Fast, but noisy and expensive


It was an engineering marvel and an economic millstone. It symbolized the zenith of luxury at a time when the pleasures of air travel are at a nadir. And, until Tuesday, the Concorde had an unblemished safety record.

Able to fly across the Atlantic in 3 1/2 hours, cruising more than 10 miles above the Earth at twice the speed of sound, the Concorde, with its $10,000 round-trip tickets, is the conveyance of choice for the super-rich and super-powerful.

While Air France and British Airways - the only two airlines to fly the supersonic airplane - can eke out a profit on the plane through shrewd marketing and chartering the jet for about $40,000 an hour, the plane's development cost was a staggering $21 billion in current dollars, all bankrolled by French and British taxpayers.

Only 16 planes were made. Thirteen were in commercial use until Tuesday. Now, there are 12 - an Air France Concorde, filled with German tourists, crashed Tuesday just after takeoff from Paris.

British Airways temporarily grounded its seven planes but put them back into service yesterday. Air France's five remain grounded.

The plane is a source of great pride to the French and British, who began collaborating on a supersonic plane in 1962 and initially saw a market for hundreds.

The biggest engineering feats involved making the plane reach speeds approaching and exceeding the speed of sound without having shock waves disrupt the plane's controls.

The Concorde's delta-shaped wing - a dramatic difference in the plane's appearance from conventional aircraft - has no leading edge or trailing edge flaps that give other commercial aircraft added lift at lower speeds.

When the Concorde travels at Mach 1 and above, the front edge of the wings becomes very hot (the nose reaches temperatures of 260 degrees). An irregularity in a leading edge flap could become superhot, causing it to melt, said aviation specialists.

Because there are no flaps, in order to gain lift, the plane must take off at a higher speed - roughly 225 miles per hour - and at a much steeper angle than a conventional airplane. Because of that angle, the needle nose was designed to drop so pilots could see the runway on takeoff and landing.

While the cause of the crash has not been determined, early speculation - bolstered by photographs of flames spewing out of the underwing engines - is focusing on an explosive failure of one or more of the four Rolls Royce engines.

If an engine failed and damaged the twin near it, the plane would have been extremely difficult to control as it struggled, heavy with fuel, to gain altitude.

"The plane is not that easy to control at low speeds; it is not easy to control in general on approach and landing," said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"With an engine failure, you would have asymmetric yaw [engines pushing the plane to turn in one direction instead of forward] and there is not a lot of rudder on this airplane to control that."

The Concorde's first test flight came in 1969, about the same time Boeing was testing its 747. Boeing was also involved in developing a supersonic airplane, but it never built a prototype.

When the 747 beat the Concorde to the market by six years, and fuel prices began skyrocketing in the early 1970s, demand for the Concorde evaporated. The 747 consumed one-fourth the fuel of the Concorde and carried four times as many passengers.

The Concorde's loud engines (it is the noisiest commercial airplane in service) and sonic boom resulted in operating restrictions in the United States, further diminishing its appeal to airlines.

Braniff was the only U.S. airline to ever fly the Concorde, leasing a plane and using it on a route from Washington to Dallas. But Braniff went bankrupt months later.

Airline officials have said that, because the plane is used only three or four hours day, it will last much longer than regular planes. Its extensive and expensive maintenance program - which recently uncovered cracks in the wings and resulted in one British Airways plane being pulled from service - will also help the aging airplane to fly for many more years.

But as the Concorde ages, its maintenance costs will keep soaring, and no new supersonic airplane awaits to replace it.

Airplane manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic considered an international consortium to come up with a replacement. Airbus started developing its double-decker superjumbo jet.

Boeing and NASA teamed up to develop a high-speed civil transport capable of carrying 300 passengers at more than twice the speed of sound and having a range that would make trans-Pacific routes possible (a trip the Concorde cannot make).

The U.S. government budgeted more than $2 billion for the NASA part of the project, but the plug was pulled on it last year.

"We could never come up with an environmental solution for noise and the high-altitude emissions," said John Roundhill, Boeing's vice president of commercial airplane product strategy and development. "We could not make it work for us based on what we would have to charge."

NASA officials said development would have cost about $20 billion. And unlike British Aerospace and Aerospatiale, which jointly developed the Concorde, Boeing would not have been able to pass the full development costs on to U.S. taxpayers.

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