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Tuesday, 17 July, 2001, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Concorde pilot quizzed
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Concorde has taken to the skies for its first test flight since it was grounded a year ago following a Paris crash in which 113 people died.

The aircraft took off from Heathrow airport, London, for a test flight of three hours and 20 minutes across the Atlantic, before returning to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

But should concorde fly again? Is it really safe? Can the airplane ever regain its former status and prestige?

Retired concorde pilot and author Christopher Orlebar took your questions live from the test-site at Heathrow.


Transcript:


Newshost:

Carl Downing, Cardiff asks: Given Concorde's good safety record, why do you think the authorities were so quick to ground this aircraft when, after crashes of 747s or 737s, that fleet has been allowed to fly on?


I am not sure that Concorde deserved to be grounded

Christopher Orlebar

Christopher Orlebar:

I am not sure that Concorde deserved to be grounded because it was actually admitted at the press conference following the publication of the preliminary report, that such a piece of metal on the runway might have caused the crash of any aircraft let alone Concorde. But I know the French were so upset - and who can blame them, it was a tragic, tragic loss of life and loss of Concorde - that they immediately grounded the aircraft and I daresay that a certain amount of pressure came from that direction for us to follow suit.


Newshost:

Presumably, it is partly the case that with a relatively small fleet and an executive airliner, you don't interfere a great deal with the workings of the world's transport than if you were to say stop all 747 flights?


Christopher Orlebar:

There is a certain amount of truth in that and had they stopped the world's most produced airliner, the Boeing 737, I think the damages to pay would have been absolutely enormous.


Newshost:

Why do you think it is that Concorde should or deserves to fly again?


Christopher Orlebar:

Well apart from being an incredible example of British and French technology of course it is a most marvellously useful aircraft. It is all very well saying it is the top executives who only get the benefit - if the top executives are affected, everybody gets the benefit. And Concorde of course doesn't just save the hours of the day, it saves the days of the week because it is so efficient in terms of giving the first working day in the States and a trip to Europe, as being a whole working day to the executive who has taken Concorde.


Newshost:

Is it only to do with practicality though or is it to do with the engineering dream that is Concorde?


Concorde is an engineering dream and a beautiful aircraft and way ahead of anything that has been conceived since

Christopher Orlebar

Christopher Orlebar:

Of course Concorde is an engineering dream and a beautiful aircraft and way ahead of anything that has been conceived since. From the point of view of being blessed - if I can put it that way - with seven Concordes and Air France now with five, what is the point in putting them as museum pieces if a way, which I believe has been found, of putting them back in the air can be put together and have them back flying again. So it is all positive stuff for Concorde.


Newshost:

Alistair Craven, Brighouse, England asks: If the test flight is successful, how many more years' service will BA get out of Concorde, and is there a replacement on the drawing-board?


Christopher Orlebar:

Depending on the amount of usage, Concorde can still be flying by the year 2020. So it has got a very long life ahead of it - depending on how much it is used per day.


Newshost:

I think some people will be astounded by that - that would be 50 years after it was originally designed.


Christopher Orlebar:

Absolutely. But if you have serviced an aircraft properly and have gone though all the appropriate maintenance routines, there will be absolutely nothing stopping it flying, providing of course it still stays profitable. But I am hoping that by that time there will be a successor.

The first successor on the drawing-board is the Boeing Sonic Cruiser which isn't going to travel anywhere near as fast as Concorde. It will be either just below the speed of sound - 98% of the speed of sound - or maybe, as they put it rather nicely, there is another sweet point just above the speed of sound - let's say about Mach 1.1. - at which speed incidentally the sonic boom would not reach the ground. So as far as things being on the drawing-board which are faster than the sub-sonics of today, we can say a sonic cruiser, but it is nowhere near as fast as Concorde. But there have been other projects - the high speed research project which was undertaken by McDonald Douglas and Boeing, that was stopped 18 months or so ago - but that was looking at Mach 2 plus.


Newshost:

There is a lack of evidence of people wanting to put in the real billions that are required to develop these into production aircraft isn't there?


