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Episode
243

The Rise and Fall of Concorde

Mar 8, 2022
How Stuff Works
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25
minutes

It was the world's most famous supersonic aeroplane and could travel from London to New York in 3.5 hours.

Discover how it worked, how much it actually cost to fly in it and what the future holds for supersonic air travel.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Concorde, the supersonic passenger jet. 

[00:00:30] It was an aeroplane that could get you across the Atlantic Ocean, from London to New York, in a mere 3.5 hours — less than half the time it would take in a regular plane– and it captured the imaginations of much of the world during the just under thirty years it was in operation. 

[00:00:50] We’re going to learn about how the Concorde got built, what it was like to fly on it, who actually flew on it, and how it met its eventual — and tragic — downfall

[00:01:04] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:07] Now, we've spoken about the history of air travel in a previous episode, episode 213, where we talked about how the experience and mechanics of air travel have changed since the first aeroplane was built. 

[00:01:23] To briefly recap that episode, in the decades after commercial passenger flight got started in the 1920s — which was nearly two decades after the Wright Brothers flew the first ever powered aeroplane — air travel was accessible only to the richest people in society. 

[00:01:43] Back then, the few airline carriers in existence — now known as ‘legacy carriers’ — offered something of a luxury experience for travellers. 

[00:01:55] In the 1920s and 30s, the privileged few who could afford a seat on one of these flights were treated to the kind of service — the in-flight meals, free-flowing alcohol — that one might expect in an upscale restaurant. 

[00:02:12] Now, the experience wasn’t perfect, of course: these early planes flew at a much lower altitude than today’s planes, and so the turbulence would have been considerably more noticeable to passengers. 

[00:02:28] Thankfully, planes — and the experience of flying in general — improved vastly as technology improved. Flight distances increased, and cabins became far more comfortable. 

[00:02:43] Eventually, the deregulation of air travel, as well as the launch of low-cost air carriers, such as Ryanair, made air travel accessible to the average person: someone like you or me, who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on a single trip. 

[00:03:02] Air travel was changing rapidly. And yet, there was something else around the corner — something that would, people hoped, revolutionise the world of air travel altogether. 

[00:03:15] That something was, of course, the Concorde. 

[00:03:19] It could travel across the entire Atlantic Ocean in an incredible 3.5 hours. 

[00:03:25] It accomplished such an impressive feat of speed using something called supersonic technology, which allowed it to travel at twice the speed of sound. The Concorde flew so fast that it broke the sound barrier. 

[00:03:41] This miracle of aeronautical engineering had a maximum speed of Mach 2.04, which is almost 2,500 kilometres an hour. 

[00:03:53] Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Concorde could accommodate up to 128 passengers, and not just comfortably; passengers were treated to multi-course meals, champagne, and all other luxuries, all of which really emphasised the fact that everything about the Concorde — its speed, its design, and, of course, its cost — was exceptional

[00:04:20] First, let’s back up to the moment the idea of the Concorde was conceived

[00:04:26] The idea for a supersonic plane existed years before there was even a blueprint for the Concorde, before, even, it was certain that such a thing was technically possible. 

[00:04:39] British engineers had been discussing the idea for a supersonic aeroplane since the late 1940s. 

[00:04:48] In 1947, the Americans became the first to achieve exactly the thing these British engineers were dreaming of: they became the first to design and successfully fly a supersonic aeroplane. 

[00:05:03] However, this plane was never actually used in commercial flight. 

[00:05:09] It was actually the great enemy of the Americans, the USSR, which was the first country to successfully launch a supersonic commercial flight, in 1968, with the launch of a supersonic plane called the Tupolev TU 144. 

[00:05:26] But this plane suffered from performance issues and only flew 103 flights in its lifetime.

[00:05:34] It was to be the British — together with the French — that actually managed to accomplish the goal of building a highly functional, supersonic aeroplane that could be used for commercial passenger flight.

[00:05:49] There was a snag, however, a problem; the costs of actually building such a plane were, as you might imagine, enormous. 

[00:06:00] It would cost an estimated 100 million pounds — that's over five billion Euros in today’s money — although it actually ended up costing significantly more, at well over a billion pounds, fifty billion Euros in today’s money.

[00:06:18] At the time work started on this project, World War II had just ended, and Britain was bankrupt; people were still buying food with ration books and the economy was struggling

[00:06:33] As a result, the British would need to find a new way to finance this ambitious project. 

[00:06:41] At the same time that British engineers were drawing up the plans for this amazing aircraft, France was working on a design for a plane that looked remarkably similar. 

[00:06:54] So, instead of competing with each other, in a rare moment of collaboration, France and Britain realised that they would have more success if they worked together. They decided to put their designs together, and to share both the work and the costs. 

[00:07:14] In 1963, shortly after the French and the British revealed their plans, air carriers around the world rushed to place their orders for the Concorde — including several in the United States. 

[00:07:29] Infuriated by this news, President John F. Kennedy announced that America would build its own supersonic plane, which would rival the Concorde. 

[00:07:41] But, due to a number of constraints— many of them financial — this American supersonic aeroplane was never completed. 

[00:07:50] Meanwhile, the French and British collaboration proved successful, save for a few minor disagreements, and the first prototype, Concorde 001, took its maiden — its first — flight on March 2nd, 1969, from Toulouse in France. 

[00:08:11] It was piloted by former air force major André Turcat, and was a huge success. 

[00:08:19] It was then followed by an equally successful voyage by British pilot Brian Trubshaw, a former World War II bomber pilot, who flew Concorde 002 out of Filton Airport in Bristol, England. 

[00:08:35] Now, in order to have a plane that travels at the speed of sound, engineers couldn’t just use the same old aircraft designs. They actually had to make some rather large innovations

[00:08:51] One of the most notable was the plane’s nose, the bit at the front of the plane. Whereas a regular, non-supersonic aeroplane has a straight nose, the Concorde boasts something called a "droop snoot", or "droop nose" design.

