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Air Canada and the Supersonics

SupersonicsFormer airline manager Clayton Glenn recalls the Canadian footnote to a technology caught in the crosswind of societal change.

All illustrations from the Canada Aviation Museum Air Canada archives

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SST airline livery concepts. From the left: Boeing’s initial design with variable-sweep wings and engines on the rear stabilizers; the final Boeing fixed delta wing proposal looking a lot like a larger Concorde; the BAC/SUD Concorde.

The contenders

In November 1962, Britain and France joined forces to develop the Concorde supersonic transport (originally spelled Concord by the British, but changed in December 1967). British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and Sud Aviation (SUD) partnered to share the design of the airplane with the intention to establish dual production lines, one at Filton in England and the other at Toulouse in France. Primary engine design and manufacture was the responsibility of Bristol Siddeley, with SNECMA creating the thrust reversers and other powerplant hardware.

The two governments financed the development of the airframe and engines in a project that in its early stages had the prospect of being a commercial success. The airplane was to fly at Mach 2.2 (about 1,450 mph) non-stop from London or Paris to New York, and carry a payload of 20,000 pounds (100 passengers and baggage).

Pan American started the rush to order supersonic aircraft in June 1963 by announcing that it was holding line positions for six Concordes, precipitating the US decision to proceed with its own SST. Other airlines soon got caught up in the excitement, putting down money for Concordes or the US-SST, or both; however, Air Canada was in no hurry.

One day after the Pan Am Concorde reservations, the FAA, which was assigned the task of co-ordinating the hastily announced US project, indicated that a Mach 3 airplane would be built seating about 250 people. Development and initial production was expected to take 10 years, with deliveries to airlines scheduled for 1975, three years behind the Concorde.

Three aircraft manufacturers (Boeing, Lockheed and North American), and three engine suppliers (Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and Curtiss-Wright), responded to a government RFP. All three designs were to fly much faster than the Concorde: the Lockheed proposal at Mach 3, the North American at Mach 2.65 and the Boeing at Mach 2.7. Whereas Concorde was to be constructed mostly of aluminum alloys, the three US airframes would need to use steel and/or titanium.

In the spring of 1964, North American and Curtiss-Wright were eliminated from the competition, leaving just Boeing, Lockheed, Pratt & Whitney and General Electric. Lockheed’s aircraft had a fixed delta wing, similar to that of the Concorde, whereas Boeing incorporated variable geometry that increased the sweep angle of the wing for cruise, and reduced it for takeoff and landing, during which sections of the wings swung forward to almost a straight position. Enormous hinges or pivots in each wing were required, adding weight and complexity to the concept.

By 1967, the FAA had selected the Boeing proposal, designated B-2707, with General Electric engines.

Planning for speed

In early 1966, Air Canada still had not warmed to supersonic transports despite pressure being brought by Sir George Edwards, Chairman of British Aircraft Corporation and a good friend of Gordon McGregor, our president. About 50 Concorde and 100 US-SST line positions had already been spoken for.

Herb Seagrim, our Vice President of Operations, had laid down the party line to the rest of us – that we were not going to be rushed into a decision. However, if pushed, the preferred choice was the US-SST, as it had the potential for superior economics despite a high initial cost. The Concorde would be considered only if it could be established that Air Canada could have competitive problems due to late delivery of the US product. Because of the forecast competitive situation (see table 1), and to pacify Mr. McGregor, the decision was made to place deposits on both types.

Table 1: In-service dates and routes

 

Aircraft

Airline

Competitive routes

1972

Concorde

BOAC

Canada–UK

Concorde

Air France

Canada–Europe

Concorde

Eastern

Canada–Florida

Concorde

American

Toronto–Los Angeles

1974

Concorde

Air Canada

 

1974

US-SST

Alitalia

Canada–Europe

US-SST

BOAC

Canada–Europe

1975

US-SST

Air France

Canada–Europe

US-SST

American

Toronto–Los Angeles

1976

US-SST

Lufthansa

Canada–Europe

US-SST

CP Air

Transcontinental

1977/78

US-SST

Air Canada

 

Herb Seagrim recommended to Gordon McGregor that the airline proceed to hold line positions for four Concordes and six US-SSTs. McGregor agreed, and our proposals for the supersonic program went before the Air Canada Board of Directors on September 27, 1966. A general overview was presented by Chief Engineer Jack Dyment, followed by Ian Macdonald from the engineering department who described the development of the supersonic airplanes, their physical characteristics and mission potential. As Director of Operations Planning, I detailed the expected operating costs, competitive environment (both on our North American and Atlantic routes), how the two types would be deployed in the various years, program cost, and the financial exposure to book with the manufacturers.

Table 2 indicates where the Air Canada aircraft would be flown. For example, the Concorde is shown during the peak period of 1974 (eight years later).

