Concorde has been vectored onto its final approach to retirement, but its legacy is today's European aerospace industry

Amid the vortex of commercial, technical, emotional and flat-out irrational arguments that have swirled around Concorde since its birth, the project's industrial implications have often been forgotten. The Anglo-French supersonic transport was the first international aerospace programme and the first to face the cultural and political issues of industrial collaboration: issues ranging from how workshare should be allocated and which language should be used, to inches versus millimetres.

In tackling the issues, and overcoming them, Concorde paved the way for every European collaborative programme that followed, and helped shape the region's aerospace industry. Not every attempt at co-operation was as successful. The Anglo-French Variable Geometry (AFVG) fighter failed, but the two countries developed and produced the Sepecat Jaguar strike/trainer aircraft, and the AFVG led eventually to the Italian/German/UK Panavia Tornado strike fighter and to today's four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon.

Concorde came into existence at a critical time for the UK industry, and because it was a collaborative programme it forever reshaped industrial and political thinking. The Anglo-French supersonic transport treaty was signed in 1962, just five years after British defence minister Duncan Sandys had cancelled almost every manned combat aircraft then under development in the UK. Work on Concorde was well under way in 1965 when the second axe fell on UK industry, with cancellation of the BAC TSR2 strike aircraft and Hawker P1154 supersonic vertical/short take-off and landing fighter.

Historians will debate whether the TSR2 was sacrificed because Concorde, as an international programme, could not be cancelled and the UK was desperate to save money. Certainly Concorde went on to far exceed the cost estimates used to justify cancellation of the TSR2. But in the vacuum created by the demise of TSR2, Concorde helped sustain and advance UK aerospace skills. The two aircraft used the same Olympus engine, and many of the systems were similar.

More importantly, the TSR2's cancellation came at a time when France was blocking the UK's entry into the European Common Market, and collaborative aerospace programmes were seen as a way to remove the barriers. Ultimately, other than Concorde and Jaguar, Anglo-French aerospace co-operation was less than entirely successful, but the need to collaborate led the UK to its future combat-aircraft partners Germany, Italy and latterly Spain. Concorde also paved the way for the creation of Airbus, which has achieved the commercial success which eluded the supersonic transport.

There is no real shame in Concorde's lack of commercial success. The USA's three serious attempts at building a high-speed airliner all ended in failure. The US answer to Concorde, the Boeing 2707, was cancelled by Congress in 1971. Three decades later, NASA's High Speed Research programme was cancelled when Boeing withdrew. Last year, Boeing shelved its Sonic Cruiser.

Far larger than Concorde, the Boeing 2707 was killed by cost and environment concerns. NASA's programme was a long-running effort to develop an efficient high-speed civil transport that would have operating costs and environmental impacts closer to those of a subsonic airliner, but Boeing was unable to close the business case and lost interest. The research re-emerged in the form of a transonic airliner, the Sonic Cruiser, but again Boeing was unable to achieve operating economics that interested the airlines.

Concorde is often portrayed as a folly and a failure, but this ignores the fact that the USA once viewed the supersonic transport as a serious threat to its aerospace leadership. That threat was realised not in the commercial success of Concorde, but through the role it played in the reshaping of European industry. BAC survived the cancellation of TSR2 to become part of today's BAE Systems. Aerospatiale became part of today's EADS. Together they own Airbus, which is closing in on its goal of producing half the world's jet airliners.

As Boeing is realising, as it works to make its super-efficient 7E7 a reality, aerospace is a global endeavour and international programmes, for all their problems, bring with them several benefits, including the political, financial and technical resources of the partners. Concorde would not have happened had it not been for the political will, financial resources and technical capability of two proud and competitive nations. As Concorde heads for retirement, it should be lauded for its industrial achievement.

Source: Flight International