Saying that Concorde was a marvel of technology of her time would be a bit misleading: she’d still be a marvel if she were flying today. A luxurious supersonic supercruiser, this elegant bird could power from one side of the Atlantic to the other in a mere three and a half hours—half the time of a 747—and with a whole lot more style.
The joint work of French aerospace manufacturer Aérospatiale and the needs-no-introduction British Aircraft Corporation, Concorde is one of only two supersonic transports to have ever entered service, and the only plane where one drops the article when referring to her. Concorde is always simply “Concorde”: not “the” Concorde, not “a” Concorde, and—so the editors here at Mudspike tell me—most definitely never “an” Concorde. Concorde was so streamlined, she could practically break the sound barrier just sitting on the tarmac.
Capable of supercruise (i.e., sustaining supersonic flight with a useful load in a fuel-efficient manner) at twice the speed of sound, Concorde’s design was more about reduced drag and function than aesthetics, but the end result is dang sexy. The ogee wing gives the plane supersonic performance with a reasonable efficiency during subsonic flight and decent slow-speed handling characteristics: requirements for any civilian transport. The afterburning turbojet engines provide both excellent thrust for takeoff and an efficient supercruise capability with a relatively small cross-section. Even the nose, all droopy and long-faced on the ground, locks in place when in flight to make Concorde the epitome of sleek.
Flight Sim Labs Concorde X
Released in 2010, Flight Sim Labs‘ Concorde X was originally implemented in FSX and, as of this publication, is still incompatible with FSX-Steam Edition and P3D, although the developers promise us compatibility updates are “in work”. Although the instability and age of the FSX engine and leftover bugs in the Concorde X product can occasionally deliver a frustrating experience, I have been glued to my virtual cockpit of this glorious plane for the past few weeks and wanted to share with you just a single example of what it’s like to fly the true queen of the skies.
Concorde is a three-crew aircraft and those three crew are extremely busy during portions of the flight. As an example, the flight engineer is constantly monitoring aircraft CG location, transferring fuel, checking air intakes, setting cabin pressurization, watching hydraulic levels…managing, literally, a whole wall full of switches, dials, gauges, lights, and buttons. Concorde X also includes Simufly’s model of the Delco Carousel IV-A (CIVA) INS system, a fantastically realistic model of the actual INS systems used in many aircraft, including the triple system used in Concorde.
If all this complexity sounds daunting, it should — Concorde isn’t a walk-in-and-takeoff kind of airplane. Just getting the aircraft to takeoff successfully, even with the auto engine-start cheat, is an achievement, let alone reaching Mach 2.0 or completing a full route. Flight Sim Labs has provided options to simplify the experience, including a virtual flight engineer who manages the challenging fuel panel for you and auto INS configuration and alignment. For me, managing all those systems is what it’s all about so I am flying today’s flight with zero assists.
If you are looking to fly “full real” as well, UPS1000 has an amazing series of videos on Concorde X, including a 77 minute tutorial just on the fuel panel. He also has a great 99-minute video covering a full flight from New York’s JFK Airport to London Heathrow with amazing detail where he walks through some of the more complex aspects of flying this system of systems. These two videos alone taught me a great deal about Concorde X.
Before even stepping into the aircraft, we have some homework to do.
First, the basic route: I’ve chosen to fly a traditional Concorde route from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK as Speedbird Concorde 1, flight number BA001, departing London Heathrow at (around) 10:30 am local time and arriving at John F. Kennedy at 9:25am local time. Route details came from Flight Sim Labs’ forums and blood, sweat, tears, and a lot of cursing were required to create the flight plan in FSX.
I Pledge Allegiance to the STARs and SIDs
In the real world, aircraft don’t just fly to/from airports in whatever direction/altitude they want. This would result in chaos, confusion, mass delay, and a lot of spilled drinks. Instead, traffic is routed through virtual hoops in the sky, documented in the precise detail via Standard Instrument Departure (SID)and Standard Terminal Arrival Route (STAR) charts. For us virtual pilots, these documents can be found in a number of free locations, although real-world pilots will typically use a subscription service to get the latest and most accurate SIDs and STARs. I get my charts from Flight Aware, which puts out some great products for flight simmers for FREE!
WX CAVOK is OK by Me!