Christopher Orlebar:

At the moment certainly. But let's say that air transport does grow by about 5% a year - so it doubles in 14 or so years' time - there is going to be a growing proportion of those who will want to take the taxi rather than the bus. I think that is the best way of describing Concorde's advantage.


Newshost:

Shawn Bellihal, Calgary, Canada asks: If there were a similar debris strike on the Concorde, do you think the Concorde, with the modifications, would withstand such an incident again?


Christopher Orlebar:

Absolutely. In fact I would think that if there was a similar debris strike on an unmodified Concorde, the chances are very probable that there would be no damage at all. It was a whole series of events surrounding the way the piece of metal presented itself to the tyre, cut the tyre in such a way that the piece of the tyre hit the fuel tank and caused it to burst. The probability of that happening again is so remote that it is almost unnecessary to modify. But, in the light of experience, modification has gone on and who can blame the authorities for taking that line. So with the modifications such a leak that there was at Paris - which was 100 litres per second - would be stemmed to one of less than 1 litre per second. So no furious fire would develop from an identical encounter such as at Paris.


Newshost:

Steve Grigor, Kilmarnock, Scotland asks: Given Concorde's relative lack of payload capacity, what effect will the increased weight of the new linings for the fuel tank have on the aircraft's performance.


Christopher Orlebar:

The rule of thumb is that if you want to carry an extra tonne of either fuel, payload or aircraft, it costs you a tonne of fuel. But in Concorde's case, the modification is way below that predicted originally and in any case with the change of the cabin, the application of the new tyres, I would imagine that we are going to come out just about even. So in our case, no change at all to the fuel consumption.


Newshost:

I gather they have redesigned the seating area of Concorde and gained 400 kilograms by that. Are the new tyres lighter as well?


Christopher Orlebar:

The new tyres are 20 kilograms per tyre lighter - multiply that by 8 and you have 160 kilograms. So we have an advantage not only in having special tyres but lighter tyres as well.


Newshost:

Paul Dudley, Rochester, USA asks: Can Concorde be made quieter? Does that technology exist?


Christopher Orlebar:

The way of making Concorde quieter does exist. One way would be to take off much lighter and in-flight refuel. Clearly, with a civil airliner that is not possible.


Newshost:

In-flight refuelling was seriously thought about at one stage was it not?


Christopher Orlebar:

It was certainly put forward as an idea. But it was ruled out of court almost immediately. The way in which Concorde could have been made quieter - we have what is called the "A" version wing and in the early 70s the "B" version wing was put forward as a likely contender to make it quieter. But this would have had variable geometry so the front of the leading edge of the wing would have been movable to give better low speed aerodynamic qualities, the engine would have been enlarged, less thrust would have been required on takeoff as a result of the reduced air resistance, reheat would have been deleted, its rate of climb would have been steeper - so the technology certainly does exist. But for a successor we need a variable cycle engine.


Newshost:

What does that mean?


Christopher Orlebar:

An engine, that can change the air. It would be rather like the big fan engine on the Jumbo which accelerates a large mass of air relatively slowly which is nice and quiet on takeoff and then to change the airflow within the engine - to turn it into the turbo jet which is very efficient at supersonic speeds.

I know I am right in saying that Concorde has the most efficient jet engine ever at Mark 2. But then it needs to be in order to overcome the air resistance caused by the shockwaves around the fuselage.


Newshost:

How do you think the people involved in the Concorde project will be feeling? They have had a year of wondering whether it would ever fly again and now it looks like it will. What is the mood like?


Christopher Orlebar:

If I am anything to judge by, they will be absolutely delighted that at long last we have got the aircraft flying again. Also probably irritated that such a marvellous piece of technology should have been brought down by a mere strip of titanium dumped on the runway by another airliner.


Newshost:

That feeling goes wider than simply those involved doesn't it? The enthusiasm for Concorde is quite broadly felt.


Christopher Orlebar:

Lots of people who could never afford to fly Concorde get a tremendous uplift just by merely seeing Concorde flying over and thinking I am part of a country which has the technology to build and operate Concorde.


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See also:

13 May 01 | Europe
Relatives accept Concorde cash
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