[00:09:14] If you think this nose, this front of the airplane, looks a bit odd, a bit strange, well, you probably aren’t alone. When it's lowered, it looks almost like a broken bird’s beak — not quite the smooth, rounded nose that you might think of when you imagine an aeroplane. 

[00:09:35] However, the "droop snoot" was actually quite necessary to flying the Concorde. Because of its unique design, the Concorde flew at a steep angle during takeoff and landing, and so the pilot would adjust the plane’s nose so that it was tilting downward. 

[00:09:57] This made it so that the nose of the plane, which was longer and more needle-like than that of a typical plane, was out of the pilot’s line of sight. Otherwise, it would be much harder for the pilot to see where they were going. 

[00:10:15] The Concorde also had a triangle-shaped wing, called a Delta Wing, as opposed to the rectangular wing shape of a typical aeroplane. It also had a narrower body than that of a typical aeroplane, it was much thinner. 

[00:10:33] Both of these helped the Concorde lift off the ground during takeoff, and minimised the amount of drag — or the force that makes it harder for an aeroplane or other object to travel forward. 

[00:10:47] Of course, the Concorde boasted incredibly powerful turbojet engines, and this combination of slim design and absurd amounts of power allowed it to sustain its incredible speed of Mach 2 — almost 2,500 km an hour.

[00:11:07] The Concorde also flew so high that passengers could look out the window and see the earth’s curve

[00:11:16] It flew this high because the higher you go up, the lower the air pressure becomes, so there would be less drag, less resistance, and the plane could go faster while using less fuel.

[00:11:31] This also reduced the amount of noise heard by people standing on the ground — this is something we’ll explore in depth a bit later on in the episode.

[00:11:42] But, you’re probably wondering: just who, exactly, had the privilege of getting to fly on board this miraculous piece of machinery? 

[00:11:52] These days, you can buy plane tickets on low-cost airlines for 10 Euros or even less. People of almost every level of income can afford to fly in one way or another. 

[00:12:06] The Concorde, however, was a different kind of flight experience entirely. 

[00:12:12] In 1977, flights from New York to London began. A one-way ticket cost 431 pounds — that's around three and a half thousand Euros in today's money. 

[00:12:26] On board, passengers were treated to champagne before the flight had even taken off. They ordered from a menu of delicacies like lobster, fillet steak, and caviar, as well as a full wine list. 

[00:12:42] Flying the Concorde were people like corporate CEOs and movie stars, many of whom could afford to fly on the Concorde multiple times in a single week. If you managed to drum up the cash needed for a ticket, you may have found yourself brushing elbows with the likes of Mick Jagger and Sir Paul McCartney. 

[00:13:05] But, you might wondering, what did it actually feel like to ride in one of these planes? 

[00:13:13] Despite the incredible drama of the Concorde taking off, passengers detected surprisingly little, apparently. There was the initial burst of speed when the plane took off — but once they reached cruising altitude, the flight was as smooth as glass. 

[00:13:34] One need only imagine sipping champagne and eating oyster, while watching the curve of the earth below, to understand just how exceptional the Concorde was. 

[00:13:47] For all of the wonders of the Concorde — the intrigue, the glamour, the convenience— it was not without its drawbacks

[00:13:56] For one, an object like the Concorde cannot break the sound barrier without creating quite a lot of noise. 

[00:14:04] This noise is actually referred to as a sonic boom, and is so loud that it can be heard by people standing on the ground, even when the Concorde was flying almost 20km above the Earth’s surface. 

[00:14:20] Considering the fact that most of the people subjected to this racket, to this loud noise, were those who would never be able to afford to fly on the Concorde, it was a bit like adding insult to injury

[00:14:34] Many countries felt that the sonic boom was so disruptive that they banned the Concorde from travelling over them entirely. The noise problem even inspired protests, with people showing up to takeoff and landing sites holding signs with slogans like “Ban the Boom.”

[00:14:58] Partly because of this, the Concorde mainly flew over the Atlantic Ocean, And rarely over land, where it would be much too disturbing to people on the ground. 

[00:15:10] Another problem was the possible environmental effects of The Concorde. Because it flew so much higher than other planes, scientists believed that the Concordes exhaust would be far more damaging to the ozone layer

[00:15:26] Although this fear was justified, there were so few Concordes ever built that this never made a significant impact. 

[00:15:35] And because the Concorde could only successfully really fly two routes from either London or Paris to New York and back, and because it could only seat 128 passengers, the plane proved to be far from profitable, it simply didn't make much money. 

[00:15:56] The luxury services provided, as well as the fact that the plane could only be flown by the most elite crew, only worsened this problem.

[00:16:06] In fact, by 1981, after just five years in service, British Airways and Air France had recorded losses in the tens of millions of pounds. 

[00:16:19] As wonderful as the Concorde might have been, it was still, of course, a commercial aeroplane. And in order to keep operating, it would need to start turning a profit. 

[00:16:31] So, what did they think the solution was? 

[00:16:35] Crank up prices even more, increase the prices even higher. 

[00:16:41] British Airways put up the cost of tickets to nearly double the cost of first class tickets on its other, regular flights. It also started allowing anyone who could afford it to charter entire flights on a Concorde to any destination they pleased. 

[00:17:00] And in the mid-1980s, Concorde finally began to turn a profit. 

[00:17:06] To much of the world, it seemed as though the Concorde was just the beginning of a new age of supersonic travel. The possibilities seemed endless.

[00:17:17] Yet the Concorde, as glorious as it was, would soon meet a devastating end. 

[00:17:24] On July 25th, in the year 2000, Air France Flight 4590 took off from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, destined for JFK airport in New York. 

[00:17:37] Upon landing, the passengers — mainly German tourists — would have boarded a cruise ship bound for South America, it was to be the trip of a lifetime. 

[00:17:50] That flight, of course, never made it to JFK. Shortly after taking off, the plane lost altitude, crashing to the ground just six kilometres from the airport where it had taken off.

