concorde and arrive in New York at 09:30am the same day - business people still had an entire working day ahead of them. looks at the history of one of the most iconic airliners of all time.


Perhaps the most ingenious element of the aircraft's design was its droop nose, which enabled the pilots to see the runway ahead while on the approach to land. Air France image

1969 was an important year in commercial aviation history - on March 2, the Anglo-French Aerospatiale/British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) Concorde took to the air from Toulouse in the South of France just under a month after Boeing’s giant 747 had made its first flight in the US. Both aircraft were destined to become icons of their age despite obvious design differences; they raised long-haul travel to new heights in terms of comfort and, especially in Concorde’s case, speed. Although sales of Concorde never mirrored those of the B747, which went on to become the most successful wide-bodied aircraft programme ever, Concorde’s position as the western world’s sole supersonic passenger airliner meant it was to enjoy a period of novelty value and popularity with the public.

French prototype Concorde 001 F-WTSS on its second flight flanked by a Meteor, March 8 1969. Key Archive
People had never travelled at twice the speed of sound before. Concorde’s name still evokes a sense of grandeur and excellence, and was reportedly chosen by a BAC executive in a discussion with his family sometime in the early 1960s. Glancing through a thesaurus, he found ‘concord’ and believed that, as a synonym for agreement and harmony, it was perfect for the project. The name Concorde was adopted, with BAC suggesting the additional ‘e’ stood for England, Europe and Excellence.

Back in the 1950s, executives and engineers in the British aircraft industry had recognised that a supersonic airliner with transatlantic range was both highly desirable and technically feasible. They wished to build on the success of military supersonic fighter designs and the progress that was being made in the transatlantic airliner market with the development of the Vickers VC-10. However, by the start of the 1960s it was clear that the UK could ill afford the project’s development costs. At the time, France was the only other European nation to have designed and built supersonic (military) aircraft and, at the 1961 Paris Air Salon, Sud Aviation had displayed a delta-winged supersonic design called the Super Caravelle, a project that had been initiated in 1957.

The first British produced Concorde, G-BSST, took to the air for the first time at Filton on April 9, 1969 just over a month after its French counterpart. Key Archive
In a bid to find an industry partner for the supersonic project, an Anglo-French ministerial meeting was held in September 1961 to generate some political momentum for the possibility of a collaborative project. This was given further impetus when General de Gaulle became the new French President and a Conservative government was elected in the UK. De Gaulle wanted to pursue the project, while the UK was keen to have the French on its side to help it gain entry to the European Economic Community.

In 1962 an intergovernmental agreement was reached (with no get-out clauses), paving the way for joint development of a long-range and medium-range supersonic aircraft. BAC and Sud Aviation (later to become Aerospatiale) were to construct the airframe in a 40:60 work share and Bristol Siddeley and Snecma would build the engines. The first flight was pencilled in for 1966, with aircraft due to roll off the production line from 1968. The development costs were estimated at £150-170 million, but such a revolutionary concept brought with it numerous challenges.

G-BSST in its element during an early test flight. Key Archive
The aircraft had to be able to reach Mach 2+, but still be capable of an acceptable landing approach speed. At Mach 1.15 and above (dependent on atmospheric conditions), the aircraft would create a double sonic boom, so its structure had to be strong enough to survive pressurisation yet light enough to meet range requirements. The engines had to be efficient at Mach 2, but they could not be too thirsty or noisy – after all this was a commercial passenger aircraft, not a military bomber.

Political considerations only added to these problems, particularly as there had to be joint production centres at Filton in Bristol and Toulouse in France. So when Concorde construction started in 1965 the finished product represented a series of design compromises, which effectively killed off the medium-range version because there was very little margin for error in the range/payload calculation. The original plan to have six Olympus 593/3 engines was dropped in favour of just four. The resultant weight reduction made it possible to increase the wingspan to 83ft (25m). Perhaps the most ingenious element was the droop nose, which enabled the pilots to see the runway ahead while on the approach to land. But the basic objective – to carry a payload of at least 20,000lb (9,070kg) with 100 passengers at Mach 2.2 from Europe to New York against the worst possible headwinds – remained the same.

G-BOAD performs a low flypast at the 1984 Duxford Airshow. Note the early '80s style British Airways livery. Key Archive
Seven years after conception, on March 2, 1969, the French prototype Concorde 001 thundered down the runway at Toulouse with Andre Turcat and Jacques Guignard at the controls. On April 9 it was the turn of the first British-built Concorde, 002, which landed at its flight test base at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, with Brian Trubshaw and John Cochrane in the cockpit. The first pre-production aircraft Concorde 01 was rolled out at Filton in 1971. Testing of the prototypes had demonstrated that several design modifications should be made, including most importantly the lengthening the fuselage by 8ft 6in (2.59m). In addition, the rear bulkhead was moved further aft, making room for 128 passengers in a single first-class cabin configuration with a 34in (86.4cm) pitch.

The aircraft's flight deck was very cramped compared with modern day airliners and crewed by a team of two pilots and a flight engineer. Key Archive
In order to gain Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval (which was not granted until 1979), the cabin windows were also slightly reduced in size. Externally, larger main-wheels were fitted, and the angle of the nose droop was increased to 17 and a half degrees. Following the prototype’s first flight in 1969 another 5,000 flight test hours were flown (2,000 supersonic), using seven different airframes, before the aircraft received its French and UK Certificates of Airworthiness in the final quarter of 1975. In the meantime, the project had overcome numerous hurdles –political, economic (including the 1973 oil crisis) and technical. Development costs were said to have risen to £500 million to each of the partners on either side of the English Channel. The airlines had expected to place the new airliner into service in April 1974, and encouragingly options were at one time held by 16 customers on 74 delivery positions, which included the then US majors Pan Am and TWA. Unfortunately for the UK and French taxpayers, who were effectively financing the development of Concorde, delays in the production and worsening economic conditions meant these options were not converted into orders and only 20 Concordes were built, 14 of which entered passenger service, half with Air France and half with British Airways (BA).

