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Half a century after its first flight, we should stop debating whether Concorde could fly again and celebrate the ‘Engineering DNA’ that survives in modern airliners

Posted by ac652 at Apr 09, 2019 11:50 AM |
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first British flight, Dr Hugo Williams discusses the legacy of Concorde.

Concorde. An aeroplane everyone recognises even 16 years after its final flight. This week is the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the British-built prototype on Wednesday 9 April 1969. The French-built prototype had flown a month earlier.

It was an extraordinary year for aeronautical engineering; the Boeing 747 ‘jumbo jet’ first flew in February 1969, and there were four Apollo missions (9-12), including the first moon landing of Apollo 11 on Sunday 20 July.

Concorde flew at supersonic speed, well over twice that of normal passenger aircraft. It was an extraordinary technical achievement. After seven years of flight testing it entered passenger service in 1976. Only 14 were built for operation with British Airways and Air France and for 27 years mostly served the lucrative business routes connecting London and Paris with New York. Eventually, even with the premium prices passengers were willing to pay for speed, the service became uneconomic and Concorde was retired in 2003.

There is regular speculation whether Concorde could return to flight. With such an incredible human achievement it is easy to understand the nostalgia and national pride that fuels this. However, it would be impossible, and in my view irresponsible to try. Wonderful as Concorde was, it required a huge team of experts to allow the aircraft to operate safely. The fuel consumption was also enormous. If you flew from London to New York on a modern aircraft your individual share of the fuel used would be about 115 litres, whereas on Concorde your share would be an alarming 900 litres. Release of CO2 increases directly with fuel burnt so, now we have a better understanding of global warming, Concorde is clearly unsustainable environmentally.

Instead, we should celebrate the technical legacy of Concorde. As an aerospace engineer, if I look carefully at a modern Airbus aircraft, I can see technology or design approaches that were pioneered on Concorde and have grown and developed since. It’s a sort of ‘Engineering DNA’; design features that work have survived and been evolved under pressure of improving safety, fuel consumption and sustainability.

So, jump forward to today, and if your flight is between about one and four hours long, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be flying on one of the variants of the Airbus A320 aircraft. Over 8,500 have been built and according to Airbus, one takes-off or lands somewhere in the world every 1.6 seconds. What Engineering DNA can we trace back to Concorde?

International collaboration
Concorde was built as a partnership between Aérospatiale and British Aerospace due to the high development costs and risks. Both are basically now part of Airbus with expertise in aircraft design and manufacture spread across Europe and beyond. This breadth of expertise is critical to manufacturing high technology products at acceptable cost.

Planes are steered through control surfaces on the wings and tail. Concorde was the first large civil aircraft where the pilot’s controls were connected to the control surfaces through electronic signals (there was a mechanical backup but apparently it was never needed in 27 years of service). On the A320 control is fly-by-wire, as pioneered on Concorde, but now uses digital computers rather than analogue electronics. Fly-by-wire saves weight and fuel consumption and improves handling qualities and safety.

Carbon brakes
Concorde’s brakes worked hard because it’s take-off and landing speeds were faster than normal aircraft, so new carbon-based brake discs were designed to replace traditional steel. Modern carbon brakes are used on the A320. They are about a quarter of a tonne lighter than steel brakes would be, saving fuel.

Colour coded hydraulic systems
Hydraulics are used to move aircraft control surfaces and raise or lower the undercarriage (wheels). Concorde had three separate hydraulic circuits so it could still fly safely even if two of the three failed. These were colour coded green, blue and yellow, presumably because colours are a universal language. Today, the A320 also has green, blue and yellow circuits. If you are flying on an A320 and hear the reassuring bump under your feet as the wheels are lowered for landing, it’s the green hydraulic circuit moving the wheels into position, just like it would have been on Concorde.

The beauty and history of Concorde can be really appreciated by going to see it in one of the many museums where the surviving examples have been preserved. But next time you board an Airbus aircraft for that holiday or business trip, it’s probably fair to say that you are travelling on a bit of Concorde’s ‘Engineering DNA’.

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