[00:18:05] The crash killed 113 people, including all 109 passengers on board and four people on the ground. 

[00:18:15] The crash, which shocked and horrified the world, turned out to be the result of a chain of small but fatal errors. The first of these errors took place before the flight even took off. 

[00:18:31] To start with, the plane was over its maximum structural weight. Not only had the plane been overfueled, there was too much fuel put in it, but more items of baggage were placed in the hold than were planned for. 

[00:18:49] Put simply, the plane was too heavy.

[00:18:53] The next part sounds a little bit like a freak accident. Just after Flight 4590 had begun taxiing down the runway, a short strip of metal fell off of the engine of another plane travelling down the same runway. 

[00:19:10] The strip hit one of the Concorde’s tyres, which burst, shooting off a piece of rubber that then broke, it ruptured the plane’s fuel tank. 

[00:19:22] The resulting fire caused two of the plane’s left-side engines to fail. In spite of the pilots’ best efforts, the plane — and all those on board — were doomed

[00:19:36] Many people think — rightly think — that this was the event that put the nail in the coffin for the Concorde, but in fact, it would return to service, if only for a brief period of time. 

[00:19:50] After the crash, France and Britain grounded their aircrafts in order to make a number of — quite expensive — safety modifications. 

[00:20:00] The Concorde was finally relaunched in November 2001, returning to passenger service with stronger tyres and redesigned fuel tanks, among several other changes.

[00:20:14] 2001, however, was not a great time for air travel. On September 11th, 2001 — just before the Concorde’s relaunch — two planes crashed into New York’s World Trade Centre, killing close to 3,000 people. 

[00:20:32] As a result, air travel on the whole lost its appeal, and the number of people taking flights into New York dipped dramatically. The Concorde was flying with an almost completely empty cabin — not exactly the most sustainable business model. 

[00:20:51] Concorde eventually announced its retirement in April of 2003, and the plane would officially retire six months out from then. 

[00:21:01] With only six months left to fly on the mighty Concorde, there was a rush to buy up tickets. And, on October 24th, 2003, Concorde 002 left New York for the final time. 

[00:21:17] It was truly the end of an era. 

[00:21:21] So, where is the Concorde now? 

[00:21:24] Well, you can still get on Concorde 002, though don’t expect it to be going very fast; the plane now sits in one of the exhibition halls in the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset, in England. 

[00:21:40] For all those who weren’t quite lucky enough to fly the Concorde before it was retired, this is, perhaps, the closest you will ever get.

[00:21:49] And you might be wondering, will the world ever see anything like the Concorde again?

[00:21:55] When the Concorde retired, it had no obvious successor; it was, perhaps, the first time in the history of aeronautical engineering that we have taken a step backwards, at least in terms of the speed of aeroplanes. 

[00:22:13] The world would have to be content with subsonic, or non-supersonic, air travel. 

[00:22:19] In 2021, however, United Airlines announced its plans to purchase 15 new supersonic jets from the aeroplane manufacturer Boom Supersonic, which are expected to be in operation by the year 2029. 

[00:22:38] A number of smaller companies have proposed private supersonic jets for use by bankers, chief executives, and others who can afford the price tag

[00:22:50] And reintroducing supersonic travel to the world will, of course, be expensive. 

[00:22:56] Companies will also have to find a way to solve the issue of supersonic air travel’s environmental impact, which is something that companies like Boom are trying to address, but there is no easy solution. While there are a number of unknowns, supersonic air travel may very well return within our lifetimes. 

[00:23:18] The final barrier, however, might be beyond the capabilities of even the smartest engineers in the world.

[00:23:26] And that’s how to get rid of that infernal boom

[00:23:34] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Concorde supersonic jet. I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:23:44] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:23:48] I wonder, I just wonder, whether you might have been lucky enough to fly on a Concorde at some stage in your life? Or perhaps you can remember hearing it flying overhead?

[00:24:00] If so, please do tell - I’d love to know.

[00:24:03] And even if you are in the 99.9999999% of the world’s population who have never been on a Concorde, what do you think about the future of supersonic flight?

[00:24:15] Let’s get this discussion started.

[00:24:17] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com, and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:24:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:24:32] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Concorde, the supersonic passenger jet. 

[00:00:30] It was an aeroplane that could get you across the Atlantic Ocean, from London to New York, in a mere 3.5 hours — less than half the time it would take in a regular plane– and it captured the imaginations of much of the world during the just under thirty years it was in operation. 

[00:00:50] We’re going to learn about how the Concorde got built, what it was like to fly on it, who actually flew on it, and how it met its eventual — and tragic — downfall

[00:01:04] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:07] Now, we've spoken about the history of air travel in a previous episode, episode 213, where we talked about how the experience and mechanics of air travel have changed since the first aeroplane was built. 

[00:01:23] To briefly recap that episode, in the decades after commercial passenger flight got started in the 1920s — which was nearly two decades after the Wright Brothers flew the first ever powered aeroplane — air travel was accessible only to the richest people in society. 

[00:01:43] Back then, the few airline carriers in existence — now known as ‘legacy carriers’ — offered something of a luxury experience for travellers. 

[00:01:55] In the 1920s and 30s, the privileged few who could afford a seat on one of these flights were treated to the kind of service — the in-flight meals, free-flowing alcohol — that one might expect in an upscale restaurant. 

[00:02:12] Now, the experience wasn’t perfect, of course: these early planes flew at a much lower altitude than today’s planes, and so the turbulence would have been considerably more noticeable to passengers. 

[00:02:28] Thankfully, planes — and the experience of flying in general — improved vastly as technology improved. Flight distances increased, and cabins became far more comfortable. 

[00:02:43] Eventually, the deregulation of air travel, as well as the launch of low-cost air carriers, such as Ryanair, made air travel accessible to the average person: someone like you or me, who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on a single trip. 

[00:03:02] Air travel was changing rapidly. And yet, there was something else around the corner — something that would, people hoped, revolutionise the world of air travel altogether. 

