Fans of aviation or industrial design mourned the retirement of the Concorde in 2003. With it ended for the foreseeable future the brief era of supersonic passenger flight. Its retirement – which had nothing to do with the spectacular, tragic crash of Air France Flight 4590 in 2000 and everything to do with the plane's astronomical per-passenger cost to operate – was the first nod to economic reality in its history. The Concorde never made economic sense; it was finished as a matter of political and nationalistic pride in France and the UK. A textbook example of the sunk costs fallacy – which is now sometimes called the Concorde Fallacy in its honor – its existence was more a matter of 'can' than 'should'.

Flying at twice the speed of sound at 60,000 feet presented some unique challenges aside from the impractical economics. At the beginning of every commercial flight, FAA rules require flight attendants to give you a safety demonstration that you ignore completely; part of it is the infamous oxygen mask with its plastic bag that may or may not inflate (but don't worry, because either way oxygen is still flowing). The supplemental oxygen is there in case of a loss of cabin pressure. A normal jet cruising at 25-30,000 feet can make use of a passive system like this in case of emergency while the pilots descend to a safer altitude. There is very little oxygen or atmospheric pressure at 30,000 feet, so the goal is to give everyone enough oxygen to avoid hypoxia while quickly reaching a more breathable altitude.
online pharmacy cytotec best drugstore for you

But at 60,000 feet in the Concorde the engineers discovered that the mask-and-baggie system doesn't work. The air is too thin and the pressure too weak at that altitude. In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, the air at that altitude would be so thin that you couldn't even inhale well enough to stay conscious. The only way to ensure adequate oxygen would be to uses a positive pressure device like a CPAP (similar to what people with sleep apnea use). Installing one for each of 100 passengers in the Concorde was totally impractical in terms of cost and weight.

Instead, they installed a positive-pressure system in the cockpit with fighter pilot-style oxygen masks to ensure that the flight crew would be OK. Then they calculated what is known as the "time of useful consciousness" (TOC) at 60,000 feet – how long it will take the average human to pass out or lose the ability to perform basic tasks. Given the impossibility of providing an oxygen system for every passenger, the engineers decided that the best solution was to take the TOC and instruct the pilots to dive to a breathable altitude in that amount of time.

That would be no big deal except the TOC is something like 90-120 seconds at Concorde's 60,000 foot cruising altitude. A breathable altitude without supplemental oxygen is around 15-20,000 feet. So in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, the emergency procedure on the Concorde was to dive 40,000 feet in 90 seconds. As far as I can tell this maneuver was never actually tested, although engineers did determine that it was well within the structural limits of the airframe. While the aircraft itself might have survived, I highly doubt the same could be said for the structural integrity of the passengers' pants if this actually happened on a revenue flight.
online pharmacy doxycycline best drugstore for you

Given the high cost of tickets and the high-class clientele that the Concorde attracted, explosive pant-soiling would have been quite the public relations nightmare for British Airways.

Thank god it never came to that, and thereby were many pants saved.


  • middle seaman says:

    A strange summer, a stranger government and, possibly, a bad week yield a pants story. Mind you, an historical hypothetical pants story.

    Human imagination in action.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Yeah, they got rid of the damn plane just when I had my million-dollar idea – "High-Altitude Depends."

    People who could afford to fly on the Concorde could afford to pay thousands of dollars for high-altitude diapers to protect their hand-made suits and designer clothing.

    My timing sucks.

    It's just like the chain of drive-through Bars I thought of, back in the early 80's – I was going to call them " The Next To Last Exit."
    'Honey, where are you?'
    "I'm at 'The Next To Last Exit!' I'll be home soon, unless there's a lot of traffic, bye, dear. Hey, bartender, make that last one a triple, for the ride home! HIC!"

    And then, they went and raised the drinking age, and created much tougher DWI laws.

    My timing sucks.

    Let me tell you about my new one – creating tolled "Texting Lanes" on highways!
    Great, right?

