On 5 November, 1956, the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee (STAC) was established in Britain for the purpose of studying the possibility of designing and building a supersonic airliner. The committee, consisting of representatives of Britain's aircraft and engine manufacturers teamed with government officials and personnel of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, spent roughly two years designing potential aircraft. On 9 March, 1959, STAC selected two designs of supersonic airliners for further development, one to fly at Mach 1.2, the second at Mach 2.0. Britain had started upon a monumental project, one which was not to result in an active passenger liner until nearly two decades later. They soon realised the enormity of the project and began negotiations with France to join in a collaborative effort, sharing costs, responsibilities, and profits equally.
In 1962, a treaty was signed and Britain and France began planning the construction of the world's first supersonic transport aircraft, or SST. The amazingly smooth cooperation between Britain and France throughout the entire SST project, which still continues to this day with large political returns despite several economical setbacks, is symbolic of other efforts towards the unification of Europe.
The Division of Labour
After the signing of the treaty in 1962 the responsibility of eventually building the final aircraft was split between four companies, two British and two French. The British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and Sud Aviation, a French company, were to build the airframe, and Bristol Siddeley, Britain, and SNECMA, France, were to build the Olympus 593 jet engines needed to propel the craft. No special company was ever formed to produce the SST. The project was jointly funded by the British and French governments from the beginning, in the hopes that the commercial airliner would return a large profit in the future. In early 1964 two of the companies were switched: Aerospatiale replaced Sud Aviation in France to build the airframe and Rolls Royce replaced Bristol Siddeley in Britain for constructing the jet engines. These companies were soon signing contract after contract with British, French, and American suppliers.
Within months of the 50/50 labour split between Britain and France the first experimental craft, completed in Bristol by BAC and designated BAC 221, was ready for testing. BAC 221's first flight took place on the 1 May, 1964, in the Bordeaux region of southern France. The choice for this testing site again shows communication and cooperation between the British and French governments. The weather in southern France was much more suitable for test flights than in England, and the low population of the area made it a more socially acceptable place to create the frequent sonic booms that would result from the plane's test flights.
A Spanner in the Works
Even with so much having already been accomplished towards the common goal with almost no problems having arisen between the two countries, after a general election in Britain during the end of 1964 the new Labour government announced Britain's withdrawal from the project. When this decision was changed, in January of the next year, and it was announced that Britain would remain in the project, those from each country who were working together wasted no time in continuing exactly as they had been working before the brief change in plans. In April 1965, four months after Britain rejoined the project, the first metal was cut for the prototype aircraft. In May the pre-production design was announced, and on 11 September work began on Britain's 40% of the airframe at the Filton division of the British Aircraft Corporation. Britain was responsible for only forty percent of the airframe because Britain had taken a larger role in the production of the Olympus 593 jet engines. Even though the original agreement called for a complete 50/50 split of all labour, costs, and profits between Britain and France, the two countries proved flexible enough in their relations to be able to handle a more practical distribution of the labour, and work with each other so that each felt as if the other had dealt with them fairly.
The Demise of 'Concordski'
Another decade passed as Britain and France co-operated to complete the first supersonic aircraft to be used for commercial purposes. There was no race since the only two possible competitors had dropped out completely by the early 1970s. The Americans had decided not to expend time, money, and effort on a project they deemed useless, and the Russians' attempt had ultimately failed. The Russian programme, though their Tupolev Tu-144 was actually the first supersonic airliner to fly, suffered an unfortunate fate in a scandal resulting from a mysterious crash during an air show. Due to the plane's resemblance to the Anglo-French SST named Concorde, the Russian airliner was nicknamed 'Concordski' by the West. The Russian programme never completely recovered from the bad publicity of Concordski's nickname and demise, and so in January 1976 England and France took delivery of their first few new aircraft and became the first commercial airline to offer supersonic service.
The political impact was staggering. Britain and France gained the prestige of being the first to run a supersonic passenger airline even after others had declared it impossible, and thus they also gained the respect of those doubters. The aircraft were instantly popular, and besides their original intended use as commercial airliners they could be privately chartered for other destinations than those offered by the airlines. Concorde also had tremendous marketing value because of the pride Britain and France had in their accomplishment. On one occasion later in the 1990s one aircraft was even painted in Pepsi blue as an advertisement for Pepsi's new soda can design. In almost exactly two decades Britain and France had proved not only that it was possible for a supersonic jet to be used commercially, but that Britain and France could coordinate their efforts towards a common goal with surprising results. During the 20 years between the establishment of STAC and the first commercial flight of Concorde only one major disagreement occurred between the two countries, concerning the name of the aircraft.
With or Without an 'e'?