[00:03:15] That something was, of course, the Concorde. 

[00:03:19] It could travel across the entire Atlantic Ocean in an incredible 3.5 hours. 

[00:03:25] It accomplished such an impressive feat of speed using something called supersonic technology, which allowed it to travel at twice the speed of sound. The Concorde flew so fast that it broke the sound barrier. 

[00:03:41] This miracle of aeronautical engineering had a maximum speed of Mach 2.04, which is almost 2,500 kilometres an hour. 

[00:03:53] Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Concorde could accommodate up to 128 passengers, and not just comfortably; passengers were treated to multi-course meals, champagne, and all other luxuries, all of which really emphasised the fact that everything about the Concorde — its speed, its design, and, of course, its cost — was exceptional

[00:04:20] First, let’s back up to the moment the idea of the Concorde was conceived

[00:04:26] The idea for a supersonic plane existed years before there was even a blueprint for the Concorde, before, even, it was certain that such a thing was technically possible. 

[00:04:39] British engineers had been discussing the idea for a supersonic aeroplane since the late 1940s. 

[00:04:48] In 1947, the Americans became the first to achieve exactly the thing these British engineers were dreaming of: they became the first to design and successfully fly a supersonic aeroplane. 

[00:05:03] However, this plane was never actually used in commercial flight. 

[00:05:09] It was actually the great enemy of the Americans, the USSR, which was the first country to successfully launch a supersonic commercial flight, in 1968, with the launch of a supersonic plane called the Tupolev TU 144. 

[00:05:26] But this plane suffered from performance issues and only flew 103 flights in its lifetime.

[00:05:34] It was to be the British — together with the French — that actually managed to accomplish the goal of building a highly functional, supersonic aeroplane that could be used for commercial passenger flight.

[00:05:49] There was a snag, however, a problem; the costs of actually building such a plane were, as you might imagine, enormous. 

[00:06:00] It would cost an estimated 100 million pounds — that's over five billion Euros in today’s money — although it actually ended up costing significantly more, at well over a billion pounds, fifty billion Euros in today’s money.

[00:06:18] At the time work started on this project, World War II had just ended, and Britain was bankrupt; people were still buying food with ration books and the economy was struggling

[00:06:33] As a result, the British would need to find a new way to finance this ambitious project. 

[00:06:41] At the same time that British engineers were drawing up the plans for this amazing aircraft, France was working on a design for a plane that looked remarkably similar. 

[00:06:54] So, instead of competing with each other, in a rare moment of collaboration, France and Britain realised that they would have more success if they worked together. They decided to put their designs together, and to share both the work and the costs. 

[00:07:14] In 1963, shortly after the French and the British revealed their plans, air carriers around the world rushed to place their orders for the Concorde — including several in the United States. 

[00:07:29] Infuriated by this news, President John F. Kennedy announced that America would build its own supersonic plane, which would rival the Concorde. 

[00:07:41] But, due to a number of constraints— many of them financial — this American supersonic aeroplane was never completed. 

[00:07:50] Meanwhile, the French and British collaboration proved successful, save for a few minor disagreements, and the first prototype, Concorde 001, took its maiden — its first — flight on March 2nd, 1969, from Toulouse in France. 

[00:08:11] It was piloted by former air force major André Turcat, and was a huge success. 

[00:08:19] It was then followed by an equally successful voyage by British pilot Brian Trubshaw, a former World War II bomber pilot, who flew Concorde 002 out of Filton Airport in Bristol, England. 

[00:08:35] Now, in order to have a plane that travels at the speed of sound, engineers couldn’t just use the same old aircraft designs. They actually had to make some rather large innovations

[00:08:51] One of the most notable was the plane’s nose, the bit at the front of the plane. Whereas a regular, non-supersonic aeroplane has a straight nose, the Concorde boasts something called a "droop snoot", or "droop nose" design.

[00:09:14] If you think this nose, this front of the airplane, looks a bit odd, a bit strange, well, you probably aren’t alone. When it's lowered, it looks almost like a broken bird’s beak — not quite the smooth, rounded nose that you might think of when you imagine an aeroplane. 

[00:09:35] However, the "droop snoot" was actually quite necessary to flying the Concorde. Because of its unique design, the Concorde flew at a steep angle during takeoff and landing, and so the pilot would adjust the plane’s nose so that it was tilting downward. 

[00:09:57] This made it so that the nose of the plane, which was longer and more needle-like than that of a typical plane, was out of the pilot’s line of sight. Otherwise, it would be much harder for the pilot to see where they were going. 

[00:10:15] The Concorde also had a triangle-shaped wing, called a Delta Wing, as opposed to the rectangular wing shape of a typical aeroplane. It also had a narrower body than that of a typical aeroplane, it was much thinner. 

[00:10:33] Both of these helped the Concorde lift off the ground during takeoff, and minimised the amount of drag — or the force that makes it harder for an aeroplane or other object to travel forward. 

[00:10:47] Of course, the Concorde boasted incredibly powerful turbojet engines, and this combination of slim design and absurd amounts of power allowed it to sustain its incredible speed of Mach 2 — almost 2,500 km an hour.

[00:11:07] The Concorde also flew so high that passengers could look out the window and see the earth’s curve

[00:11:16] It flew this high because the higher you go up, the lower the air pressure becomes, so there would be less drag, less resistance, and the plane could go faster while using less fuel.

[00:11:31] This also reduced the amount of noise heard by people standing on the ground — this is something we’ll explore in depth a bit later on in the episode.

[00:11:42] But, you’re probably wondering: just who, exactly, had the privilege of getting to fly on board this miraculous piece of machinery? 

[00:11:52] These days, you can buy plane tickets on low-cost airlines for 10 Euros or even less. People of almost every level of income can afford to fly in one way or another. 

[00:12:06] The Concorde, however, was a different kind of flight experience entirely. 

[00:12:12] In 1977, flights from New York to London began. A one-way ticket cost 431 pounds — that's around three and a half thousand Euros in today's money. 