  • Part of USAF pilot training involved a ride in the "altitude chamber". If you're not familiar, it's a small metal room that looks like it came out of a submarine or a 1950s sci fi movie.

    They can pump the air out of the room and thus raise the effective altitude. Back then they took us up to 42,000 and had us practice breathing under positive pressure.

    We also got to experience hypoxia and even a rapid decompression (it's an experience).

    We had to do a chamber ride every three years. As the years went on the altitude profiles got less and less demanding because they determined that exposing us to 42,000 feet was probably bad for us. They don't do rapid decompression anymore for the same reason.

  • The closest I've been to a Concorde is the one on display at Charles de Gaulle airport.

    It's a lot smaller than you think. I would guess the fuselage was about as big around as the average business jet. Even 4-across, the seating must have been cramped.

    Having been supersonic in the T-38 on many occasions, I can tell you that it's very anti-climatic. Other than looking at the gauges, Mach 1.3 didn't really feel any different than Mach .90

  • As far as pants soiling goes I do believe that sudden decompression at mach 1+, followed by a sudden 40k+ ft involving hypoxia… yup that about qualifies as legitimate grounds to soil one's hand sewn designer silk underpants.

  • Anyone who could afford the $4000 surcharge to save thee hours crossing the Atlantic could afford new pants on the other side, too.

  • Err, wouldn't it have made more sense to include the regular supplemental oxygen bags anyway, that way the passengers can start breathing at 25-30,000 feet (or higher, what exactly is the limit here?), rather than having to wait until 15-20,000?

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I'm talking about drive-thru bars.
    Or, drive-up and order bars, like "Sonic's!"

    Besides, this was all a gag, anyway.
    I'm not THAT stupid!
    (Contrary to what others here may tell you).

  • But let's also recall the aircraft's contribution to disaster cinema; "The Concorde…Airport '79" which was such a black financial hole it ended the entire franchise…

    Isabelle: "You pilots are such… men."
    Capt. Joe Patroni: "They don't call it the cockpit for nothing, honey."

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    I used to wonder what it might have been like to fly in the SST. Thank you for removing every trace of longing from my system.

  • Jared: supplemental oxygen bags wouldn't work. Passengers would need face masks and oxygen delivered under pressure. They would probably even need a pressure suit to prevent dissolved gases in their blood from coming out of solution. At 60,000 feet, you are an astronaut.

  • I had friends who used to take the Concorde. Aside from the relatively small seats, it is also hot inside thanks to the air friction, even at 60,000 feet. Until we can solve a whole host of problems, I think I'll stick with that great 21st century innovation, the lie flat business class seat. (Adjusted for inflation, a lie flat business class seat costs only a bit more than a coach seat on a United Federation of Teachers charter back in the 60s.)

    Now, if they could just do something about the TSA.

  • Justin Jordan says:

    "Jared: supplemental oxygen bags wouldn't work. Passengers would need face masks and oxygen delivered under pressure. They would probably even need a pressure suit to prevent dissolved gases in their blood from coming out of solution. At 60,000 feet, you are an astronaut."

    That wasn't what he was saying – 15 – 20,000 is where you can breath without supplemental oxygen* and those bags are designed to provide oxygen. So rather than having nothing and having to dive 40,000 feet, you'd have the masks and dive to where THEY worked.

    *This from just what Ed said, I have no earthly idea.

  • > Jared: supplemental oxygen bags wouldn't work.

    There's three altitudes here. There's the level where you don't need oxygen (15-20k). There's the upper level where oxygen bags work (25-30k?). And there's the level the Concorde flew at (60k). By skipping the bags entirely, they forced pilots to have to make fast dives from the highest to the lowest, skipping the one in the middle. Whereas with the bags, it buys them an extra 10-15k feet where passengers can get supplemental air. No small thing, that.

  • I can say from personal experience there there's not a lot of oxygen at 15,000 feet. I remember lips turning blue and the inability to see color.

Comments are closed.