Concorde X ships with a tutorial mission that has the same flight plan, but it has no weather: no clouds, no winds, and standard pressure and temperature. This is great for an introduction to the systems, but kinda boring. As part of a recent splurge, I bought myself a few FSX products—REX Texture Direct + Soft Clouds for some much needed updates to the FSX graphics and Active Sky Next weather engine to make it all work—so I want to use it all here. Since I started my planning on Friday, July 9th, I set that day in Active Sky and get all the weather info I need for the route.
I am always amazed at the prices of downloadable content in civilian flight sims compared to those in the combat flight sim genre. For example, there is a utility that only changes camera views that sells for $34. I shudder to think what would happen if one of the combat flight simulation developers tried to sell a feature like this as an add-on. shudder
Concorde flight crews had a mountain of paperwork and performance charts to go through for every preflight: calculating the effects of winds, tabulating airspeeds, rate of climbs, landing weights, etc. As fun as all that sounds (actually, it does sound fun, I just couldn’t find the original charts!), Concorde X includes a Concorde Performance Calculator that calculates basic preflight values for you and produces a handy takeoff card, chock-full of the data required to correctly configure Concorde for takeoff.
Basic is never good enough though, right? There is a neat (and FREE!) tool called Concorde Performance System (CPS) which calculates the same values as CPC, but for any route you input. It also generates a lot more data for folks wanting to get more involved in the flight planning process. Clearly a labor of love, CPS is thorough, highly-detailed, and pretty straight-forward to use.
CPS gives me a great number of details that are needed for any aircraft’s flight planning—fuel, estimated time enroute, takeoff airspeeds, landing airspeeds, etc.—but also values unique to Concorde, such as pitch index, amount of fuel to transfer to get to the desired takeoff and landing CG values, and engine performance monitor bug values.
Flight planning completed, I gather all my documents together (hardcopy charts are the only way I fly), including the checklists from Concorde X’s extensive flight manual, and step to the aircraft.
I place the British Airways version of Concorde (Concorde X also comes with an Air France livery, as well as one for the fictional Flight Sim Labs carrier) at Gate 421 at Heathrow, the traditional departure gate for Concorde. I’m using the free UK2000 version of London Heathrow, which is a great improvement over the stock airfield.
FSX starts the aircraft with engines running, so I use the Flight Sim Labs Add-On menu option to load a cold and dark panel state. This sets the aircraft in its natural cold-start condition. Next I load the fuel and payload files that CPS generated for me, enable the Active Sky weather, and am ready to start walking through the detailed checklist.
Most virtual pilots glaze over the preliminary cockpit checks, driven to complacency by the fact that every time they hop into their virtual aircraft the panels, switches, dials, etc., are ALWAYS in the same state. There’s NEVER a switch left out of position by maintenance or a lever that got accidentally bumped. Concorde X has a fun little feature where switches and buttons won’t necessarily be where you think they were. I wish this was a desired feature, but I suspect it’s a bug with how panel states are re-loaded from save files. In any event, this feature adds some interest in performing the preliminary cockpit checks. For example, during this safety check, I find the Trim Transfer Master switch is set to Forward instead of Off. A quick click and the safety checklist is complete.
The engineer’s panel in the virtual cockpit is texture only, not clickable and none of the gauges or lights work in this view, so all interaction with that wall is done via 2D panels. Although there are keyboard shortcuts to bring up most of the panels, there are hot button areas on the 2D cockpit panel that I’ve grown accustomed to using. A click on a rivet or hovering the mouse over a blank spot brings up the panel I need. Very handy for managing systems, not so handy for grabbing screenshots.
Next I apply power and start aligning the INS systems. The INSs take some time to align for max performance, although Concorde X does have a cheat where you can get to flight-ready status with just a click. For this flight, I perform the whole process manually, including entry of the initial position, and move along the checklist as the three INS systems do their thing.
Next I prep the aircraft for engine start. Basic control systems are powered up and engine controls are set and checked. The fuel panel is configured for the current load and flight instruments are prepared for the expected takeoff configuration. Throttles are confirmed at idle, engine feed pumps are turned on, the flight deck door is locked, and we call out for clearance to start and pushback.