[00:12:26] On board, passengers were treated to champagne before the flight had even taken off. They ordered from a menu of delicacies like lobster, fillet steak, and caviar, as well as a full wine list. 

[00:12:42] Flying the Concorde were people like corporate CEOs and movie stars, many of whom could afford to fly on the Concorde multiple times in a single week. If you managed to drum up the cash needed for a ticket, you may have found yourself brushing elbows with the likes of Mick Jagger and Sir Paul McCartney. 

[00:13:05] But, you might wondering, what did it actually feel like to ride in one of these planes? 

[00:13:13] Despite the incredible drama of the Concorde taking off, passengers detected surprisingly little, apparently. There was the initial burst of speed when the plane took off — but once they reached cruising altitude, the flight was as smooth as glass. 

[00:13:34] One need only imagine sipping champagne and eating oyster, while watching the curve of the earth below, to understand just how exceptional the Concorde was. 

[00:13:47] For all of the wonders of the Concorde — the intrigue, the glamour, the convenience— it was not without its drawbacks

[00:13:56] For one, an object like the Concorde cannot break the sound barrier without creating quite a lot of noise. 

[00:14:04] This noise is actually referred to as a sonic boom, and is so loud that it can be heard by people standing on the ground, even when the Concorde was flying almost 20km above the Earth’s surface. 

[00:14:20] Considering the fact that most of the people subjected to this racket, to this loud noise, were those who would never be able to afford to fly on the Concorde, it was a bit like adding insult to injury

[00:14:34] Many countries felt that the sonic boom was so disruptive that they banned the Concorde from travelling over them entirely. The noise problem even inspired protests, with people showing up to takeoff and landing sites holding signs with slogans like “Ban the Boom.”

[00:14:58] Partly because of this, the Concorde mainly flew over the Atlantic Ocean, And rarely over land, where it would be much too disturbing to people on the ground. 

[00:15:10] Another problem was the possible environmental effects of The Concorde. Because it flew so much higher than other planes, scientists believed that the Concordes exhaust would be far more damaging to the ozone layer

[00:15:26] Although this fear was justified, there were so few Concordes ever built that this never made a significant impact. 

[00:15:35] And because the Concorde could only successfully really fly two routes from either London or Paris to New York and back, and because it could only seat 128 passengers, the plane proved to be far from profitable, it simply didn't make much money. 

[00:15:56] The luxury services provided, as well as the fact that the plane could only be flown by the most elite crew, only worsened this problem.

[00:16:06] In fact, by 1981, after just five years in service, British Airways and Air France had recorded losses in the tens of millions of pounds. 

[00:16:19] As wonderful as the Concorde might have been, it was still, of course, a commercial aeroplane. And in order to keep operating, it would need to start turning a profit. 

[00:16:31] So, what did they think the solution was? 

[00:16:35] Crank up prices even more, increase the prices even higher. 

[00:16:41] British Airways put up the cost of tickets to nearly double the cost of first class tickets on its other, regular flights. It also started allowing anyone who could afford it to charter entire flights on a Concorde to any destination they pleased. 

[00:17:00] And in the mid-1980s, Concorde finally began to turn a profit. 

[00:17:06] To much of the world, it seemed as though the Concorde was just the beginning of a new age of supersonic travel. The possibilities seemed endless.

[00:17:17] Yet the Concorde, as glorious as it was, would soon meet a devastating end. 

[00:17:24] On July 25th, in the year 2000, Air France Flight 4590 took off from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, destined for JFK airport in New York. 

[00:17:37] Upon landing, the passengers — mainly German tourists — would have boarded a cruise ship bound for South America, it was to be the trip of a lifetime. 

[00:17:50] That flight, of course, never made it to JFK. Shortly after taking off, the plane lost altitude, crashing to the ground just six kilometres from the airport where it had taken off.

[00:18:05] The crash killed 113 people, including all 109 passengers on board and four people on the ground. 

[00:18:15] The crash, which shocked and horrified the world, turned out to be the result of a chain of small but fatal errors. The first of these errors took place before the flight even took off. 

[00:18:31] To start with, the plane was over its maximum structural weight. Not only had the plane been overfueled, there was too much fuel put in it, but more items of baggage were placed in the hold than were planned for. 

[00:18:49] Put simply, the plane was too heavy.

[00:18:53] The next part sounds a little bit like a freak accident. Just after Flight 4590 had begun taxiing down the runway, a short strip of metal fell off of the engine of another plane travelling down the same runway. 

[00:19:10] The strip hit one of the Concorde’s tyres, which burst, shooting off a piece of rubber that then broke, it ruptured the plane’s fuel tank. 

[00:19:22] The resulting fire caused two of the plane’s left-side engines to fail. In spite of the pilots’ best efforts, the plane — and all those on board — were doomed

[00:19:36] Many people think — rightly think — that this was the event that put the nail in the coffin for the Concorde, but in fact, it would return to service, if only for a brief period of time. 

[00:19:50] After the crash, France and Britain grounded their aircrafts in order to make a number of — quite expensive — safety modifications. 

[00:20:00] The Concorde was finally relaunched in November 2001, returning to passenger service with stronger tyres and redesigned fuel tanks, among several other changes.

[00:20:14] 2001, however, was not a great time for air travel. On September 11th, 2001 — just before the Concorde’s relaunch — two planes crashed into New York’s World Trade Centre, killing close to 3,000 people. 

[00:20:32] As a result, air travel on the whole lost its appeal, and the number of people taking flights into New York dipped dramatically. The Concorde was flying with an almost completely empty cabin — not exactly the most sustainable business model. 

[00:20:51] Concorde eventually announced its retirement in April of 2003, and the plane would officially retire six months out from then. 

[00:21:01] With only six months left to fly on the mighty Concorde, there was a rush to buy up tickets. And, on October 24th, 2003, Concorde 002 left New York for the final time. 

[00:21:17] It was truly the end of an era. 

