I don’t recall how I became aware of this book or what prompted me to add it to my Amazon Wish list but when I found that its price had dropped from $14.99 to $4.99, I snatched it up. I have read other books about air disasters, not so much from a morbid interest, but rather to learn more about the planes involved and the causes behind the crashes. Reading Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger & Jeffery Zaslow was a rare treat in how a tragic disaster was narrowly avoided with a successful outcome.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading several other books about the development of aircraft; most notably 747: Creating the World’s First Jumbo Jet by Joe Sutter and China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats by Robert Gandt. I hoped in reading Last Days of theConcorde: The Crash of Flight 4590 and the End of Supersonic Passenger Travel by Samme Chittum that I would also learn about its development. Turns out that was important to understanding what happened to this Concorde.
Growing up in the 1960s, I closely followed with strong interest the development of the space program, so it was not unusual that with avid curiosity, I also followed the creation of the Super Sonic Transport or SST. At the time, I had never even flown in an airplane so imaging myself zipping along at a speed greater than the speed of sound was fascinating to me. I recall the rivalry between the US and the European companies involved with the development and I can still visualize an image of one of the two US planes being developed by Lockheed (Boeing was the other US company).
A major challenge facing the engineers was how to address the problem of building a plane that could fly at both subsonic and supersonic speeds since the aerodynamics were completely different. The initial US approach was to incorporate folding wings that came forward to provide additional lift for takeoff and landing at subsonic speeds. The Europeans used a brute force approach that utilized extremely fast takeoff and landing speeds.
When these planes were first being envisioned in the 1960s, there was a belief that supersonic flight—at a cruising speed of more than twice that of a conventional jet—would be the next big thing in passenger airline service. Being able to fly from Paris to New York nonstop in under 3.5 hours or coast to coast in the US in less than 2 hours seemed an enticing prospect and predictions of hundreds of these planes being sold to the major air carriers and flying the global skies seemed a real possibility. However, several realities squashed these dreams and thus the US dropped out of the competition. Ultimately the French and British companies combined their efforts but in total, only 20 of the Concordes were ever built and sold to British Airways and Air France.
Being developed in the 1960s in an age of cheap gas—prior to the oil embargo days of the 1970s—burning 100 tons of jet fuel for a single transatlantic supersonic crossing was not an issue. However, the first commercial flight of the Concorde did not occur until January 21, 1976, years after the oil crisis. The high cost of fuel at that time necessitated ticket prices of $10,000 or more. Yet there were still passengers willing to pay the price.
The bigger issue that limited the number of planes being built was related to crossing the threshold from subsonic to supersonic speed or the transonic phase. Often referred to as the sound barrier, it is not a barrier at all. However, it is where the aerodynamics of flight changes. And a common misunderstanding is that the sonic boom only occurs once the plane enters supersonic flight. In reality the boom is continuous as long as the plane is supersonic. So, flying over populated areas would mean that a nonstop boom would be heard along its flight path. No one wanted this and, in the US, it was outlawed.
Because of these factors, seeing the iconic delta winged Concorde was a rare sight in the US. Having followed its development with interest growing up, I was pleased to actually get to see one when it flew to Memphis on a special charter in 1987. I also took my oldest son to the airport not long after it landed, and we got to see it being towed to its overnight storage area.
Years later in July 2000 when I heard that one had crashed and first saw this image, I was tremendously saddened first by the total loss of all aboard but also pondered what it might mean for the Concordes as well. I followed the investigation as it unfolded and had a general idea of what caused the crash. It took over a year to research and implement fixes to the planes and when they flew again, not long after September 11, 2001, it was greeted with excitement. But none of the fixes addressed the lack of fuel efficiency nor did it reduce the ticket price from over $12,000 by then. Less than two years later, Air France and British Airways both made the decision to mothball the planes permanently when Airbus decided to discontinue support (they produced spare parts for the Concorde).
This well documented book provided me with a brief history of the development challenges of the Concorde because of how they factored into the tragedy. The book read like a murder mystery as investigators slowly uncovered clues and tested theories. Often times, an air disaster is not caused by a single event but rather a series of connected ones. And it was an incredible series of unlikely events that led to this crash, any one of which if it had not occurred, would have led to a completely different outcome.
The events of that tragic flight all took place within a time span of a mere 121 seconds but yet left a debris field six miles long laid out in a chronological fashion as parts fell from the plane. Once the causes of the crash were elucidated and proven with as much credibility as possible, the facts were married to the data from the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (VCR), both contained within the “black box.” With all revealed, the book then played back in slow-motion-like detail documenting how the crew reacted to the unfolding events.
Not wanting to spoil the story for those who might be interested in reading this book, I will only say that it was ultimately concluded that the flight crew could not have done anything differently to avert the outcome. The damage to the plane could not be overcome with any amounts of heroics or alternate decisions. The plane’s doom was set within two seconds of the first debilitating event.
People who had the opportunity to fly the Concorde over its brief 27-year history had a rare treat. Flying at twice the speed of sound, faster than a speeding bullet, at a height of 60,000 feet, they could marvel at the curvature of the Earth and look upward towards the beginnings of the darkness of outer space.
I have actually had the pleasure of getting to walk down the narrow aisle of this unique airplane at one of my favorite museums, the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA.
Here I have gotten to explore its interior with my grandson and think back to the day when as a young boy myself, I would have delighted in getting to fly inside her.
This book gave me a new appreciation for what this plane accomplished in its short history and has spawned my further interest in learning more about its development. I know I will never be able to fly in a Concorde, but I can at least visit one anytime I am at the museum and dream of its flight with my two grandsons that live in Seattle.