Conventional transport aircraft utilize a ground tug to push them back from their stand onto the tarmac before starting their engines using an onboard APU or electric starter. For the sake of weight, Concorde has neither of these. The inboard engines are started at the stand using ground carts and, once these engines are running, a system of crossbleed valves enables Concorde to start her other engines using high-pressure air from the running engines.
I’m not flying with ATC today, although I’m really excited about getting into VATSIM, so I assume I get my startup clearance, and begin the engine start process. The start order is engines 3 (right side, inboard) then 2 (left side, inboard). The engines start-up smoothly. If I switch to an external view fast enough, I can catch a puff of smoke at lightoff.
Engines started, I enable the hydraulic pumps and generators and verify their output. Once I’m satisfied that Concorde is making her own power, I call for the ground crews to disconnect. Ground equipment clear, I release the parking brake and request a pushback.
During the push, I start the two remaining engines, 4 and 1.
With three crew, the Pilot Flying (PF) could taxi the aircraft to the runway while the rest of the crew executes the taxi checklist, but I don’t have that luxury while single-handing this beast. While it is possible to execute the taxi checklist while taxiing, I’m just not that talented. For today’s flight, I complete the list here before taxiing and then clear myself to the holding point at Runway 27L. With AI traffic set to zero, I’m not too worried about a collision, but I still keep a wary eye out.
Like the pelican, Concorde is sexy in the air, but awkward on the ground.
The aircraft is almost ready. Waiting at the holding point, there are a few more checklist items I need complete immediately before taking the runway. Specifically, enabling the takeoff monitor will max performance from the engines and primes the Concorde X AI flight crew to announce V-speeds during the takeoff roll.
Takeoff is a slightly complicated affair on Concorde with a delightful amount of theatrics. Traditionally, for takeoff, the British aircrew would count down “3,2, 1, NOW!”, jamming the throttles forward forcefully on “NOW!” to start the takeoff roll. Naturally, I do the same thing in my home cockpit, adding in a “Yeeeeehaw! Git along, l’il doggie!” to contrast the very British accents of my virtual aircrew. All the while, I’m enabling both a countdown timer for noise abatement procedures (more on that later) and a stopwatch to capture the length of time the reheats are engaged.
Fun Concorde Fact: Vortices shed from the leading edge of that lovely ogee-wing enter the number 4 engine through the inlet and swirl in an opposite direction to the engine rotation. This causes dangerous compressor vibrations at slow airspeed, like those during takeoff. Concorde has an RPM limiter that keeps this engine at 88% N1 during takeoff, which prevents this issue, but the resultant asymmetrical thrust takes a bit of foot power to correct.
During the roll, the virtual aircrew is making their callouts: “100 knots”, “power set!” Even with 150,000 pounds force of engine thrust behind us, it seems to take awhile for the airspeed indicator to crawl up to V1. Runway 27L at Heathrow has a nice big building at the departure end that surely meets the definition of a 50ft obstacle and it just seems to get closer and closer.
At the “rotate” call, I pull back firmly on the yoke to lift the nose up to the pre-calculated pitch angle and, with just the briefest of hesitations, Concorde rises into the sky. At this point there’s a whole lot of work to do up here in the front office.
Concorde’s engines have a high jet outlet velocity, required for a high-efficiency turbojet, but this creates a lot of noise, even without the reheats on. Standard noise abatement procedures require the reheats to be turned off and then the throttles backed to precalculated throttle lever angle (TLA). For our configuration today, the virtual air crew calls out “3, 2, 1, noise” at 65 seconds after first application of throttle. I switch the reheats off, back the throttle to the TLA setting, and coordinate dropping the nose to maintain my 250 knot climb speed, all while trying to maintain runway heading, per the SID.
Concorde’s autopilot, while fully functional, takes some knob turning and switch flipping to stay on the Compton 3G SID, so I fly the departure manually instead. This takes one keen eye on the omni and ADF dials, another on the DME readouts, another on the altimeter, and yet another on the airspeed indicator. It’s about four minutes to the Woodley NDB and I am fully saturated in my one-man cockpit that entire time.
After I get established on my outbound track, I try strictly observe the 250 knot speed limit under 10,000 FT, but once I break through that ceiling, I set the autopilot and autothrottle to climb to FL260 (26,000 FT altitude for you non-pilots out there) at 390 knots and watch the Mach number increase during the climb.
