Two British Airways Concordes photographed at London Heathrow's Terminal 3, a few months after the commencement of scheduled services on January 21st, 1976. Good old Heathrow was not exactly the sexy supersonic jetport befitting a plane like Concorde!
It’s hard to imagine now but in the late 1960s the expectation was that, by the late 20th century, the majority of commercial air passengers would fly in supersonic aircraft.
At the time, all major aircraft manufacturers in Europe, the US and the USSR were developing concepts for 'supersonic transport aircraft', or SST.
In anticipation of this development, Boeing designed the 747 with the characteristic hump, so that it could be easily converted into cargo aircraft if its design became obsolete for passenger transport.
Despite their spectacular design and performance characteristics, SSTs were designed to make use of existing runways and terminals.
The largest SST model, the Boeing 2707 would carry 300 passengers, 60 passengers less than the first 747 in a three-class layout. The Anglo-French Concorde carried between 92 and 128 passengers.
In this photo special we'll get a look at how airports prepared for and dealt with supersonic aircraft. Follow the story of the photos to get an idea of the ambition of the period!
A 1967 Boeing image showing a contemporary 1960s airport concourse, surrounded by existing Boeing models at the time: the 707, 727 and 737 as well as its upcoming Boeing 747 and two different variations of the supersonic Boeing 2707. With a length of 306 feet (93 meters), the Boeing 2707 was quite a bit longer than the 747 at 231 feet (71 meters).
This 1967 image shows a master plan option for the potential future development of San Francisco International Airport. It's evident that planners considered the SST in their plans with several stands being suitable for this new generation of aircraft. Can you spot them?
This Lockheed promotional image showed that existing Jet Age airports would have no difficulty in accommodating supersonic jetliners. The airport depicted is Los Angeles International Airport. Note that aircraft were still parked parallel to the concourse. Credit: Lockheed
A TWA advertisement announcing the expansion of the TWA Flight Center at New York's Kennedy Airport. Specific mention is made of SSTs—TWA had options on six Anglo-French Concordes. Credit: AirportHistory.org
This Boeing image shows a Boeing SST and 747 being loaded by three passenger boarding bridges. Some airports like JFK and LAX used three boarding bridges for some of their 747 gates for a number of years. Credit: Boeing via Flickr/James Vaughan
SST impact on airport location
SSTs did impact the design of airports though, or to be more specific, their location. SSTs were extremely noisy. Hence, greenfield airports that were planned in the 1960s and 1970s were often planned far away from the cities they served.
Prime examples are Houston Intercontinental Airport (1970), Dallas/Fort Worth Airport (1973), Paris de Gaulle Airport (1974) and Montréal Mirabel (1975). There were also unbuilt projects that were planned under this principle such as the Everglades Jetport (Miami) and Palmdale Intercontinental Airport (Los Angeles).
Several cities such as Los Angeles, London and Stockholm studied offshore airports in order to find space to grow and effectively deal with aircraft noise.
This 1970 issue of Architectural Digest presented the new Houston Intercontinental Airport as an airport for the supersonic age. Credit: Architectural Digest
This print, called "Airport of the Future", by artist Wilf Hardy, shows an SST flying over the new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Credit: Look and Learn Magazine
In the late 1960s, planners actively started considering offshore airports in order to deal with aircraft noise. The image above depicts a scheme for a supplemental offshore airport for Los Angeles, which could accommodate the new generation of noisy SST aircraft. Note the existing LAX in the lower right of the image.
The image above is a very rare artist's illustration of the unbuilt London Maplin Airport, which was planned to be built on reclaimed land in the River Thames estuary, far away from urban development. The scheme was abandoned in late 1973 due to rising construction cost and falling passenger demand.
end of the sst: only concorde remains
Due to environmental and design issues, by 1971 funding for the American SST program was discontinued. Only 14 Anglo-French Concordes, flying for Air France and British Airways, operated on a limited number of routes between 1976 until 2003. Due to noise concerns Concorde was only allowed to reach its top speed of Mach 2 over open water.
Ironically, with the exception of Paris de Gaulle, most Concorde routes operated from existing, older airports such as Heathrow and New York's Kennedy Airport.
