Two decades since supersonic legend stopped flying, we’re bringing you our exclusive 2003 review in full
Just over 20 years ago, Concorde completed its final flight. To celebrate, we’re looking back to our 2003 Christmas road test.
Join Autocar as we get up close and personal with one of the world’s finest ever aircraft, featuring expertise from one of its most seasoned pilots.
When it comes to driving in a straight line, few men have had so many short-lived, high-acceleration journeys, all planned to end abruptly at 240mph without sustaining injury.
Such has been the preserve of that small band of chaps (and one chap-ess) whose privilege it was to drive a 185-tonne, 10-wheeled, three-legged skateboard down the tarmac’s centre-line.
The journey doesn’t stop at 240mph, of course, even when the tarmac runs out because on reaching sufficient speeds they become airborne.
That 30-second tarmac sprint requires full power from the four Rolls-Royce Olympus 593 engines, boosted by additional re-heat. In a car, acceleration can be quick, punchy and exciting.
This is all that and more. Not just because the speed continues to increase, but the acceleration rate too. As the forward speed builds up, the engines become turbocharged, the thrust squeezing the pilot’s dense seat-back padding down to a mere wafer.
Design and engineering
The wonder of Concorde is that no one on board notices when – without a murmur or ripple – it accelerates through the sound barrier, past the 1000mph mark, to its supersonic cruise speed of 1350mph. Only the display panel tells the paying public what’s happening In addition to the mph and Mach number.
Passengers are told the altitude (up To 60,000ft), outside air temperature (generally around minus 60 degrees celsius) and distance remaining to their destination.
On the flight deck, the crew has all the usual aircraft instruments, plus a few more one would only expect to find in a military fighter. (Incidentally, just like the original Mini, there’s a simple button for the starter.)
In addition to a central bank of instruments relating to engine performance, each pilot has their own Machmeter, plus an ‘angle of attack gauge that shows how the airflow impinges on the wing.
There is the usual control for raising and lowering the undercarriage (ergonomically shaped like a wheel) and an additional lever to lower the visor heat shield and to droop the nose for take-off and landing.
In common with cars, Concorde is also missing the controls for airbrakes and flaps, neither of which are fitted to the supersonic aircraft. The complete wing structure (save where the wheels sit) is a fuel vessel. There are also two big under-floor fuel tanks and another one in the pointed tail cone.
The flight engineer’s instrument panel is an awe-inspiring sight. At first glance, one would be forgiven for thinking this aircraft needed three flight engineers to operate it all. But, like such professionals, they manage every system on the aircraft from this panel while also monitoring whether the pilots are doing their jobs properly.
There are 30-odd switches and levers for the fuel system alone, and 13 fuel tanks conveniently numbered – in typically eccentric British fashion – from one to 11.
Performance and brakes
If you thought a 250,000bhp take-off was something special, you have only to wait a short while (a little over three hours, in general) for the amazing experience of landing.
Concorde’s ability to fly slowly enough to use ordinary airport runways for take-off and landing depends mainly on the high nose attitude (and angle of attack) used at slow speeds.
At this attitude, the pilots face uphill and cannot see the runway because the aircraft nose is in the way. The solution is simple: move the visor away and store it inside the nose cone and then lower the nose out of the pilot’s way, thus giving the aircraft its classic praying mantis appearance.
By this time the passengers will have been fed and watered and will be circling the planet at one mile every 2.75 seconds.
The deceleration through the speed of sound is an innocuous affair and passengers get no hint of slowing from super- to subsonic travel. The rumble of passing through the 300uph zone reminds one that the world of air travel isn’t all as smooth as Concorde life.
Then, with wheels down and legs extended – the legs have to be retracted by 10 inches to fit in the fuselage – the aircraft touches down. At this point, it weighs a little over 100 tonnes, 80 tonnes of fuel having been used since take-off.
Landing speed is usually about 175mph. Reverse thrust helps to slow the aircraft, but the dozen parallel carbon disc brakes on each of the eight main wheels are something to experience.
The pilots wear an extra strap, which runs from the seat-belt buckle to the floor to stop them ‘submarining’ under the lap strap during deceleration. Passengers love the exhilarating roar of the engines in reverse and the rapid deceleration from the wheel brakes.
After the teeth-chattering and phenomenally noisy tarmac sprint, wing-borne travel is bliss. A spot of rumbling occurs at speeds below 300mph due to the way in which lift on the delta wings is created.
However, once this speed is passed, the aircraft assumes an almost sailplane-like smoothness. Climb rates greatly exceed those of all conventional airliners and other planes seen from Concorde’s windows appear to be travelling backwards – fast.
Concorde regulars have been known to say there’s ‘no point’ to a subsonic aeroplane, but this is probably confusing its right to exist with its shape.
Above the weather, and in the area of little wind called the troposphere, there is only the odd, infrequent and tiny rumble to indicate that the outside temperature has changed a degree or so.
There’s no sensation of speed and the 300-mile view to the horizon affords not only a panorama of 250,000 square miles but also the contrast between the milky blue sky below the horizon and the vista of deep blue to almost purple-black of outer space.
Few are lucky enough to witness this stunning sight, apart from some military pilots, astronauts and, of course, Concorde voyagers.
Handling is impressive. The rate and accuracy of response to the pilot’s control inputs are amazing for an airliner and outshine even some military aircraft.
The fingertip ease with which the machine can be manoeuvred at all stages of flight is another testament to the genius of the designers and flight-testing teams of the early 1970s.
The modern Airbus is often credited with being the first fly-by-wire airliner. Not so. Concorde beat Airbus by 20 years. It sports fly-by-wire technology for the flying controls and the throttles.
As a result, no electrical interference from other systems can be allowed while in flight – a glitch when manoeuvring 130 tonnes at 1350mph could be potentially disastrous.
