Supersonic Transport Airliners: Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144
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Supersonic Transport Airliners: Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144

Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144 promised to deliver unparalleled speed in international travel, but were eventually beaten by more conventional designs.

In an age where air forces were receiving some of the newest increases in technology based upon the cutting-edge knowledge from electronics, aviation, engines, and supersonic flight, it was naturally not long before the advances would be implemented on civilian airliners. Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144 were England's, France's, and Russia's manifestation of new aviation technology. The two aircraft look remarkably similar. Pictured is the Russian design, the Tu-144, but it shared almost every major design innovation with Concorde, including a descending nose, a delta-shaped wing, similar turbojet intakes, and approximately the same performance characteristics. The Tu-144 flew for the first time in December 1968, and Concorde had its first flight in March of the next year. The Tu-144 was retired after about 55 flights, while Concorde enjoyed a 25-year long and eventually profitable career as a supersonic transport (SST).

The name Concorde came from the fusion of British and French design resources in the construction of the plane. It meant the same thing in both languages, although the British word "concord" obviously omitted an e, and referred to the agreement the countries signed in order to join forces and make the plane. Apparently, the French version of the word was thought a bit more stylish.

Both planes required cutting-edge research to make viable designs, and some interesting technological challenges were manifested by research into high-speed air travel. The aircraft technology present then made aircraft-grade aluminum the material of choice, as it was an economically viable solution. Materials like the titanium used in the SR-71 Blackbird made aircraft extremely expensive, and this was not an option for a commercial venture. The use of aluminum caused both Soviet and French and British researchers to arrive at Mach 2.2 as the speed of choice, because the temperature of the metal would degrade the airframe metal over time if a higher speed was reached. The speed was also eventually reduced to Mach 2 to provide an increased operating reliability.

The impetus for operating SST's was apparent at first glance: greater speed and fuel efficiency would enable airlines to increase the number of flights per given aircraft and reduce their fleet sizes, thus also decreasing the amount of money they would spend for maintenance. As the years went by, however, the advantages began to decrease. First, the SST research did not proceed in a vacuum, and subsonic engines had become much more efficient by this time thanks to a concept called bypass, which essentially increased air intake of the engines. This meant that subsonic aircraft became nominally equal in fuel usage to the Tu-144 and Concorde by the time they entered service. The Boeing 747 entered service with Pan American airlines in 1970, and it boasted a carrying capacity of about 400 passengers, which was good enough for four times as many as Concorde. While the aircraft might have used approximately the same amount of fuel over the same distance, the 747 had gotten more passengers to their destination. This capacity issue (unavoidable for the narrow fuselage necessary for a SST) would eventually signal the death knell of Concorde and all SST's.

For a long time, however, Concorde catered to a business market that did not mind higher ticket prices. The rush of speed and power on the aircraft became addictive for many frequent fliers of the aircraft, and its time to destination simply could not be beaten. The British Airways operation achieved a significant profit out of Concorde; the French got less of one. After the horrific flight 4590 crash in France and a declining domestic market, the aircraft were no longer viable and further service was cancelled in 2003. Environmental concerns related to the sonic boom emanating from the craft during acceleration also prevented the craft from operating at sonic speeds over land, which effectively killed its fuel efficiency in a number of routes. There are no plans to reinstate the aircraft, and this means that no SST's are currently in operation anywhere in the world. The SST design is not necessarily flawed, however, as recent advances in carbon-fiber airframes and engine efficiency make a viable airframe technically possible. Coupled with innovative design that would give the aircraft comparable subsonic efficiency, we could see SST's traversing the world's skies once again.


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Comments (4)

How very interesting! Too bad I'm out of votes but I surely enjoyed this post. Thanks :)

No problem! Glad you liked it.

An interesting and informative post.

Wayne Farley

Great post, I just wrapped up my version of the subject on my blog.