The view only the rich or famous could normally afford! Key Archive
In June 1974 Air France pitted Concorde against the B747 in a direct race - the B747 departed Orly Airport in Paris at 08:22 on the morning of June 17 bound for Boston. At the same time one of the airline’s Concorde fleet took off from Boston’s Logan Airport bound for Paris. When Concorde passed the B747, albeit at twice the altitude and flying in the opposite direction, it had already covered 2,400miles (3,862km), the B747 barely covering 600miles (966km). The Concorde landed at Paris, spent an hour on the ground while it was refuelled, and took off for its return flight to Boston, where it arrived eleven minutes before the B747!

Finally in 1976 revenue passenger services began. On January 21 millions of people across the world tuned in their television sets to watch the simultaneous departures of Air France and BA’s first commercial Concorde flights, and the industry’s first supersonic passenger services. The BA aircraft, Concorde 206, G-BOAA, departed London/Heathrow at 11:40 GMT, while the Air France example, Concorde 205, F-BVFA left Paris at 12:40 local.

Neither of these inaugural services actually flew to the destination for which the aircraft had been originally intended, New York, as the US Government had still refused to grant approval for Concorde’s landing rights on environmental grounds. BA’s flight landed in Bahrain while Air France’s arrived in Dakar in Senegal before continuing its journey on to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. However, the following month the US granted landing rights and, on May 24, both Concordes landed simultaneously in Washington. It was to be more than a year before Concorde appeared at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport though, with Air France performing the honours in October 1977 – both BA and the French carrier commenced flights the following month.

G-BOAA sporting its temporary American registration in the early 1980s. Key Archive
Although Air France and BA were the only customers for the aircraft, the two European flag carriers also operated the type in partnership with other airlines. One of these was US carrier Braniff Airways, which crewed Concorde services from Washington to Dallas as an extension of Air France and BA’s transatlantic flights from Europe. No aircraft were actually painted in Braniff colours, although each aircraft had to be changed to US markings for the subsonic domestic flight. The arrangement only lasted a short time (January 1979 to May 1980) because of high costs and falling passenger demand. Another carrier was Singapore Airlines, which jointly operated Concorde flights between Bahrain and Singapore in partnership with BA. Difficulties securing over-flight traffic rights resulted in this agreement only operating for a short period between 1979 and 1980 although a couple of Concordes were painted with Singapore Airlines titles on the port side, retaining BA markings on the starboard.

G-BOAG in classic 'Speedbird' livery up where it belongs. Key Archive
In a boost to Concorde’s flagging commercial fortunes, in 1979 the Conservative government in the UK wrote off the £160 million debt associated with the project, thus enabling BA to operate the aircraft at a profit. Yet it was still estimated in 1980, the year Concorde production finally ceased, that over £900 million had been spent by the UK on the supersonic jet. The French Government took on a higher proportion of Air France’s operating costs in return for having a say on which routes the aircraft operated, and in 1984 the service became profitable, although the route network was cut to just a single destination – New York.

G-BOAA made a symbolic journey through London in April 2004 as it was moved to its new home to the Museum of Flight at East Lothian in Scotland. Key Archive
Aside from a few rudder problems and cracked external windows in the early 1990s, Concorde proved to be one of the most reliable airliners ever put into service. Cracks were discovered in the wings of a few planes in July 2000, but these were deemed not critical and the aircraft was later given a life extension until 2009, with a possible further period to 2015. However, the tragic crash of Air France’s F-BTSC shortly after departure from Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport on July 25, 2000 sparked a chain of events that ultimately would result in the end of the supersonic era.

Concorde was grounded shortly after the accident, following the suspension of its C of A by both the French and UK authorities. Thereafter, months of modification work took place, mainly involving lining the fuel tanks with rubber, and although Air France and BA re-commenced passenger services in November 2001 it was not long before it was announced that both carriers would retire the type from service and that Airbus, which had inherited design authority for the model, would no longer support them. Air France suspended flights in June 2003 and BA in October the same year, and their fleets of aircraft were dispersed to museums across the world.

There is no doubt that Concorde represented a triumph for the UK and French aerospace industries. It may not have been a commercial success, but remains one of the technological achievements of the 20th century and its international development, the first of its kind in this sector, laid the foundations for the development of Airbus, now Europe’s largest plane maker.

Extracted from an article first published in Airliner World magazine March 2009

Filed Under Commercial Aviation Features.


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dean russell said on the 6-Aug-2010 at 15:23

A truely brilliant plane,never flew in this awesome aircraft,seen it many times at Heathrow and brought a tear to my eyes to see her on final approach,still miss her when I go to LHR,this is one aircraft the Americans could not build and possibly one of the last true designs,drawn by man and without the aid of computers .R.I.P Concorde 1969-2003

Fordman1 said on the 24-Dec-2010 at 14:58

Boeing etc could obviously make such a plane. The question is would it be financially viable for a company to build it. No is the answer unless it had billions of government taxpayer funds to do it, like the English and French did. Big accomplishment. Boeing had the correct business plan to make the 747, and it is still the leader. The A380 will never reach the build numbers of the 747, not even in 100 years. Nor is the a380 more economical to fly because it never has seating at full capacity, the only way it can justify its existence.

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