How Concorde Was Able To Fly Supersonic

Today marks a very special anniversary in aviation history. 52 years ago today, on March 2nd, 1969, Aérospatiale and BAC’s iconic supersonic airliner known as ‘Concorde’ took to the skies for the first time. While the aircraft was a symbol of luxury that only the wealthiest customers and businesses could afford to travel on, its futuristic design and supersonic capabilities inspired fans worldwide. Let’s take a look at what exactly made it capable of sustained supersonic flight.

British Airways Concorde
Concorde is undoubtedly one of the most iconic airliners to ever grace the world’s skies. Photo: Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons

How Concorde came to be

Concorde was the product of a British-French collaboration between manufacturers BAC and Aérospatiale. Its origins date back to more than a decade before its first flight. The first meeting of Welsh aeronautical engineer Sir Morien Bedford Morgan’s committee formed to study the concept of supersonic transport (SST) took place in February 1954. It delivered its first reports to Arnold Hall of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) a year later.

Meanwhile, in the late-1950s, France’s Sud-Aviation was planning its own SST aircraft, known as the Super-Caravelle. After it became apparent that this design was similar to the British concept, the British-French partnership that produced Concorde was formed in the early-1960s. By the end of the decade, the aircraft had made its first test flight.

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Concorde and Tu-144
The Technik Museum Sinsheim in Germany is home to examples of both Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Flying

Supersonic competitors

However, by the time Concorde took to the skies on March 2nd, 1969, its Soviet competitor, the Tupolev Tu-144, had already done so the previous December. It was thought that a US design, the larger and faster Boeing 2707, would also provide competition on the supersonic market. However, Boeing canceled this in 1971 before its prototypes could be completed.

Of the two supersonic designs that did make it to production, Concorde went on to have a far longer and more successful career than its Soviet counterpart. After the first Concorde prototype made its maiden test flight out of Toulouse in March 1969, the first British-built example did so out of Bristol just over a month later. However, supersonic test flights did not take place until October that year. But what exactly allowed Concorde to fly so fast?

Concorde first flight
An archive photo of Concorde’s first flight out of Toulouse, France on March 2nd, 1969. Photo: André Cros via Wikimedia Commons

Wing design

Almost everything about Concorde’s appearance is visually striking, and vastly different from subsonic airliners both back then and now. Perhaps one of the most conspicuous aspects of its design was its wings. These were known as an ogival delta, referring to the ogee curve on its leading edge that differed from the straight-edged designs on fighter jets.

The reason for the delta wing’s popularity among military aircraft is that its design results in numerous advantages that are conducive to high-altitude supersonic flight. As such, Concorde made use of this design to profit in a similar way. For example, the wings were thinner than on contemporary swept-wing designs, which reduced its drag.

Concorde Duxford
Concorde’s striking ogival delta-shaped wings instantly set it apart from contemporary subsonic airliners. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Flying

Furthermore, the shockwaves that Concorde produced while flying at supersonic speeds resulted in high pressure below the wings. This provided substantial extra lift without increasing drag. This way key not just in terms of speed, but also in altitude. The additional lift helped Concorde to reach significantly greater heights than subsonic airliners. Here, it could profit from the thinner air’s minimal drag to fly supersonically in the most efficient manner possible.

Engine technology

The engines that were found below Concorde’s striking ogival delta wings were also crucial in granting Concorde its legendary supersonic abilities. The aircraft boasted four Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 Mk610 turbojets. These were based on the Rolls-Royce Olympus engines found on the RAF’s Avro Vulcan strategic bombers.

Avro Vulcan Duxford
Concorde’s engines were derived from those of the Avro Vulcan strategic bomber, as seen at the center of the photograph. Photo: Jake Hardiman – Simple Flying

Much like Concorde, the Vulcan flew at high altitudes, and sported a delta wing design. Its engines, originally known as the Bristol B.E. 10, were among the world’s first two-spool axial-flow turbojets. Otherwise known as the Olympus, they first ran in May 1950. This came just four months after the Pratt & Whitney J57 became the first engine of this kind in January that year. Concorde’s Olympus 593 engines also featured reheat capabilities in the form of afterburners. This technology provided increased thrust on takeoff and during supersonic flight.

When running ‘dry’ (without the afterburners), each of Concorde’s four engines produced 31,000 lbf of thrust. However, with the afterburners on, otherwise known as running ‘wet,’ this increased by more than 20%, totaling 38,050 lbf of thrust per engine.

Concorde was a comparatively light aircraft, with a 185-tonne MTOW compared to 333 tonnes for the Boeing 747-100. As such, its engine technology made a big difference in allowing it to ‘supercruise’ at more than twice the speed of sound. Concorde would typically cruise at around 2,158 km/h (1,165 knots), just below its Mach 2.04 maximum speed.

British Airways Concorde Taking Off
Concorde was prohibited from flying supersonic over land due to the noise pollution from its sonic boom. Photo: Getty Images

Special paint

Even details as seemingly minor as the paint used on Concorde were key factors in enhancing its performance. Specifically, Concorde’s white paint was deliberately highly reflective. This allowed it to deflect some of the heat that arose during supersonic flight.

The ability to deflect this heat was crucial in preventing overheating and damage to its aluminum structure. As such, Concorde was able to cruise at supersonic speeds for extended periods of time without compromising its safety or structural integrity. For this reason, a promotional blue, Pepsi-liveried Concorde could only fly supersonic for 20 minutes at a time.

Air France Concorde Pepsi
F-BTSD in its short-lived Pepsi livery. Photo: Richard Vandervord via Wikimedia Commons

Adjustable nose

Concorde’s adjustable, drooped nose was also a factor in enhancing its performance, both while cruising and landing. As is evident from the side profile above, when its nose was pointing straight away from the cockpit, it gave the aircraft an incredible streamlined front profile with minimal surface area and, subsequently, drag. This, in turn, facilitated higher speeds.

However, when landing, Concorde had a very high angle of attack. Had the nose remained in the pointed configuration while touching down, its pilots would have had minimal visibility. The same could also be said for taxi and takeoff operations. As such, its nose could be lowered by an angle of 12.5° to improve visibility before landing. This was reduced to 5° on touchdown to avoid potential damage as the nose wheel hit the ground.

Concorde Landing Farnborough
Concorde landing at Farnborough in 1974, with its nose drooped in the trademark manner. Photo: Steve Fitzgerald via Wikimedia Commons

The end of an era

Overall, six prototypes and 14 production examples of Concorde were produced between 1965 and 1979. The type entered commercial service on January 21st, 1976, and enjoyed a glittering 27-year career. However, sadly, all good things must come to an end.

The crash of Air France flight 4590 in Paris in July 2000 saw the aircraft’s safety reputation take a significant hit. Then, the following year, the 9/11 attacks prompted an industry-wide downturn among commercial aviation. These factors, alongside rising maintenance costs, rendered Concorde economically unviable for British Airways and Air France.

Concorde made its final commercial flight on October 24th, 2003. This brought to an end an awe-inspiring era of supersonic air travel, the like of which has not been seen since. Concorde’s fastest transatlantic crossing (New York-London) clocked in at a staggering two hours, 52 minutes, and 59 seconds. It will be interesting to see whether future supersonic designs will ever be able to match, or even beat, this incredible achievement.

What are your memories of Concorde? Were you ever lucky enough to fly on the legendary British-French supersonic airliner? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!