A Future Barrier For Concorde

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The future of the supersonic Concorde is facing the first major test in its 30 history as a groundbreaking aircraft.

Although considered among the world's safest planes, the SST was already showing some wear - little cracks found by one operator, British Airways - when the 185 ton Air France plane, full of fuel for a transatlantic flight, crashed shortly after take off in Paris.

"BA has found cracks, Air France has a crash," said Graham Warwick, the U.S. editor of industry weekly Flight International.

"You have opposition from several areas (over noise). You have to wonder if it's worth it to keep flying these planes."

The Concorde that crashed was about 20 years old and had almost 12,000 flight hours - not particularly old for a commercial aircraft.

Flight AF4590
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  • 'Microcracks' Ground A Concorde

  • "It's remarkably young and we can think about it being a relatively new airplane...If we compare the Concorde to others, it was about four years old," John Wiley, an airline flight instructor, said Wednesday on CBS News' The Early Show. "We're going to have to figure out some way, economically and environmentally friendly to get across the Atlantic. It's a real trial. If we can do it faster, it will be there."

    Concorde test pilot Brian Trubshaw, who took the sleek, drop-nosed jet on its maiden flight over Britain in 1969, said there are great challenges ahead for the supersonic jet following Tuesday's accident.

    But he asked that the airline industry keep developing supersonic flight.

    "Someone needs to grab the reins and say 'I want some' and get on with it," Trubshaw said.

    He was not alone in pleading for the future of supersonic flight.

    "I regard Concorde as a very safe airplne that has got at least 10 years and maybe 15 years of life in it," Former British Airways test pilot John Hutchinson said. "If someone gave me a Concorde ticket right now, I'd go flying right away."

    But after the tragic Paris accident will we be hearing the end of commercial aircraft that surpass the speed of sound?

    Only minimal research is being conducted now and engineers say a new supersonic airliner may not appear until well into the 21st century.

    A supersonic business jet, seating maybe eight people, might be easier to achieve, but even there the industry sees huge obstacles.

    Although supersonic aircraft are inevitably expensive and noisy, British Airways - operator of seven of the remaining 12 Concordes - resumed its services of its SST fleet Wednesday after canceling two flights Tuesday in the immediate aftermath of the Paris crash.

    "We have complete confidence in our Concorde aircraft," said Mike Street, BA's director of customer services and operations.

    "We believe there is no technical, safety or operational evidence to suggest that Concorde should not operate safely in the future," Street said in a statement.

    Meanwhile, Air France is being more cautious about putting its five Concordes back into service.

    French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot on Wednesday ordered the indefinite suspension of all Air France Concorde flights. He said he wanted more checks, with an emphasis on the recovered black boxes - the flight recorders and cockpit voice recorder.

    "When we know a sufficient amount about them, and when we're in touch with our British colleagues, we will be able to consider the decision to resume," he said. However, he said the future of the Concorde was "not in question."

    Concorde By Numbers

    Introduced: 1976

    Number in Service: 13, operated by Air France and British Airways

    Cost of Paris-New York Roundtrip Ticket: around $10,000

    Travel Time: 3 1/2 hours (half that of regular jetliners)

    Capacity: 100 passengers, 1,300 lbs. of cargo

    Flight Crew: 2 pilots, 1 flight engineer

    Cabin Crew: 6

    Range: 3,740 miles

    Takeoff Speed: 250 mph

    Cruising Speed: 1,336 mph

    Landing Speed: 187 mph

    Length: 203 ft. 9 ins.

    Wingspan: 83 ft. 8 ins.

    Height: 37 ft. 1 ins.

    Fuselage Width: 9 ft 6 ins.

    But if Tuesday's Concorde crah does permanently ground the supersonic airliner, the world may not see its like again for decades.

    Sporadic, half-hearted attempts during the 1990s to develop a successor to the 30-year-old Anglo-French design came to nothing because aerospace engineers said they could see no way to reconcile supersonic speed with moderate noise and acceptable operating costs.

    The supersonic aircraft have to be very long and skinny, to minimize drag. Not many seats will fit in, so the result is an awful lot of expensive machinery for not many passengers.

    Worse, engines that can propel an aircraft efficiently at supersonic speed must be noisy.

    Concorde's engines even have afterburners, making them as noisy as big military jets. It may look beautiful with its sleek and elegant nose - but its roar can be deafening.

    The sonic boom that banished the Concorde to over-water flights might be minimized. U.S. aerospace company Lockheed Martin thinks careful shaping of the plane might fix that problem.

    If anything has proved how uneconomical supersonic travel is, Concorde itself has.

    When it was first developed in the 1960s and 1970s by the then British Aircraft Corporation and Aerospatiale of France, the promoters calculated that the world had enough people rich enough to keep hundreds of the planes in work.

    In fact, only 14 were ever delivered for airline service.

    Three decades on, the world has immensely more of the rich potential passengers that the builders were imagining back in 1970.

    And yet Air France and British Airways still cannot financially justify more than three return flights a day across the Atlantic to New York - with Concordes that are already paid for.

    They would not take new Concordes even if they were free - one of the Air France Concordes was broken up for spare parts a few years ago.

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