November 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 7
Thanks to the inexorable workings of plate tectonics, the Atlantic Ocean is about 100 feet wider today than it was when Columbus first made landfall in the Bahamas in 1492. In every sense but the physical, however, it is almost incomparably narrower. Columbus left Spain on August 3 and arrived in the New World on October 12, a voyage of 70 days. Although sailing ships would get much larger and more seaworthy over the next 300 years, they would not get much faster. A two-month passage, sailing westward, was still considered reasonable as late as the early nineteenth century. The coming of steam changed that abruptly. By 1900 it took only a week for a crack passenger ship to cross the Atlantic.
The airplane made possible a second leap in speed. In 1927 Lindbergh crossed the ocean in a then breathtaking 33½ hours. But transatlantic passenger traffic remained seaborne (except, briefly, for a trickle of people on Pan Am Clippers and on Zeppelins such as the Hindenburg) until after World War II. The war stimulated a great surge in the development of large airframes and jet engines, and when the Boeing 707 first ferried customers across the ocean, in 1958, airplanes quickly came to dominate transatlantic travel. Within a few years the passenger ship was largely extinct. It is not hard to see why: A Boeing 707 can cross the Atlantic in a mere seven hours, 12 times faster than the fastest ocean liner and a staggering 240 times faster than Columbus.
With this history, it is hardly surprising that many people in 1960 assumed that ever-increasing speed was the future of aviation. A race to design a speedier successor to the 707 quickly erupted. The world was sadly reminded of the winner of that race this past summer, when an Air France Concorde crashed on takeoff in Paris, killing all 109 people on board and several more on the ground. But how did it come about that a British-French consortium ended up winning a race against America in an area of technology that the United States had dominated for two decades? The answer is a major irony of twentieth-century capitalism. The United States simply made several major mistakes in deciding how to run this race. By doing so, however, it saved itself from what turned out to be commercial disaster.
By the 1960s many first-line fighter planes were capable of flying at supersonic speeds. But designing a fighter plane was one thing; designing a supersonic transport, or SST, capable of carrying a large payload at a profit, was quite another. For one thing, an aircraft whose design is maximized for supersonic flight is inherently not well designed for subsonic flight. It requires longer runways and more powerful (hence noisier) engines just to get off the ground. The larger the airplane, the more this is a problem. Another concern was that as a plane’s speed increases, the amount of fuel needed to maintain that speed increases as well. And the increase is not linear. Supersonic flight gobbles up fuel at a simply prodigious rate per unit of weight.
There was one further major problem. Supersonic flight ineluctably generates a sonic boom. It sounds like thunder and at close range can shatter windows and do other damage, besides seriously annoying everyone for miles around. About the only thing to be done to mitigate the sonic boom is to fly higher, allowing distance to dissipate it.
It was clear from the very beginning that no private aircraft company could afford to risk the vast sums that would be needed to design and build so technologically difficult a plane; governments would have to provide most of the seed money. When the Boeing 707 went into service, Britain had already been funding research for some time on an SST capable of flying the Atlantic at around two times the speed of sound. To spread the costs, the U.K. tried hard to persuade the United States to develop it jointly.
Here the United States made its first fortunate mistake. Behind in research and unwilling to play second fiddle to the British, it decided to leapfrog ahead of what the British had in mind and develop a second-generation SST that would be able to travel at Mach 3. The idea was to concede the first SST sales to the British and then seize back the market with a much more capable plane. For the interim, Boeing began work on the 747, the first jumbo jet. The British, rebuffed by the United States, sealed a deal with France in November 1962 to share research, design, and production costs on a Mach 2.2 design named Concord (the e was added later).
In June 1963 President Kennedy announced the government’s commitment to building an SST. By 1966, by which time the government had funded the project to the tune of some $400 million (perhaps $2 billion in today’s dollars), two American aircraft companies, Boeing and Lockheed, had been chosen to develop competing designs.
On the last day of December 1966, the federal government made its second big mistake. It chose Boeing’s radical and technically complex swing-wing design over Lockheed’s more conservative approach. Lockheed had designed a delta-wing plane, not unlike the Concorde but far larger. Also like the Concorde, it suffered from the fact that a good supersonic design is inherently a bad subsonic one. Boeing’s plane, by altering the shape of the wings as needed, could fly efficiently at both sub- and supersonic speeds and utilize many more airports.
Gen. William F. McKee, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said his decision was “supported by competent Government evaluation and by the majority of the major United States airlines.” Well, so much for competent government evaluation. Everyone concerned had grossly underestimated the technical difficulties involved. Twenty-two months later, Boeing was forced to abandon its swing-wing design. Despite Herculean efforts, the company had been unable to come up with a swing-wing design light enough to carry a profitable passenger load. Boeing was forced to fall back on a delta-wing design.
This meant that while the Concorde was then scheduled to go into service in 1972, the Boeing SST couldn’t hope to do so until 1978. And 16 airlines, many of them American, already had options on no fewer than 74 Concordes. The Anglo-French plane was beginning to look like a winner that might dominate the skies for years before the American competition was even able to roll out of the hangar.
Moreover, the plate tectonics of politics in the Western world were now producing a major shift of their own. At the beginning of the SST project, the problems of sonic boom and fuel consumption had been casually dismissed by many as a price of progress. Now they suddenly loomed as potential project killers as the growing environmental movement picked the SST as one of its prime symbolic targets.
The advocates of the SST, notably William M. Magruder, who headed President Nixon’s SST office at the Department of Transportation, fought back. They argued balance of payment, technological leadership, and research benefits. Had the project been further along, with more money sunk in it and more jobs at stake, these arguments might have prevailed. But in 1970 the American SST was still, well, pie in the sky. On March 18, 1971, the House voted 215-204 to kill all funds for the plane. On March 24 the Senate voted 51-46 against restoring them. Sen. Barry Goldwater (who had retired as a major general in the Air Force Reserve) predicted that in 10 years the United States would no longer lead the world as an airframe manufacturer.
They were wrong. The Concorde had to undergo two expensive bouts of design changes. In 1973 Pan Am and TWA both dropped their options to buy Concordes. The airlines simply didn’t believe they could sell enough tickets to pay for the high cost of an aircraft that could hold only 100 passengers while using more fuel than the new Boeing 747. The 747 held up to 452 and had been flying profitably since 1970. And it was now clear that the Concorde, because of the sonic boom, would be allowed to operate supersonically only over oceans.
In the end, only British Airways and Air France, then government-owned and having no choice, agreed to buy Concordes. The British and French governments in effect had to eat billions of dollars in development costs. And only 16 were ever built.
At $10,000 per round-trip ticket, the Concorde quickly became little more than a status symbol for the very rich. It was the jumbo jets, led by the once-stopgap Boeing 747, that would rule the skies. Indeed, the jumbo still does. The European consortium Airbus Industrie has recently committed itself to spending $12 billion to design and build a superjumbo able to hold as many as 940 passengers. Meanwhile, Boeing has abandoned the latest SST project, the so-called High Speed Civil Transport program, again largely funded by the government. Why? Because “we can’t close the price-cost loop,” a Boeing spokesman explained. “You and I couldn’t afford to fly in the darn things.”