On 13 January, 1963, French President de Gaulle used the word Concorde (roughly translated to mean 'agreement') to refer to the Anglo-French supersonic aircraft project. On 24 October of the same year, however, British and French journalists in Bristol were given the name 'Concord', with no 'e'. France favoured the French spelling with the 'e', and Britain refused to use it. The two countries produced the same model of aircraft under the two different names for almost four years until Britain finally realised that their efforts in unity together with France were more important than spelling 'Concord' without an 'e'. So even this argument was resolved on 11 December, 1967, in Toulouse, when the first French prototype Concorde, called Concorde 001, was formally unveiled to over 1000 spectators. At the ceremony the British technology minister, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, announced that the British aircraft were also to be called Concorde like their French counterparts, stating that the 'e' in Concorde stood for 'excellence, England, Europe and entente.'
Britain and France had less success with the SST commercially, however. British, French, and American airlines had all planned to buy one or more of the complete aircraft at some point during the project. As time progressed, all the American companies dropped this option as well as their own plans for building a supersonic passenger plane, realising that because of the extremely high cost and noise pollution the SST would never be practical for crossing the American mainland. The Americans allowed the aircraft to land and take-off from their coastal cities, however, so Britain and France offered trans-Atlantic services between Europe and America as well as routes across Europe and Asia. Even with these routes, the French and British airlines began to feel the economic drain of Concorde's high costs.
The Cost of Concorde
The airlines had bought their first complement of nine aircraft for around £23 million in 1977, or $46 million US dollars. At today's prices this sum comes to £150 million, or $300 million. The development costs, alone, of Concorde had been around £1.134 billion, funded jointly by the British and French governments, and the cost of the 16 production Concordes was £654 million. Of that, only £278 million was recovered through sales returns. The inevitable result of this economic unbalance was that over time the airlines began to offer less routes in an effort to use the fuel-expensive supersonic jets less and less often. In the mid-1980s France and Britain met to talk about their dissatisfaction with the cost aspects of Concorde. Britain decided to stop funding the two British companies that were then producing Concorde, Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. Several Concorde services had been discontinued, and Concorde was not paying for itself as hoped. There had also been some technical concerns, including several rudder failures between 1989 and 1992, when all of the rudders were replaced. Despite all of this, however, Concorde continued to be the most popular way to travel expensively.
Britain and France continued to discuss Concorde's fate between themselves without agreeing upon a solution until late July of 2000 when a fatal accident caused all of the 12 remaining Concordes to be grounded until what caused the accident could be fixed. On 25 July, 2000, Air France Concorde F-BTSC crashed upon take-off near Paris when a strip of metal, possibly from a Continental Airlines jet that took off earlier that day, shredded a tyre causing pieces of rubber to fly up into the fuel tanks. The Concorde fleet was grounded while awaiting new tyres to be tested and new protection to be designed and added to the fuel tanks. Despite this tragedy, Concorde is back up and running again (it returned to passenger service on Wednesday 7 November, 2001) and Britain and France are now working very hard together to keep Concorde in the air. Representatives from both countries meet to examine safety measures that could be used to avoid further accidents, and French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot has been quoted saying, 'The Concorde is not finished.'
The Symbol of Unification
Despite all the odds, Britain and France have managed to collaborate their efforts smoothly from the construction of the aircraft, its testing, and its certification for commercial flight through its political upsides and its economical down sides, and even now to protect what they have created by making Concorde safe for flight again. Despite several problems that face Europe before total unification will be possible, such as economic changes, ethical differences, and religious conflicts centuries old, these two countries have worked together to create a technological marvel. This cooperation on a scientific and economic venture between two enemies of old stands as a symbol of friendship, cooperation, and unity in Europe. The name 'Concorde', itself, meaning 'agreement', is a celebration of Anglo-French cooperation. France and Britain have put aside their differences and worked together with very little conflict despite their own historically strained relations, a stinging example of which is France's defeat by Wellington at Waterloo. As James Burke put it in his article entitled 'Entente Cordial'e,
That event would sour Anglo-French relations enough so that over 100 years later we'd still be busy with kiss-and-make-up gestures, like giving the SST a French name: Concord with an 'e'.
- Burke, James. 'Entente Cordiale', Scientific American, May 1999.
- 'Concorde will fly again', says French minister. May 2, 2001.
- Gordon. 'Concorde History Timeline.'. 30 April, 2001.
- Schirrmacher, Thomas. 'Problems with the Unification of Europe.' [Online]. 3 May, 2001.
- Length - 62.1m (203 ft 9 in)
- Wing span - 25.56m (83 ft, 10 in)
- Capacity - 185,065kg (408,000 lb)
- Cruising Speed - Mach 2.2
- Range - 6,580km (4,090 miles)
- Powerplant - Four Rolls-Royce/SNECMA Olympus 593 Mk 610 turbojets