Although I’ve set the autopilot to keep the same indicated airspeed, the Mach number increases as I go up in altitude due to decreasing air density and speed of sound (the speed of sound is actually directly a function of air temperature, not pressure, but my true airspeed increases with altitude). As the Mach number increases, the center of pressure of that lovely wing starts to shift backwards, creating a potentially dangerously unstable aircraft if it’s not managed.
I use Concorde’s beautifully complex fuel panel to begin pumping fuel from the forward trim tanks to the aft trim tank, shifting the center of gravity from the takeoff setting of 53.5% mean aerodynamic chord to the cruise setting of 59%. It takes time to move all that fuel, but it also takes time to accelerate up to Mach 2.0, and the timing always seems to just work out.
Flying supersonic over land masses is frowned upon due to the potential damage caused by sonic booms, so I’m limited to subsonic flight until I reach my acceleration waypoint over the ocean, far away from fragile windows, sensitive eardrums, and under-insured Wedgwood crockery.
Waypoint achieved, dry land behind me, it’s time to let Concorde loose. I slide the throttles up to the firewall and kick in the afterburners to slam through the transonic drag region. The reheats are triggered in pairs, inboard then outboard, to minimize passenger jostling,. Each reheat only adds about 6,000 pounds of thrust to each engine, but that additional 24,000 pounds results in a nice steady acceleration, even as Concorde climbs up into the sky.
Well, she’s supposed to climb up into the sky. During my preparation, I failed to update the autopilot altitude and Concorde rockets away, straight and level, rapidly overspeeding. An alarm warbles at me and I hit the autopilot override, then smoothly pitching up into an almost 30 degree pitch to reduce airspeed. It’s at this time I remember that I had switched off the seat belt light a few minutes before, and then begin hoping the virtual passengers are well sedated today. I quickly find and correct the problem with the autopilot and transfer control back to machine.
The transition to supersonic speed is barely noticed in the cockpit. There’s no sonic boom felt in the aircraft, no rumble, no sense of change at all, except for a few pressure-based instruments that go a bit wacky through the transition. I wonder whether the real Concorde experienced thunderous applause from the passenger cabin when this milestone was reached.
The increased heat from skin friction with the supersonic air requires me to turn off any external heaters, so I go through the transonic checklist to safe the important ones. I’ve also cleared myself up to our cruising altitude of 60,000 FT so I punch that into the autopilot. Concorde leaps up into the sky while still accelerating up to Mach 2.0.
Another Fun Concorde Fact: The maximum speed of Concorde is dictated by its metal. At Mach 2.0, skin surface temperatures can peak over 120 degrees Celsius (that’s almost 250 degrees Fahrenheit to us Yanks). Hiduminium R.R.58—the aluminum alloy selected for Concorde due to its high structural strength for low density, ability to withstand higher temperatures, and its lower cost than titanium—begins to weaken at temperatures not much higher than this. Although exceeding the specified max temperature of 127 degrees Celsius wouldn’t necessarily result in an immediate structural failure, it would reduce the useful life of the material. It also sets off an annoying gonging alarm in the cockpit that cannot be disabled, so even virtual pilots are motivated to watch the skin temperature gauge.
Reheats enabled, engine parameters in the green, center of gravity within limits, I check through a few more checklists as Concorde passes Mach milestones, but the pace of action up front has slowed dramatically.
As Concorde reaches her cruising speed of Mach 2.0, the autopilot switches over to Max Cruise mode, which sounds like an dramatic bio-flick of an all-too-famous action movie star. Maintaining a speed of Mach 2.0 to Mach 2.04, the aircraft continues to slowly climb as fuel is burned. Also called cruise climb by our subsonic aviation cousins, this gradual climb as the aircraft weight reduces maximizes fuel efficiency.
Fuel transfer from the forward trim tank completes during the acceleration to Mach 2, so I shut off the appropriate pumps on fuel panel, start draining the wingtip fuel tanks, and set the fuel panel into aft trim mode. Not much left to do here other than monitor the INS and prepare for deceleration and descent and pass an occasional eye over the fuel panel to make sure all’s well.
Dude, Where’s My Navigation Postion?