[00:21:21] So, where is the Concorde now? 

[00:21:24] Well, you can still get on Concorde 002, though don’t expect it to be going very fast; the plane now sits in one of the exhibition halls in the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset, in England. 

[00:21:40] For all those who weren’t quite lucky enough to fly the Concorde before it was retired, this is, perhaps, the closest you will ever get.

[00:21:49] And you might be wondering, will the world ever see anything like the Concorde again?

[00:21:55] When the Concorde retired, it had no obvious successor; it was, perhaps, the first time in the history of aeronautical engineering that we have taken a step backwards, at least in terms of the speed of aeroplanes. 

[00:22:13] The world would have to be content with subsonic, or non-supersonic, air travel. 

[00:22:19] In 2021, however, United Airlines announced its plans to purchase 15 new supersonic jets from the aeroplane manufacturer Boom Supersonic, which are expected to be in operation by the year 2029. 

[00:22:38] A number of smaller companies have proposed private supersonic jets for use by bankers, chief executives, and others who can afford the price tag

[00:22:50] And reintroducing supersonic travel to the world will, of course, be expensive. 

[00:22:56] Companies will also have to find a way to solve the issue of supersonic air travel’s environmental impact, which is something that companies like Boom are trying to address, but there is no easy solution. While there are a number of unknowns, supersonic air travel may very well return within our lifetimes. 

[00:23:18] The final barrier, however, might be beyond the capabilities of even the smartest engineers in the world.

[00:23:26] And that’s how to get rid of that infernal boom

[00:23:34] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Concorde supersonic jet. I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:23:44] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:23:48] I wonder, I just wonder, whether you might have been lucky enough to fly on a Concorde at some stage in your life? Or perhaps you can remember hearing it flying overhead?

[00:24:00] If so, please do tell - I’d love to know.

[00:24:03] And even if you are in the 99.9999999% of the world’s population who have never been on a Concorde, what do you think about the future of supersonic flight?

[00:24:15] Let’s get this discussion started.

[00:24:17] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com, and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:24:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:24:32] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Concorde, the supersonic passenger jet. 

[00:00:30] It was an aeroplane that could get you across the Atlantic Ocean, from London to New York, in a mere 3.5 hours — less than half the time it would take in a regular plane– and it captured the imaginations of much of the world during the just under thirty years it was in operation. 

[00:00:50] We’re going to learn about how the Concorde got built, what it was like to fly on it, who actually flew on it, and how it met its eventual — and tragic — downfall

[00:01:04] OK then, let’s get started.

[00:01:07] Now, we've spoken about the history of air travel in a previous episode, episode 213, where we talked about how the experience and mechanics of air travel have changed since the first aeroplane was built. 

[00:01:23] To briefly recap that episode, in the decades after commercial passenger flight got started in the 1920s — which was nearly two decades after the Wright Brothers flew the first ever powered aeroplane — air travel was accessible only to the richest people in society. 

[00:01:43] Back then, the few airline carriers in existence — now known as ‘legacy carriers’ — offered something of a luxury experience for travellers. 

[00:01:55] In the 1920s and 30s, the privileged few who could afford a seat on one of these flights were treated to the kind of service — the in-flight meals, free-flowing alcohol — that one might expect in an upscale restaurant. 

[00:02:12] Now, the experience wasn’t perfect, of course: these early planes flew at a much lower altitude than today’s planes, and so the turbulence would have been considerably more noticeable to passengers. 

[00:02:28] Thankfully, planes — and the experience of flying in general — improved vastly as technology improved. Flight distances increased, and cabins became far more comfortable. 

[00:02:43] Eventually, the deregulation of air travel, as well as the launch of low-cost air carriers, such as Ryanair, made air travel accessible to the average person: someone like you or me, who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on a single trip. 

[00:03:02] Air travel was changing rapidly. And yet, there was something else around the corner — something that would, people hoped, revolutionise the world of air travel altogether. 

[00:03:15] That something was, of course, the Concorde. 

[00:03:19] It could travel across the entire Atlantic Ocean in an incredible 3.5 hours. 

[00:03:25] It accomplished such an impressive feat of speed using something called supersonic technology, which allowed it to travel at twice the speed of sound. The Concorde flew so fast that it broke the sound barrier. 

[00:03:41] This miracle of aeronautical engineering had a maximum speed of Mach 2.04, which is almost 2,500 kilometres an hour. 

[00:03:53] Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Concorde could accommodate up to 128 passengers, and not just comfortably; passengers were treated to multi-course meals, champagne, and all other luxuries, all of which really emphasised the fact that everything about the Concorde — its speed, its design, and, of course, its cost — was exceptional

[00:04:20] First, let’s back up to the moment the idea of the Concorde was conceived

[00:04:26] The idea for a supersonic plane existed years before there was even a blueprint for the Concorde, before, even, it was certain that such a thing was technically possible. 

[00:04:39] British engineers had been discussing the idea for a supersonic aeroplane since the late 1940s. 

[00:04:48] In 1947, the Americans became the first to achieve exactly the thing these British engineers were dreaming of: they became the first to design and successfully fly a supersonic aeroplane. 

[00:05:03] However, this plane was never actually used in commercial flight. 

[00:05:09] It was actually the great enemy of the Americans, the USSR, which was the first country to successfully launch a supersonic commercial flight, in 1968, with the launch of a supersonic plane called the Tupolev TU 144. 

[00:05:26] But this plane suffered from performance issues and only flew 103 flights in its lifetime.

[00:05:34] It was to be the British — together with the French — that actually managed to accomplish the goal of building a highly functional, supersonic aeroplane that could be used for commercial passenger flight.

[00:05:49] There was a snag, however, a problem; the costs of actually building such a plane were, as you might imagine, enormous. 

[00:06:00] It would cost an estimated 100 million pounds — that's over five billion Euros in today’s money — although it actually ended up costing significantly more, at well over a billion pounds, fifty billion Euros in today’s money.

