How Supersonic Concorde jets almost entered China’s skies in 1970s
Blast from the past as social media discussion throws light on how Chinese officials were smitten but upheavals at the time made the purchase impossible
A photo of a Concorde model bearing the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) livery has piqued intense interest among aviation fans in China after it was posted on a military and civil aviation discussion forum earlier this week.
Well-known China Central Television military commentator Song Xiaojun also posted on his Weibo account photos of Chinese newspapers carrying news of a Memorandum of Understanding between CAAC and British and French aviation authorities on the purchase of three such supersonic airliners.
The deal was inked in 1972, when the fledging Chinese civil aviation industry was looking to launch more medium- to long-range domestic and international routes. France’s Sud Aviation (later Aérospatiale) and the British Aircraft Corp, joint developers of Concorde, an ogival delta-winged aircraft that could fly at over twice the speed of sound (at Mach 2.04, or 2,180 kilometres per hour) at cruise altitude, were anxious to ratchet up tepid sales.
With the supersonic plane, air travel between Beijing and Guangzhou – China’s third largest city, some 1,900 km to the south of the capital – could be reduced to less than an hour.
By 1976, China remained one of only two prospective buyers of the Anglo-French planes. The other was Iran.
China aimed initially to import two Concordes, which would be used both to transport Communist Party leaders including Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and also passengers on fare-charging routes. This was later increased to three.
It is known that party comrades were amazed by Concorde’s iconic design, in particular its drooping nose, which could be moved to a streamlined formation with the rest of the hull to reduce drag while also ensuring the pilot’s view during taxi, take-off and landing operations when drooped.
Chinese officials also fancied the prospect of traveling in comfort and style. At the time, foreign VIPs and celebrities were rushing to fly on Concorde aircraft, which came in a specially-developed white paint that dissipated the heat generated by friction with the atmosphere.
Tumultuous political and socio-economic conditions put paid to China’s ambitions, however, as the CAAC was unable to make down payments on the three jets on order.
Despite its engineering ingenuity, Concorde never became a commercial success. Only 20 planes were manufactured over 27 years –they were expensive to make and only wealthy passengers could afford the high prices demanded in exchange for Concorde’s speed and luxury service.
British Airways withdrew Concorde on October 24, 2003, bringing to a close the world’s only supersonic passenger service.