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50 Years of Engineering - 1976: Concorde



To celebrate Fircroft’s 50th anniversary, EngineeringPro is celebrating the engineering accomplishments made from 1970-2020. Each week we look back at a different year and a particular engineering marvel that changed the world. This week we reach 1976 and the commercial launch of the iconic supersonic passenger plane: Concorde.

(Image via BAE)

Let’s get one thing out of the way before we begin. 1976 is not Concorde’s year of birth. The airliner first flew in March 1969, when French airforce pilot André Turcat conducted an initial test flight of the prototype “Concorde 001” from Toulouse. The first British-made Concorde followed on the 9th April, on a test flight from Filton to RAF Fairford, piloted by Brian Trubshaw. 001 was the first to go supersonic the following October. 

Though 1969 puts these first feats just out of the remit of this series, it would be another seven years after those initial flights that passengers were able to take a trip on the spectacular supersonic plane. On the 21st January 1976, scheduled flights began under the operations of British Airways and Air France, taking passengers on routes from London - Bahrain and Paris - Rio de Janeiro respectively.

(Image via Musée Air France)

A multi-national icon

Concorde was jointly designed by British and French engineers, following the signing of a treaty on 29th November 1962 for the two countries to share costs and risks in producing a supersonic transport (SST). Its airframe was developed by British Aerospace and Aérospatiale, while the powerful Olympus engines were produced by Rolls-Royce and the Société Nationale d’Étude et de Construction de Moteurs d’Aviation (SNECMA).

(Image via Keystone)

Concorde’s distinctive shape is an important factor that allows the craft to travel at supersonic speeds. It featured long “delta” wings - meaning they formed a triangle - cut into a curved “Ogival” shape. The benefits of slender delta shaped wings had initially been published by Johanna Weber and Dietrich Küchemann of the Royal Aircraft Establishment in 1955. Their findings showed that a thin delta wing with a high angle of attack could generate a strong lift required for both take-off and landing capability and efficient supersonic performance. Weber noted that a delta wing lengthened along the fuselage would create an increased vortex on its upper surface to deliver the required lift. 

When the design feature was proposed at a meeting attended by Sir Morien Morgan, head of the RAE’s committee to study supersonic transport, Morgan immediately seized it as the solution to the supersonic problem. Test Pilot Eric Brown - who was also in attendance - described the moment as being the “true birth” of the Concorde project.

An “ogee” wing was developed from the slender delta planform, that would put the wing’s centre of pressure (or “life point”) close the the craft’s centre of gravity to reduce the amount of control force to pitch the airliner. The design meant the plane would require a “nose high” angle for take-off and landing, which required longer than ordinary landing gear. 

(Image via Wikipedia)

A further problem was that the long, streamlined nose prevented pilots from being able to see the runway during take-off and landing. The solution became another iconic visual feature of Concorde - its “drooping” nose which could be adjusted to a 5-degree angle for take-off and a 12.5-degree angle for landing, allowing the pilots to see over it. 
Four Olympus engines were designed with afterburners that would provide additional thrust during take-off to help the craft reach supersonic speeds. Each engine was capable of generating 38,000 pounds of thrust and used up 6,770 gallons (25,627 litres) of fuel per hour. With the engines designed for supersonic travel, they were notoriously inefficient at low speeds - with almost 2% of the fuel being burned up just taxiing to the runway.

(Image via Adrian Meredith)

Flight of the Concorde

1976 saw Concorde first enter scheduled service, operated by British Airways and Air France. Its first routes were London - Bahrain and Paris - Rio de Janeiro (with a stop in Dakar).

Initially it was banned from flying over the USA, due to the disruption caused by the “sonic boom” - a loud, explosive shock wave created when an object travels faster than the speed of sound - but regulations were relaxed to allow Concorde to begin flying to Washington in 1976 and New York in 1977.

In fact it had a top speed over twice the speed of sound at Mach 2.04 (1,345.6 mph) and travelled at a cruising altitude of 19,812 metres (65,000 feet). It could carry up to 100 passengers from London to New York in just three and a half hours.

