Why Concorde Only Fired Its Four Supersonic Engines Two At A Time

“It was wizard - a cool, calm and collected operation.”


Concorde might have had four supersonic Olympus 593 engines, but pilots only fired them two at a time – to prevent passengers spilling their Champagne under the force of the thrust.

The sleek, iconic Concorde – which is now ingrained in the national imagination, conjuring up emotive thoughts of luxury air travel of the rich and famous – is celebrating the anniversary of its maiden flight in the UK.

Fifty years ago today the majestic marvel of Anglo-French engineering took off from Filton and landed in RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire after 22 historic minutes in the air.

John Britton, the Chief Engineer on Concorde, told how the powerful Rolls Royce/Snecma engines could throw passengers back in their seats under the force of the thrust – not unlike the memorable 1978 Cinzano advert featuring Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins – when Joan’s seat flops backwards, forcing her to spill her drink down her dress.

Standing in Aerospace Bristol museum, pointing at a turbine on display, he said: “That is the reheat system which is lit up on take-off and for transonic acceleration. It boosts the thrust of the engine from about 28,000 pound thrust to about 36,000 with the reheat on.   

“It’s a significant increase in the thrust. When they put the reheats on when you’re taking off, you feel it, it makes you go back in your seat. And you can feel it again when you go supersonic.

“But they only switch them on two at a time when it’s going supersonic to make sure the passengers don’t spill their drinks.”

Concorde Chief Engineer
Concorde Chief Engineer John Britton showing the reheat system

The Concorde is famous for making it possible for the elite to drink Cristal in the clouds while travelling across the Atlantic faster than the speed of sound.

It is less known that like many inventions at the cutting edge of engineering the engine of the “pocket rocket” has military roots.

The Olympus engine that allowed the Concorde to break the sound barrier is based on those employed in the RAF's Avro Vulcan strategic bomber.

The Vulcan along with Handley Page Victor and Vickers Valiant comprised the UK’s strategic nuclear strike force.

The origin of the Olympus engine is intertwined in cold war history and competition.

According to John Britton the Concorde was the only aircraft that was ever certificated with reheat that boost the thrust up to accelerate it transonic to Mach 1.

Mr Britton said: “The unique feature was the air intake because when an aircraft goes supersonic the engines will not accept supersonic air so you need a sophisticated air intake control system to slow the air down to about 350 miles an hour. That’s what the air intake does.

“It took us a lot of engineers, a lot of time to get that right. And that’s why Concorde was successful and the Russian [Tupolev Tu-144] supersonic aircraft was not successful.”

Avro Vulcan strategic bomber
The Avro Vulcan 'The Spirit of Great Britain' fly over Lincolnshire.


Brian Trubshaw piloted the first British-built Concorde prototype 002 on April 9, 1969.

Stepping out of the futuristic cockpit he famously proclaimed:

“It was wizard - a cool, calm and collected operation.”

It took the Bristol Aircraft Corporation more than a decade to get to that stage.

In the late 1950s, Britain and France were working on two different predecessors to the Concorde. Sud Aviation in France was developing the Super Caravelle.

While at the same time Bristol Aircraft at Filton was working on its own design for a supersonic aircraft - Type 223.

Jess Bracey, of Forces Radio BFBS, spoke to Bill Morgan, one of the volunteers at Aerospace Bristol museum who joined the Bristol Airplane Company in 1952 as an apprentice and dedicated his life to aerospace engineering, becoming part of the Concorde Support Team in the 70s. You can listen to her interview will Bill below.


Bill’s father William G Morgan was the Project Designer of Type 223 and later held the same role for the Concorde.

Mr Morgan junior said: “The 223 was just a paper study but it was the forerunner to Concorde.

“I am very proud of what my father did. He did it for 52 years in the company. Starting as a young trainee draftsman in 1911.

“He was on the Blenheim Project. He then continued with the Beaufort, the Beaufighter and the Brigand and the Brabazon as a civil aircraft.

“The Brabazon was originally going to be a 100-ton bomber but the war in the far east ended with the atomic bomb. So, the 100-ton bomber for Britain was never completed.

“We converted it from a military aircraft into a civil transport airplane.”

Brabazon pioneered a lot of the new technologies that paved the way for the Concorde such as electronic engine management - standard on every modern aircraft was revolutionary at the time.

British Airways Concorde G-BOAC. Photo: Eduard Marmet

While tracing the history of British aviation, the museum volunteer said: “Went from Brabazon onto Britannia to subsonic airplanes and finally into this [Concorde] supersonic airplane.”

The Concorde’s manufacturing journey officially began in November 1962 with an international treaty between Britain and France for the joint design and manufacture of an elite fleet of supersonic passenger jets.

Combining brainpower and financial resources from both sides of the channel made the project economically feasible.

The British government saw the sharing of the costs as a necessity.

The French were eager to commit to a partnership because it would have been time-consuming and cost them millions to develop an engine on their own.

Britain was the only nation that had an engine that would allow civilian passengers to see the curvature of the earth while they feasted on caviar.  

British Airways operated Concorde’s last passenger flight in 2003, terminating its 27-year supersonic career and putting an end to supersonic commercial air travel.


Want to hear more about the Concorde?  Listen below to Jess Bracey chat with Adam Jones - Marketing Manager at the Aerospace Bristol museum, while they walk through the Concorde hangar.