A British Airways Concorde visits the brand new Dallas/Fort Worth Airport during an inaugural event in September 1973. "DFW" was one of several new mega-sized 'jetports' that opened in the US in the early 1970s. When it opened, DFW was located far away from urban development and was perfectly suitable to host SST service. Braniff, based out of Dallas, operated the airplane over the course of one year from 1979 to 1980. Braniff used airplanes from both British Airways and Air France to run service between Dallas/Fort Worth International and Europe, with a stop-over in Washington Dulles.
Concorde appears at San Francisco International Airport during a demonstration tour in October, 1974. Scheduled Concorde service to San Francisco never materialized, which is a pity because that fantastic 1970s satellite building complements Concorde very well!
An Air France Concorde visits Los Angeles Int'l on October 23-25, 1974. Its cameo appearance resulted in more than 200,000 sightseers thronging to LAX for a glimpse of the British-French supersonic aircraft. Hollywood stars and producers would have provided ample demand for service between Los Angeles, London and Paris. However, despite years of battling, the Concorde never would be approved to operate out of LAX. Its noise levels, especially on takeoff, were deemed too loud to meet the airport’s noise standards and the airport beat back several attempts to allow SST aircraft to use its facilities.
The opening of Montréal-Mirabel International Airport on October 4th, 1975. The Mirabel project was based on the assumption that SSTs would carry the majority of air passengers. As a consequence, it was built far away from the city. Concordes of both Air France and British Airways came to visit for the opening ceremony but scheduled Concorde service was never established.
A legendary staredown! Washington Dulles, opened in 1962, long before SSTs got into the picture, but due to its then remote location in the Virginia countryside, it was perfectly suited to host Concorde flights and the airport was the first to clear regular Concorde flights. This image was taken on May 24th, 1976, when both Air France and BA simultaneously began thrice-weekly service to Washington Dulles. Logically speaking, supersonic air service between the main political power centers of the late 20th century—Washington, London and Paris— made sense. However, the routes did not prove to be viable in the long run. Air France cancelled its Washington service in October 1982, while British Airways discontinued the service in November 1994.
The dedicated Concorde check-in area in Terminal 3 at London Heathrow before the inaugural commercial flight to Bahrain on January 21st, 1976. In 1986, Concorde services were moved to the then state-of-the-art Terminal 4, which was a bit more of a suitable home for this beautiful bird! Credit: The Evening Standard
The London-New York and Paris-New York routes proved to be the most sustainable and enduring routes flown by Concorde. Due to local opposition, authorities only granted permission for Concorde flights in November, 1977. This aerial shows a British Airways Concorde parked at JFK's Terminal 7, after completion of the first commercial flight between Heathrow and Kennedy Airport on November 22, 1977. British Airways operated the route until October 24, 2003, when British Airways retired the Concorde.
A 1982 aerial image of the recently opened Aérogare 2 at Paris de Gaulle Airport. "CDG" was planned with aircraft like the Concorde in mind: It was located far away from the city. In the early years of Concorde service, Air France operated routes to Caracas, Mexico City, New York Kennedy, Rio de Janeiro and Washington. By 1982 most routes had been cut due to lack of demand and only service to New York Kennedy remained. The last Air France Concorde touched down at Kennedy on May 30, 2003.
imaginary SST airports
To close this feature, we want to share some cool images of imaginary SST airports!
This image is an illustration from a 1969 children's pictorial dictionary, depicting an imaginary airport in the "near future" with what appears to be a mixture of supersonic and jet aircraft. The passenger terminal seems to be inspired by 1970s Newark (wait, the future was Newark?!). I first saw this image when I was five years old and I would stare at it for hours on end. Hence, even though it's from a children's book, I thought it was cool to show it here. Hey, it's my website!
In 1980, Japanese acience fiction artist Shigeru Komatsuzaki conceived this concept for a floating airport for supersonic aircraft. Despite a prototype being built by Japanese engineers in the 1990s in Tokyo Bay, the concept so far has not made it beyond the experimental stage. Credit: www.superretro.com
Like what you see? Have any memories or other details of airports and SST? Let us know in the comments below!