Like many luxury cars, Concorde is fitted with cruise control, in the form of an ‘auto-throttle’ – dial in the speed and it will keep the airspeed to within a couple of mph – normally used while flying, although the throttles can be manually operated if necessary.
Comfort, safety and equipment
Is Concorde comfortable to drive? And what is it like for the passengers? To the first question, the answer is – to a degree – yes.
It’s fantastic fun and the very best of big boy’s toys to play with, albeit a very demanding one to fly smoothly and accurately.
Just as you’d expect to smell Connolly leather in a Bentley or a Rolls, you’d expect a military fighter to have an aura all of its own. Concorde’s heritage and character are immediately apparent when entering the flight deck.
It smells like a military fast jet – which is exactly what it is, of course – that just happens to have 100 extra seats tagging along behind.
The amazingly complicated flight crew seats provide a much harder ride than any German production saloon and are likely to induce a certain numbness after a three-hour flight.
The correct seating position is adjusted using an eye-aiming device, which looks more like it was made for Woolworths as a kid’s toy.
Once in position, your head is within a fraction of the roof and the outer shoulder is marginally clear of the side window.
The two pilots’ shoulders are just far enough apart for the Night engineer to poke his head forward to read an instrument, shout a message or, in the manner preferred by most pilots, to pass the tea or the roast chicken forward.
The flight deck width was declared some while ago to be one inch wider than the interior of a 3.5-litre Rover.
It’s not easy to get in and out of the pilot’s seat and even with the help of several electric seat motors and a complicated system of single and double switches, levers and locks, you have to be fairly flexible both in mind and body to assume the driving position.
Once in. you’re there for the duration which, fortunately, is not that long – a four-hour fuel system sees to that.
The two-by-two passenger seating is covered in deep blue leather, and divided by a central aisle. Legroom is better than other four-abreast configurations and seats have a foot-rest and reclining facility, plus a fold-down table which would do the best MPVs credit.
When lowered, the table sits four degrees adrift of the floor angle so that your champagne stays level in the glass during a supersonic cruise, when the aircraft is flying four degrees nose-up.
Concorde provides excellent facilities, ranging from the small galleys to the even smaller washrooms. But while the galleys turn out superb meals and line wines – thanks to the expertise of the cabin crew – the washrooms allow for very little to be accomplished in comfort.
Any attempt at joining the 10-mile-high club would require an advanced contortionist’s course, followed by a visit to a chiropractor.
It’s worth pointing out that anyone other than a Concorde passenger wanting to sit 11 miles above the Earth would have to be equipped rather differently.
Mandatory would be boots, thermal underwear, a flight suit, g-suit. crash helmet and oxygen mask, while sitting on a seat powered by rockets in case things get a little too exciting.
Sipping champagne and eating haute cuisine while travelling faster than a rifle bullet in shirt-sleeve comfort is the sole preserve of that elite lucky enough to have flown in Concorde.
‘If you need to ask how much fuel it uses, you can’t afford one,’ comes to mind. The rate at which Concorde uses fuel simply taxiing on the ground is greater than that of a Boeing 777 cruising.
At take-off power, the fuel burn is 90 tonnes per hour (the tanks only hold 96 tonnes in total). In supersonic cruise, the rate drops to a mere 20 tonnes per hour, which means that Concorde is relatively efficient at cruising speed.
Having said all of this, it’s worth noting that Concorde uses 80 tonnes of fuel to cross from London to New York, while older Boeing 747s use around 75 tonnes.
The time saved by flying Concorde, along with the low stress, lack of dehydration and jet lag proves that you never get anything for nothing. But sometimes in life, the price paid for the advantage gained is clearly worth it.
Concorde’s running costs are high – thanks to 1960s technology it is at least twice as expensive to maintain as a modern Boeing or Airbus airliner.
The aircraft systems themselves are so complicated that fault-finding and rectification can take hours in engineering time.
A highly experienced team of ground engineers, some of whom have been with the aircraft since its test-flight days, along with a massive holding of spare parts (none of which fit any other aircraft) mean that engineering costs are very high indeed.
Despite this, before the Air France Concorde disaster in Paris in July 2000, the aircraft based on this side of the Channel were turning in millions of pounds in profit every year.
We all know you can’t buy one. But this doesn’t mean you wouldn’t want one. There’s no other machine so beautiful to look at and so graceful, so purposeful. If it looks right, it certainly flies right.
The magical shape of the wing, the sleek fuselage, with its unique pointed nose and tail, combine to form an aesthetic beauty not found on anything else on the planet, man-made or otherwise.
Arrive in New York before you left London? See two sunsets in one day? See the sunrise in the west? Fly into the darkness created by the shadow of our own planet? Who wouldn’t want to experience these things?
For all those of you who think ‘rubbish’, please sign on a postage stamp, while the rest of mankind endures the long wait for Concorde’s successor.
There may never be one. I feel honoured to have flown it.
About the author
Tom Orchard began his flying career in 1971. He has flown over 50 types of aircraft and is currently licensed to fly aeroplanes, helicopters, hot air balloons and hot air airships.
Tim is a test pilot, a display pilot, an instructor and senior examiner of pilots and flight instructors for the British Civil Aviation Authority. He jointly holds the Concorde World Record time for the journey from New York to London: 2 hours and 52 minutes (7 February 1996).
He has flown Concorde in formation on several occasions, including London Heathrow airport’s 50th anniversary with the Red Arrows, as well as several air-to-air photography sorties.
In his career with British Airways, Tim has flown the Hawker-Sidley Trident. the Concorde and the Boeing 777. He also spent nine years as a pilot to the British Airways Board of Directors in an executive aircraft. Tim owns a hot air balloon and a 1950s De Havilland Chipmunk aircraft.