Table 3 shows the daily round trips for 1977 that would be operated with the Concorde and the US-SST during the peak period.

Table 2: 1974 – Concorde

Montréal–Paris

1 daily

Montréal–London

1 daily

Toronto–London

1 daily

Plus 12 daily DC-8s to Europe and the UK

 

Toronto–Vancouver

1 daily

Toronto–Edmonton

1 daily

Toronto–Calgary

1 daily

Toronto–Los Angeles

1 daily

Plus 15 daily DC-8s on the Transcontinental

 

 

Table 3: 1977 – Concorde and US-SST

Montréal–Paris

1 daily Concorde

Toronto–Paris

1 daily US-SST

Toronto–Frankfurt

1 daily US-SST

Toronto–London

1 daily US-SST

Montréal–London

1 daily US-SST

Plus 12 daily DC-8s on the Atlantic

 

Montréal–Vancouver

1 daily US-SST

Toronto–Vancouver

1 daily Concorde

Toronto–Vancouver

1 daily US-SST

Toronto–Edmonton

1 daily Concorde

Toronto–Calgary

1 daily Concorde

Toronto–Los Angeles

1 daily Concorde

Toronto–Los Angeles

1 daily US-SST

Plus 19 daily DC-8s on the Transcontinental

 

It is interesting that the majority of our supersonic operations were projected for North American routes. As shown for 1974 when Air Canada would have four Concordes, only three of the seven long-haul flights would be overseas, increasing to just five of 12 by 1977. The fact that almost 60% of supersonic flying was to be continental would later become a major factor in the decision to exit the SST program.

Forecasted comparison of the direct operating costs (DOC) per available seat mile (ASM) is shown in table 4.

Table 4: DOC per ASM (US cents)

Distance (miles):

600

1,000

2,000

3,000

Concorde

3.55

2.75

2.23

2.08

B-2707

2.75

1.98

1.50

1.30

DC-8-53 (small)

1.75

1.55

1.40

1.35

DC-8-61 (stretched)

1.38

1.23

1.13

1.10

At the board meeting, a rather wide differential in operating costs was predicted for the supersonics. Of the two designs, the US-SST was the least costly, but a fare surcharge would be necessary.

Funds to hold the line positions were included in the airline’s 1967 capital budget, and permission was granted to Air Canada by the federal government to commit for these in advance of final budget approval. In addition, it would be necessary to have the Cabinet review the situation at the time a final decision was being taken to proceed with the actual commitment.

For the Concorde, a deposit of US$875,000 was made on March 17, 1967, for four airplanes (positions 74, 80, 82 and 86). BAC/SUD provided specific guarantees: the price was not to exceed US$16 million, the first prototype flight must occur prior to December 31, 1968, the airplane would be able to fly Paris to New York with a 20,000-pound payload at Mach 2.2, and lastly, a contract to purchase must first be executed by BOAC and Air France before December 31, 1968.

So far as the B-2707 was concerned, a US $1.2 million deposit in two $600,000 installments to the FAA on September 14, 1966, and October 31, 1967, held the six line positions (110, 112, 114, 117, 120 and 123).

When the US government decided to build a supersonic transport, various American airlines formed an engineering advisory group in 1965 to deal with the technical aspects of the airplane (later including the Concorde). Over time, the renamed Airline SST Committee or ASC, brought other non-US airlines to the table. Air Canada’s representative was Jack Dyment, and we contributed to a number of subcommittees.

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The beginning of the end

Although Boeing’s variable-sweep wing design had won out over Lockheed’s fixed delta, the company could not make it work – at least on paper. Boeing struggled for a couple of years but found the weight problem insurmountable and thus could not achieve the cruise altitudes necessary for lower fuel consumption. It was back to the drawing board, and by the time it had satisfied the FAA that its new fixed delta wing would be viable, almost two years were wasted and the development cost substantially increased. Air Canada’s US-SST deliveries were now projected for about 1979 rather than 1977 as originally planned.

In the summer of 1968, I was approached by BOAC in connection with its proposed Concorde operation from London to Tokyo via Frobisher Bay (Iqaluit) and Cold Bay in the Aleutians. The flight path would take the airplane over a substantial amount of northern Canada and BOAC was concerned as to whether or not the Canadian authorities would approve. BOAC asked me to approach the Department of Transport on its behalf to ask permission. Merv Fleming was the Chief, Flight Standards and Regulations. He didn’t give BOAC too much encouragement, and in fact his reply regarding the BOAC proposal would also apply to us: “I need hardly remind you that the air regulations already prohibit the making of any shock wave that is likely to create a hazard to other aircraft or to persons or property on the ground. In the areas in which BOAC are interested, the regulation could be quite restrictive.”