(Image via British Airways)

Concorde became a status symbol for the wealthy and the famous. From 1980, BA flights would be sold at around £8,000 per ticket. Many were happy to pay up just for the ability to say they’d flown on Concorde - in fact the bragging rights were so coveted that passengers could take home official certificates! It didn’t hurt that the experience was a little more luxurious than - say - Ryanair passengers are used to, with unlimited champagne and Beluga caviar delivered to passengers as they sat back in comfortable leather bucket seats and gazed out at the view from high enough to see the curvature of the Earth.

Those who flew on Concorde all had their own stories of the experience. For some it would be the thrill of travelling faster than the speed of sound, for others it would be the feeling of joining the elite group of passengers. And for broadcaster Terry Wogan it was the thrill that came from completing a journey so quickly that the East Coast time upon landing in the USA would be earlier than GMT upon take off in London, allowing him to “eat breakfast at Heathrow, and breakfast again on arrival in New York”.

Another famed TV presenter, David Frost, is said (allegedly) to have travelled twice daily on Concorde, to commute from his London home to record segments of his show in New York and then return in the evening. And Phil Collins famously flew on Concorde in order to play at both the London and Philadelphia Live Aid concerts on the same day in 1985.

On a less famous note, here’s a story from the family of this author: my grandparents were once lucky enough to fly on Concorde. As the airliner reached its cruising speed my grandmother turned to my grandad, saying “I thought there was supposed to be a sonic boom?”. Grandad laughed before patiently explaining that since they were now travelling faster than the speed of sound: “we’ve left the boom behind us”.

(Image via British Airways)


Concorde remains one of only two supersonic passenger planes to enter active service - and is generally regarded as the most successful. The other is the Russian Tupolev Tu-144, which made its first flight just two months before Concorde. However the craft was not nearly as well designed, with unexpected cracks appearing in the airframe and causing multiple crashes. It was retired in 1983.

20 Concordes were built, though only 14 were ever used in active service. Due to the expense involved both in flying and upgrading the airliner, and the relatively small passenger capacity, it would prove financially problematic as the world moved towards larger planes and cheaper air travel. Following a disastrous crash in 2000, both Air France and British Airways simultaneously decided to retire Concorde in 2003.

The airliner remains a symbol of national pride in both the UK and France, and has been flown at special air shows and occasions such as Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee in June 2002.

The 18 remaining Concorde airliners are on display at airports and museums in the UK, France, USA, Germany and Barbados.

There has not been another supersonic airliner in commercial service since.

(Image via Apple)

The engineering world of 1976

Other major engineering milestones from 1976 include:

  • Cray-1, the first commercially developed supercomputer is released by Cray Research in January.
  • Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak found Apple Computer on 1st April at Jobs’ parents’ home in Los Altos, California.
  • Toronto’s CN Tower is completed in June. The 1,815 foot tower will be the tallest free standing structure in the world for the next 34 years.
  • The Viking 1 lander successfully lands on Mars in July and sends back NASA’s now famous “Face on Mars” photo. Viking 2 follows, landing on 3rd September.
  • NASA unveils the first space shuttle - the Enterprise - in September. The prototype was created just for test flights, with the Space Shuttle program not holding its official launch until 1981.
  • Ford officially launches production of the Fiesta from its Valencia plant in October.
  • The first laser printer, the IBM 3800 is introduced by IBM.

Read our look back at 1975 and the founding of Microsoft.

Fircroft: 50 years of connecting people

In 1970 John Johnson formed Fircroft. 50 years later the company is one of the leading recruiters of engineering and technical professionals throughout the world. If you’re looking for your next job in Oil & Gas, Renewable Energy, Petrochemical, ICT, Automotive, Construction or Mining, register with Fircroft for free today.

Tags: Engineering
Recent Comments
Concorde was a brilliant piece of engineering – hopefully there will be other supersonic passenger planes in the future!
David Lawson, 26 February 2020
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50 Years of Engineering - 1976: Concorde - Time to read 8 min
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