During the flight, the INS system has been faithfully integrating measured accelerations and angular rates to compute our position but unavoidable errors in those sensors accumulates over time and results in a drift in position. The INS actually estimates how bad the error is and reports that it’s at its max value long before I get near to JFK. No GPS-systems on this disco-era aircraft, Concorde relies on DME updates to keep the INS solution minty fresh. By tuning into a VOR/DME station at a known coordinate, the INS can use this additional bit of information to better estimate those sensor errors and reduce drift. The Simufly CIVA INS model simulates this process satisfying well.
In addition to requiring position updates in flight, the INS systems also do not have the memory to hold more than nine waypoints. In the real system, actual memory cards were used to store only sections of the entire flight which were downloaded at the appropriate time to keep the INS current for the next section of waypoints. In Concorde X, the update is performed by clicking a magic hotspot, selecting the pre-made file (thanks, CPS!), and pressing the load button.
After what seems like an incredibly long time over empty ocean (how do those poor subsonic pilots manage?), land is near.
I can see land but I’m still a ways from our final destination and the fuel panel still requires a little attention here and there. Although the checklist walks through the major items, a deep understanding of the fuel panel is really key to making a problem-free flight. Again, UPS1000’s tutorial videos on YouTube are phenomenal in this respect and I cannot recommend them strongly enough.
Deceleration and Descent
Like all phases of Concorde’s flight, deceleration and descent takes a great deal of preparation and planning. Luckily, Concorde Performance System comes with a pretty decent descent (whoa) calculator, and I’m able to time the maneuver for the most efficient descent while decelerating to subsonic speeds before getting close to land and the notoriously litigious civilians of the US of A.
Approach and Landing
The approach into KJFK isn’t necessarily tricky, but, for me, the CAMRN 4 approach is pretty hairy without a controller to vector me in. Without a real detailed awareness of my position with respect to KJFK, I use a couple of VORs (Deer Park and JFK) to try and triangulate my way onto the ILS for runway 31 left. Managing position, altitude, airspeed, and heading is challenging enough, but I run into some unexpected weather that bounces my aircraft (and passengers!) around.
Even at subsonic speeds, Concorde is in and out of the weather before I can say “blabberin’ blatherskite” and a lovely view of the New York coast opens up before me.
Unfortunately, I’m a bit off my intended course and have to make a few substantial turns in order to line up with the runway. This is where a talented controller (or more experienced pilot!) would make all the difference.
I establish on the localizer a little closer to the runway than I’d like and my approach is mussy and rushed: definitely not worthy of the queen of the skies. I manage to get the three important dials in the right spots once the wheels hit the runway—airspeed, heading, and vertical speed—although I touched down awfully long. A couple taps on the keyboard deploys the thrust reversers and I stomp on the brakes to bring Concorde to a surprisingly quick halt. In hindsight, I had plenty of fuel and probably should have opted for the missed approach to make a safer landing, but we survived…this time.
Taxi and Parking
This is Concorde, so not even taxiing is easy. With the airframe nearly half as light as it was when it took off in London a few short hours ago, a large portion of the remaining fuel is pumped into the forward trim tank to ensure the aircraft doesn’t tip backwards as passengers unload. For the same reasons, I shut down the inboard engines to better manage taxi speed without having to ride the brakes. Just as with the takeoff taxi checklist, I execute the landing taxi list before I begin the slow drive to the stand.
I’ve got just the default JFK airport scenery for FSX which is just a hair short of awful, but serviceable enough for my needs. I’ve also decided, apparently, to taxi to the now non-existent terminal 3 instead of British Airways’ terminal 7, the traditional home of Concorde. I blame it on unfamiliarity with the airport, but better preparation (the airport diagram I have didn’t explicitly call out the terminal numbers, but there were other planning resources) or a real ground controller (I totally gotta go VATSIM!) would have prevented this embarrassing gaffe.
I wrap up the flight by completing the shutdown checklist, but I’m already dreaming of my next flight back over the pond. JFK back to Heathrow? Or maybe a quick hop to Paris? Concorde had a decent selection of regular routes, but chartered flights went to some pretty exotic places, such as Zimbabwe, Honolulu, Fiji, and Sydney (the one in Australia, not Nova Scotia).
Whatever the route, I might need a little time to plan the flight, but we’ll get there in 3, 2, 1…NOW!