This disturbed us as much as it did BOAC. Operating Concordes and B-2707s for our transcontinental services would be a non-starter. We could also see restrictions emanating from the US. In mid-1969, the FAA issued a statement that it would be unlikely that supersonic flying would be allowed over the US, “… since it has become evident from research conducted to date that sonic booms generated by the first generation supersonic transports will not be in a range acceptable to the people on the ground.” Toronto to Los Angeles service would be impossible.

By 1970, it had become quite apparent that if Air Canada was going to fly supersonic aircraft at all, the numbers previously anticipated would have to be reduced. The airline had made deposits to purchase the higher operating cost Concorde as an interim measure until a sufficient number of lower-cost US-SSTs became available. The plan was to relegate the Concorde to our domestic routes after the US airplanes arrived.

Even initially, for 1974, some Concordes were to be used on transcontinental services and likely between Toronto and Los Angeles to compete with American Airlines, which was also holding line positions, and could be flying Concordes on that route. By 1970, the situation had changed, and most of the plans developed for 1974 and onward had become untenable, mainly because of the sonic boom.

Boeing’s delay allowed public opinion against the SST to build. The Citizen’s League Against the Sonic Boom, led by Harvard physicist Dr. Shurcliff, was remarkably effective and largely instrumental in having the US federal government withdraw funding for the US-SST project, ensuring its ultimate collapse.

In May of 1970, Senator William Proxmire, Chairman of the Joint Subcommittee (of the Joint Economic Committee) on Economy in Government, held public hearings relative to the appropriation of funds for the US-SST. Testimony was received from people in government and outside. Some of the points raised are summarized below:

a) There would be a negative impact on balance of payments.
b) No significant impact would be made on employment.
c) About 85% of Americans were against SST development.
d) The US military was not interested in the airplane.
e) Over-run of government funding was probable.
f) Sonic boom restrictions over populated areas would prevent the airplane from being used by domestic carriers.

After much lobbying by those on both sides of the issue, SST funding was defeated in the House of Representatives on March 18, 1971. The Senate followed on March 24 by refusing to restore federal money to the program. Attempts made to find private financing failed. The US-SST was effectively dead, leaving only the Concorde.

And then there were two

Terms of the March 2, 1967, letter between BAC/SUD and Air Canada required the airline to execute its purchase agreement no later than eight months following a similar signing by BOAC or Air France. This was guaranteed to be no later than December 31, 1968. If BOAC and Air France could have signed by the end of 1968, on the assumption that Air Canada would continue with the Concorde project, we may have received aircraft during 1974. However, the two European airlines kept putting off the signing of their contracts, and in fact, Air Canada accepted about a half-dozen extensions to our letter of agreement (about every six months through to 1972), although it was legally possible to back out of the program at any point when an extension was requested.

Ultimately, Air Canada’s deadline for withdrawal was set at June 30, 1972, and we were looking for a way to get out. With limitations on domestic operations and a forecast of reduced first-class travel on the Atlantic, our marketing and financial people were unhappy. The airline wasn’t anxious to be the first to quit the Concorde project, but also did not want to acquire airplanes that couldn’t be used. As the new deadline date approached, assurances were provided by BAC/SUD that BOAC and Air France would sign before the end of the month. And by previous agreement, Air Canada had an additional month to sign its firm order.

If there was to be an end-game, it would have to be played at the Air Canada board meeting in the latter part of June, as there would be no other opportunity until the end of that summer. In addition to possibly becoming locked in to a purchase, staying with the Concorde would require Cabinet approval, and time was running down to process a supplementary capital budget.

The day before the meeting, I prepared a document that was signed jointly by Yves Ménard, our Vice President of Marketing, and myself, Vice President, Operations Planning. After clearing it with Yves Pratte, chairman and CEO, we presented it to the board. There was little or no debate about withdrawal, perhaps even a little sigh of relief.

Fortunately, the decision didn’t cause any ripples. About 10 days later, Pratte was in Paris on other business and expecting plenty of flack from the French press. Beyond a minor reference, there was nothing noteworthy. The storm came later when the major US operators announced their cancellations – which they all did. One by one, the US and foreign airlines pulled out of the program, leaving only BOAC and Air France, which initially ordered nine Concordes between the two of them.

Manufacturers and airlines grossly over-estimated the size of the first-class market back in 1966. As well, Air Canada itself had been excessively optimistic about future demand, including for low fare. For example, in 1972 the total market was actually 30% less than what had been forecast in the fall of 1968.

Had the Concorde or the US-SST been proposed after the 1974 oil crisis, neither would have gone farther than the study phase. Examining fuel consumption per available seat mile, neither the Concorde nor the B-2707 was efficient. For an Atlantic crossing, the Concorde was estimated to require about three times as much fuel per seat as the Boeing 747, and the B-2707 about two and a half times as much. Enough said.

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