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IT’S NO SURPRISE that a 9949-word article would teach me more about the SST Concorde. The historic supersonic transport had already appeared twice here at SimanaitisSays: “Concorde vs QE2,” May 3, 2013; and “My Return Trip at 1370 Mph,” February 25, 2017. And, indeed, Francis Spufford’s “Love That Bird” has appeared twice in the London Review of Books, June 6, 2002, and as LRB’s “Diverted Traffic 81” reappearance, July 6, 2020.
The SST’s Wing and its Wheels. It was a tragic interaction of the Concorde’s delta wing and its undercarriage that caused the fiery crash of Air France AF4590 at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport on July 25, 2000. As described in Wikipedia, the aircraft “ran over debris on the runway during takeoff, blowing a tyre, and sending debris flying into the underside of the left wing, and into the landing gear bay.”
The left fuel tank ruptured. Debris severed landing gear hardware, thus preventing its retraction. Sparks ignited the tank’s fuel. The aircraft’s loss of control sent it into a hotel near the airport, with 109 people aboard and four on the ground losing their lives.
“It was the only fatal Concorde accident during its 27-year operational history,” Wikipedia notes. “The crash contributed to the end of the aircraft’s career.”
An Engineering Parable. In his LRB article, Francis Spufford cited information on changes to the STT’s undercarriage during its development: “They discovered that the weight had gone up to the point where the wheel had to be larger to meet the runway requirements, but the wheel was a tight fit in the wing. So a bulge had to be produced in the wing. The result… air resistance was greater… more fuel was required, and to carry that fuel a heavier structure was required. Because a heavier structure was required, an even bigger wheel was needed.”
Lamentably, this quandary is the opposite of the beneficial engineering practice resulting in today’s lighter, more fuel-efficient cars: Efficient design begets lighter components, which result in even more efficiency.
A Tight Window of Operation. “As eventually completed,” Spufford observed, “Concorde has a pay-load capacity of only 7 percent of its takeoff mass, a ratio more reminiscent of a satellite launcher than a normal airliner. It can cross the Atlantic, but only just. London-New York and Paris-New York are possible; Frankfurt-New York is not.”
The Concorde’s Mach 2.2. At its Mach 2.2 cruising speed, air friction raises some SST’s exterior surfaces to 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit). Had the SST been engineered to cruise at Mach 3, Spufford wrote, “they would have been looking at a skin temperature at cruise altitude of 250 degrees Celsius, … and the whole plane would have had to be made of unproven, exotic materials.”
Boeing envisioned this in its Mach 3 Supersonic Transport design in the 1960s. It gave up on the idea.
“The Russians, meanwhile,” Spufford noted, “made the contrasting mistake with their Tupolev Tu-144, aka ‘Concordski,’ and attempted a quick and dirty solution which didn’t refine military technology enough. The Tupolev’s engines were twice as heavy and burned fuel twice as fast as Concorde’s. It had a range to get only halfway across the Atlantic.”
In his 9949-word LRB article, Spufford addressed the Concorde’s real flaw: “… not technical but social.… It was a Batmobile when the market demanded a bus.” Which, of course, describes the Boeing 747.
A Good Tale. Spufford concludes with “One of the best… told by Captain Jock Lowe, who had, he said, once met the American pilot of an SR-71 Blackbird spyplane. This pilot had been on station in the stratosphere over Cuba one day, when he and his co-pilot got a crackly request from Air Traffic Control to move a couple of miles off course. ‘Eh?’ they thought… But as they sat there swaddled up like astronauts and plugged into their craft’s systems by a tangle of umbilicals, an Air France Concorde out of Caracas sailed by, ‘with a hundred passengers sitting in their shirtsleeves, eating canapés’ ” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020