“She Flies! She Flies!” is the first sound that most people remember about this day 50 years ago. Raymond Baxter, the BBC’s anchor that was covering the event shouted in excitement while the four Snecma Olympus 593 engines delivered full thrust and the Aerospatiale/BAC Concorde left the runway and was finally airborne.
It was a Sunday, and the team was impatient after a day of delays: originally intended for March 1, Concorde’s first flight was postponed to March 2 due to the heavy mist present in Toulouse. André Turcat, chief test pilot and Director of Flight Testing for Sud-Aviation, was in command of the plane and the hopes of the whole European commercial aviation industry. A setback of the SST project would doom the future of the builders.
It is important to track down the origins of the project to WWII’s last years: once the allies realized that the victory was close, that the operations were reducing in scale and resources along with that the attrition rate was downsizing rapidly, the production capacity of the aircraft manufacturers was no longer challenged, but quite the opposite. As a division of the tasks, U.S. builders were tasked to produce heavy bombers, that were easily converted to passenger airliners. Therefore, production lines were filled with airliner orders, while European constructors were focused on attack and small airplanes.
John Moore- Brabazon, 1st Baron Brabazon of Tara and Churchill’s Minister of Aircraft Production in 1941-1942, forged a plan for the British aviation industry to channel its expertise and production capacity into the civilian industry. A committee was formed, and its final report identified five different types of aircraft that the United Kingdom was going to need in future years.
Eventually, Requirement Type IV would be developed into the promising De Havilland Comet. Filled with innovations, one of them would seal its destiny: the squared windows didn’t handle the pressure as they should and made several aircraft crash. In the end, the Comet would lose precious years reinventing itself while U.S. builders increased their lead.
After Comet’s demise, the European industry needed to shake that failure off and started working on the next big thing: Supersonic transport. At that time, it was a tremendous challenge to conquer all the technical shortcomings of such an uncharted territory as supersonic commercial service. All that enormous and excruciating work was finally put to the test on that Sunday. Four years of construction, seven years from preliminary design until that day: all that was on the line when the beautiful SST was finally airborne.
A fast climb to the clouds and she was lost from sight: only the trailing Dassault Mirage was the witness of the whole 40-minute flight. When prototype 001 was back over Toulouse skies, many engineers and technicians started to cry of happiness, but there was also a sense of relief.
The last moment of fear was yet to come: the landing. It all went smoothly: touchdown, brakes, reverses, and the parachute worked perfectly and the Concorde completed a fantastic first flight.
André Ducat was the first one that appeared on the top of the steps, followed by his crew. He waived the cheering crowd and descended the stairway to receive the handshakes and hugs of the ground crew surrounding the Concorde. “She handles herself better than the simulator predict,” he said later at a briefing.
A week and a month later, Prototype 002, the first British-built Concorde, would complete its first flight, from Filton to Fairford. The supersonic era of passenger service was set to commence seven years later, but in this day 50 years ago, a BBC’s news reporter lost his British composure and shouted in awe that a metal bird that was set to change the world finally spread her wings.
Technology and systems expert, occasional spotter, not-so-dynamic midfielder, blogger, husband, father of three cats; he believes that Latin America's aviation industry past, present, and future offer a lot of stories to be told.
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