[00:06:18] At the time work started on this project, World War II had just ended, and Britain was bankrupt; people were still buying food with ration books and the economy was struggling

[00:06:33] As a result, the British would need to find a new way to finance this ambitious project. 

[00:06:41] At the same time that British engineers were drawing up the plans for this amazing aircraft, France was working on a design for a plane that looked remarkably similar. 

[00:06:54] So, instead of competing with each other, in a rare moment of collaboration, France and Britain realised that they would have more success if they worked together. They decided to put their designs together, and to share both the work and the costs. 

[00:07:14] In 1963, shortly after the French and the British revealed their plans, air carriers around the world rushed to place their orders for the Concorde — including several in the United States. 

[00:07:29] Infuriated by this news, President John F. Kennedy announced that America would build its own supersonic plane, which would rival the Concorde. 

[00:07:41] But, due to a number of constraints— many of them financial — this American supersonic aeroplane was never completed. 

[00:07:50] Meanwhile, the French and British collaboration proved successful, save for a few minor disagreements, and the first prototype, Concorde 001, took its maiden — its first — flight on March 2nd, 1969, from Toulouse in France. 

[00:08:11] It was piloted by former air force major André Turcat, and was a huge success. 

[00:08:19] It was then followed by an equally successful voyage by British pilot Brian Trubshaw, a former World War II bomber pilot, who flew Concorde 002 out of Filton Airport in Bristol, England. 

[00:08:35] Now, in order to have a plane that travels at the speed of sound, engineers couldn’t just use the same old aircraft designs. They actually had to make some rather large innovations

[00:08:51] One of the most notable was the plane’s nose, the bit at the front of the plane. Whereas a regular, non-supersonic aeroplane has a straight nose, the Concorde boasts something called a "droop snoot", or "droop nose" design.

[00:09:14] If you think this nose, this front of the airplane, looks a bit odd, a bit strange, well, you probably aren’t alone. When it's lowered, it looks almost like a broken bird’s beak — not quite the smooth, rounded nose that you might think of when you imagine an aeroplane. 

[00:09:35] However, the "droop snoot" was actually quite necessary to flying the Concorde. Because of its unique design, the Concorde flew at a steep angle during takeoff and landing, and so the pilot would adjust the plane’s nose so that it was tilting downward. 

[00:09:57] This made it so that the nose of the plane, which was longer and more needle-like than that of a typical plane, was out of the pilot’s line of sight. Otherwise, it would be much harder for the pilot to see where they were going. 

[00:10:15] The Concorde also had a triangle-shaped wing, called a Delta Wing, as opposed to the rectangular wing shape of a typical aeroplane. It also had a narrower body than that of a typical aeroplane, it was much thinner. 

[00:10:33] Both of these helped the Concorde lift off the ground during takeoff, and minimised the amount of drag — or the force that makes it harder for an aeroplane or other object to travel forward. 

[00:10:47] Of course, the Concorde boasted incredibly powerful turbojet engines, and this combination of slim design and absurd amounts of power allowed it to sustain its incredible speed of Mach 2 — almost 2,500 km an hour.

[00:11:07] The Concorde also flew so high that passengers could look out the window and see the earth’s curve

[00:11:16] It flew this high because the higher you go up, the lower the air pressure becomes, so there would be less drag, less resistance, and the plane could go faster while using less fuel.

[00:11:31] This also reduced the amount of noise heard by people standing on the ground — this is something we’ll explore in depth a bit later on in the episode.

[00:11:42] But, you’re probably wondering: just who, exactly, had the privilege of getting to fly on board this miraculous piece of machinery? 

[00:11:52] These days, you can buy plane tickets on low-cost airlines for 10 Euros or even less. People of almost every level of income can afford to fly in one way or another. 

[00:12:06] The Concorde, however, was a different kind of flight experience entirely. 

[00:12:12] In 1977, flights from New York to London began. A one-way ticket cost 431 pounds — that's around three and a half thousand Euros in today's money. 

[00:12:26] On board, passengers were treated to champagne before the flight had even taken off. They ordered from a menu of delicacies like lobster, fillet steak, and caviar, as well as a full wine list. 

[00:12:42] Flying the Concorde were people like corporate CEOs and movie stars, many of whom could afford to fly on the Concorde multiple times in a single week. If you managed to drum up the cash needed for a ticket, you may have found yourself brushing elbows with the likes of Mick Jagger and Sir Paul McCartney. 

[00:13:05] But, you might wondering, what did it actually feel like to ride in one of these planes? 

[00:13:13] Despite the incredible drama of the Concorde taking off, passengers detected surprisingly little, apparently. There was the initial burst of speed when the plane took off — but once they reached cruising altitude, the flight was as smooth as glass. 

[00:13:34] One need only imagine sipping champagne and eating oyster, while watching the curve of the earth below, to understand just how exceptional the Concorde was. 

[00:13:47] For all of the wonders of the Concorde — the intrigue, the glamour, the convenience— it was not without its drawbacks

[00:13:56] For one, an object like the Concorde cannot break the sound barrier without creating quite a lot of noise. 

[00:14:04] This noise is actually referred to as a sonic boom, and is so loud that it can be heard by people standing on the ground, even when the Concorde was flying almost 20km above the Earth’s surface. 

[00:14:20] Considering the fact that most of the people subjected to this racket, to this loud noise, were those who would never be able to afford to fly on the Concorde, it was a bit like adding insult to injury

[00:14:34] Many countries felt that the sonic boom was so disruptive that they banned the Concorde from travelling over them entirely. The noise problem even inspired protests, with people showing up to takeoff and landing sites holding signs with slogans like “Ban the Boom.”

[00:14:58] Partly because of this, the Concorde mainly flew over the Atlantic Ocean, And rarely over land, where it would be much too disturbing to people on the ground. 

[00:15:10] Another problem was the possible environmental effects of The Concorde. Because it flew so much higher than other planes, scientists believed that the Concordes exhaust would be far more damaging to the ozone layer

[00:15:26] Although this fear was justified, there were so few Concordes ever built that this never made a significant impact. 

