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During recent years, Concorde has been much in the news. On 25 July 2000, an Air France Concorde flying to New York, crashed outside Paris shortly after takeoff, killing all 113 people on board and four people on the ground. Only days earlier, British Airways had disclosed that cracks had been found in the wings of all seven of its Concorde jets. Air France then made a similar disclosure, having found cracks in four of its six Concordes. The crash was assumed to have been caused by the presence of a metal strip on the runway which caused a burst tyre and perforation of the fuel tank. This in turn caused a fuel leak and fire that brought the plane down. These assumptions were eventually confirmed by the BEA (French Accident Investigation Bureau).

Concorde was immediately withdrawn from service by both Air France and British Airways. This suspension of operations lasted 15 months which was an unprecedented measure in civil aviation. All Concorde have since been fitted with fuel tank liners, a reinforced undercarriage and stronger tyres. Service was resumed on 7 November 2001.

It is now 40 years since the idea of Concorde was first mooted. On 29 November 1962 following long negotiations, the French and British governments signed a draft agreement to jointly build a supersonic commercial plane. Two months later, General de Gaulle used the word ‘Concorde’ in a speech about the supersonic project. The British picked up on this and quickly stripped the ‘e’ from the word. In June 1963, both the US and USSR governments announced they would also build supersonic commercial planes.

On 24 October 1963, less than a year after the agreement was drafted, the first model of Concorde was unveiled to the press. Only a year later, Britain announced its intention to pull out of the project as it was facing a major economic crisis. Britain was eventually persuaded not to cancel the agreement.

The first Concorde was unveiled to the public in Toulouse on 11 December 1967. Until this time the spelling of the aircraft had been a bone of contention between the French and British governments. However to everyone’s surprise, the British Secretary of Technology , Sir Anthony Wedgwood Benn, backed down and declared ‘British Concord will add an "e" because this tiny letter means a lot to us. It means "E"xcellence, "E"ngland, "E"urope and "E"ntente’.

Concord (in English) and Concorde (in French) mean peace, harmony and agreement in both languages. Although the British and French governments agreed that their supersonic aircraft should be called ‘Concord (e)’ they could not agree on the spelling.

Soon after the 1962 agreement was signed the French President Charles de Gaulle used the word ‘Concorde’ - the French spelling - in a widely reported speech. The British quickly stripped the ‘e’ to make the name more English.

It took five years to settle the debate with the British technology minister, Anthony Wedgwood Benn finally conceding - gracefully. The British Concord would be known as Concorde, he said. ‘The ‘e’ stood for excellence, England, Europe and entente.’

In the summer of 1968, the first Concorde was rolled out onto a specially built runway. A few months later, however, the first supersonic commercial plane to take off was the Tupolev TU-144, nicknamed Concordski by westerners. The USSR had beaten the Europeans in the race to fly the first supersonic jet. The first Concorde to fly was Concorde Prototype 001 which cruised over Paris at subsonic speeds on 29 February 1968.

Six months later, both Concordes, 001 and 002, flew beyond the sound barrier for the first time, and on 4 November 1970 Concorde 001 exceeded Mach 2 and stayed at this speed for fifty three minutes.

1971 saw the first intercontinental supersonic test flights and the first head of state (George Pompidou) to fly at twice the speed of sound, Mach 2. In France, Concorde began a battery of tests flights called Sierra, in order to measure the effects of supersonic flights over inhabited territories. Several supersonic flights over London in 1967 had raised 4,000 protests, though a 73 year old man from London, who had been deaf since 1954, recovered his hearing! Tests showed that Concorde flying at 15,000m altitude, created a pressure of 1.02 millibars, whilst laboratory tests showed that a pressure of 8 millibars was needed before a properly fitted glass window would break.

On 25 May 1971 eight years after it was launched, the US project for a supersonic plane was cancelled. This was as a direct result of the Senate decision not to allocate any more funds to the project.

Concorde’s first intercontinental flight took place on 25 May 1971 from Toulouse, France to Dakar, Senegal, and on 4 September she took off for her first transatlantic flight. Concorde 001 flew for almost 30 hours, thirteen and a half hours of which were supersonic, and almost nine and a half hours at Mach two. The supersonic plane flew first to Rio, through Sal, in Cap Verde islands, then to Cayenne in French Guyana. President Nixon graciously said later that year that Concorde was a tremendous success and that he regretted the fact that the USA had not continued their project.

By the end of 1972 there was concern amongst airlines as to whether Concorde would receive authorisation to land in New York. Many airlines had added this condition to their decision to purchase Concorde. On 29 March 1973 the Federal Aviation Administration forbade supersonic flights over land in the USA. The only exemption was for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who was authorised to conduct supersonic flights for space shuttle research.

30 June 1973 saw the longest solar eclipse for more than 1000 years. Viewed from the ground, the eclipse would last for seven minutes. However, it would last much longer, viewed from a Concorde flying at maximum speed. Concorde had been changed into a flying laboratory with windows altered to accommodate telescopes and was flown at maximum speed over Mauritania, so that scientists were able to study the eclipse for 74 minutes.

On 21 January 1976 the first commercial flight by Concorde left Paris for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil via Dakar. As a symbol of 13 years of collaboration, a British Airways Concorde also took off at the same time from London Heathrow for its first flight to Bahrein. The Air France Concorde covered the 10,000 kilometers between Paris and Rio in 7 hours and 26 minutes.

In February 1976 the federal government gave the go-ahead for Concorde to land in New York and Washington. However a month later PONYA (Port Authority of New York) refused to allow any Concorde to land. Since Concorde was mainly built for this route, this decision posed a grave threat to its future. In June of the same year, two Concordes were impounded by the US federal government, one from Air France and one from British Airways. The flights, from Paris and London, were scheduled to arrive at the same time in Washington. Approaching on two parallel runways, they landed at the same time. It is no coincidence that Concorde’s first commercial flight was to Washington

On 17 October 1977 the US Supreme Court ruled that the PONYA decision was illegal thus opening the route to New York for Concorde. Finally on 22 November 1977 two Concordes landed at Kennedy Airport within two minutes of each other. At last Concorde had won what was known as the battle of New York, 18 months after the first landing in Washington.

The life of Concorde has continued, with routes opening and closing, some for environmental reasons, others for purely economic ones. In October 1978 British Airways carried its 100,000th passenger on board Concorde. On 21 September 1979 the French and British governments agreed to end production of Concorde. Production lines would close, 12 years after the launch of the first plane. In total 16 planes and 88 engines were manufactured. The five remaining Concordes would be given to the two airlines. British Airways, who already owned five, would get two, while Air France, having only four would pay one symbolic franc for each of the three she would get.

In ten years, the 14 Concordes of Air France and British Airways covered more than 3,600 times the circumference of the world and carried more than 1,500,000 passengers.

The supersonic speed of Concorde had positive a spin-off for scientists on 30 June 1973 - the day of the longest solar eclipse in 1000 years.

Concorde 001, fitted out with telescopes, carried scientists from Britain, France and USA at 17 000 metres altitude between Las Palmas, Canaries and Fort Lamy, Chad.

By flying at maximum speed, the supersonic jet enabled scientists to see the solar eclipse continuously for 80 minutes, much longer than the seven minutes they would have had if on firm ground.

Copyright and Permission: Karen Starr 2002

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