Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Concorde SST

I have fond memories of a small newspaper read by many grade schoolers during my era called “My Weekly Reader.” This weekly compilation of current events and issues for young students opened my eyes to much that was happening in the late 1960s/early 1970s around the world.

Being interested in science (and things that go fast), I was fascinated by the development of an SST—a supersonic transport. Would America go ahead with plans to create one? Eventually, our plans were shelved, partly to the budget concerns that still plague us today, as well as environmental concerns. However, the British and the French went ahead and built the first SST which they named the Concorde. It was a grand plane with swept back wings and a needle-like nose that drooped for better visibility during landing!

When I joined the Peace Corps, figuring to spend most of my time in a small isolated village somewhere, I had no idea that one day I would get to climb aboard the amazing Concorde and experience it for myself—although unfortunately, without getting off the ground. However, one of the things I've learned is that the Peace Corps adventure is truly unpredictable, and opportunities abound for discovering new and interesting experiences.
I had to fly home for my daughter's wedding, and my flight routed me through the island of Barbados. It turns out that one of the last remaining Concordes was parked at the airport there and turned into a tourist display. Barbados used to be a weekly destination for Concorde flights, bringing Europeans to the eastern Caribbean. A temporary was building was erected around it on the tarmac, and for $20 you can explore the Barbados Concorde Experience. I knew I wanted to do it!
Unlike other Concordes that were distributed to museums such as the Smithsonian at Dulles Airport in Washington or the Intrepid Museum in New York, this is the only one where you can go inside the plane. It is also the only one that still gets monthly maintenance checks, so if British Airways ever needed an SST, this would be the one pressed back into service.
One of the interesting facts about flying on the Concorde is that the pressurization at the ultra high altitudes it flew (about twice the height of commercial aircraft), as well as the skin heat due to the high speeds, both cause the fuselage to expand, so that had to be taken into consideration. I was shown where the carpet stretches to accommodate this lengthening.
I also found it interesting that rather than one large fuel tank, the Concorde has many smaller cells so that unused fuel can be pumped around to maintain the perfect center of gravity. Yet another point of interest is that they sometimes left at night from Europe flying across the Atlantic, and flew so fast that they caught up with the sun, allowing a rare view of the sun rising in the west rather than the east. These are just a few of the fascinating stories I heard from my tour guide.

It is a shame that one of the other casualties of September 11, 2001 was the age of Supersonic Transport via the Concorde. They had just started flying again after the tragic crash in Paris when 9/11 shook the aviation industry. The business falloff led to the decision to retire these elegant and incredible machines. However, I've read recently that some companies are talking about resurrecting the idea of supersonic transport, with new advanced designs. Perhaps the day will come again when commercial flights are available that arrive before the time you departed.

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting factoid ... the windows had to be very small due to the pressures of high altitude flight. I went through one somewhere and was shocked at how small it was and how few passengers it could take. I believe that was it's downfall as the cost per person to cover flight and maintenance costs is prohibitive for all but the wealthy or high-end business persons.