[00:15:35] And because the Concorde could only successfully really fly two routes from either London or Paris to New York and back, and because it could only seat 128 passengers, the plane proved to be far from profitable, it simply didn't make much money. 

[00:15:56] The luxury services provided, as well as the fact that the plane could only be flown by the most elite crew, only worsened this problem.

[00:16:06] In fact, by 1981, after just five years in service, British Airways and Air France had recorded losses in the tens of millions of pounds. 

[00:16:19] As wonderful as the Concorde might have been, it was still, of course, a commercial aeroplane. And in order to keep operating, it would need to start turning a profit. 

[00:16:31] So, what did they think the solution was? 

[00:16:35] Crank up prices even more, increase the prices even higher. 

[00:16:41] British Airways put up the cost of tickets to nearly double the cost of first class tickets on its other, regular flights. It also started allowing anyone who could afford it to charter entire flights on a Concorde to any destination they pleased. 

[00:17:00] And in the mid-1980s, Concorde finally began to turn a profit. 

[00:17:06] To much of the world, it seemed as though the Concorde was just the beginning of a new age of supersonic travel. The possibilities seemed endless.

[00:17:17] Yet the Concorde, as glorious as it was, would soon meet a devastating end. 

[00:17:24] On July 25th, in the year 2000, Air France Flight 4590 took off from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, destined for JFK airport in New York. 

[00:17:37] Upon landing, the passengers — mainly German tourists — would have boarded a cruise ship bound for South America, it was to be the trip of a lifetime. 

[00:17:50] That flight, of course, never made it to JFK. Shortly after taking off, the plane lost altitude, crashing to the ground just six kilometres from the airport where it had taken off.

[00:18:05] The crash killed 113 people, including all 109 passengers on board and four people on the ground. 

[00:18:15] The crash, which shocked and horrified the world, turned out to be the result of a chain of small but fatal errors. The first of these errors took place before the flight even took off. 

[00:18:31] To start with, the plane was over its maximum structural weight. Not only had the plane been overfueled, there was too much fuel put in it, but more items of baggage were placed in the hold than were planned for. 

[00:18:49] Put simply, the plane was too heavy.

[00:18:53] The next part sounds a little bit like a freak accident. Just after Flight 4590 had begun taxiing down the runway, a short strip of metal fell off of the engine of another plane travelling down the same runway. 

[00:19:10] The strip hit one of the Concorde’s tyres, which burst, shooting off a piece of rubber that then broke, it ruptured the plane’s fuel tank. 

[00:19:22] The resulting fire caused two of the plane’s left-side engines to fail. In spite of the pilots’ best efforts, the plane — and all those on board — were doomed

[00:19:36] Many people think — rightly think — that this was the event that put the nail in the coffin for the Concorde, but in fact, it would return to service, if only for a brief period of time. 

[00:19:50] After the crash, France and Britain grounded their aircrafts in order to make a number of — quite expensive — safety modifications. 

[00:20:00] The Concorde was finally relaunched in November 2001, returning to passenger service with stronger tyres and redesigned fuel tanks, among several other changes.

[00:20:14] 2001, however, was not a great time for air travel. On September 11th, 2001 — just before the Concorde’s relaunch — two planes crashed into New York’s World Trade Centre, killing close to 3,000 people. 

[00:20:32] As a result, air travel on the whole lost its appeal, and the number of people taking flights into New York dipped dramatically. The Concorde was flying with an almost completely empty cabin — not exactly the most sustainable business model. 

[00:20:51] Concorde eventually announced its retirement in April of 2003, and the plane would officially retire six months out from then. 

[00:21:01] With only six months left to fly on the mighty Concorde, there was a rush to buy up tickets. And, on October 24th, 2003, Concorde 002 left New York for the final time. 

[00:21:17] It was truly the end of an era. 

[00:21:21] So, where is the Concorde now? 

[00:21:24] Well, you can still get on Concorde 002, though don’t expect it to be going very fast; the plane now sits in one of the exhibition halls in the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Somerset, in England. 

[00:21:40] For all those who weren’t quite lucky enough to fly the Concorde before it was retired, this is, perhaps, the closest you will ever get.

[00:21:49] And you might be wondering, will the world ever see anything like the Concorde again?

[00:21:55] When the Concorde retired, it had no obvious successor; it was, perhaps, the first time in the history of aeronautical engineering that we have taken a step backwards, at least in terms of the speed of aeroplanes. 

[00:22:13] The world would have to be content with subsonic, or non-supersonic, air travel. 

[00:22:19] In 2021, however, United Airlines announced its plans to purchase 15 new supersonic jets from the aeroplane manufacturer Boom Supersonic, which are expected to be in operation by the year 2029. 

[00:22:38] A number of smaller companies have proposed private supersonic jets for use by bankers, chief executives, and others who can afford the price tag

[00:22:50] And reintroducing supersonic travel to the world will, of course, be expensive. 

[00:22:56] Companies will also have to find a way to solve the issue of supersonic air travel’s environmental impact, which is something that companies like Boom are trying to address, but there is no easy solution. While there are a number of unknowns, supersonic air travel may very well return within our lifetimes. 

[00:23:18] The final barrier, however, might be beyond the capabilities of even the smartest engineers in the world.

[00:23:26] And that’s how to get rid of that infernal boom

[00:23:34] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Concorde supersonic jet. I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new.

[00:23:44] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:23:48] I wonder, I just wonder, whether you might have been lucky enough to fly on a Concorde at some stage in your life? Or perhaps you can remember hearing it flying overhead?

[00:24:00] If so, please do tell - I’d love to know.

[00:24:03] And even if you are in the 99.9999999% of the world’s population who have never been on a Concorde, what do you think about the future of supersonic flight?

[00:24:15] Let’s get this discussion started.

[00:24:17] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com, and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:24:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:24:32] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.


[END OF EPISODE]