# Was the transatlantic crossing for Concorde too short to reach optimal cruising altitude?

When listening to Gander/Shannon ATC on shortwave, you could hear Concorde communicate its planned flight levels at longitudes from 20 West till 50 West. What I remember is that it would continue climbing to, say, flight level 570 at 30 West and then descent. So, it seems that it never reached cruising altitude, it would climb until halfway on the Atlantic and then start to descent again.

The simple answer is that the Concorde had no single assigned altitude, it was allowed to climb freely above ~FL450; this is discussed in depth in episode 166 – Flying the Concorde (worth the listen as it answers just about every Concorde question!). As @pilothead alludes to in their answer it climbed as it burned fuel but the aircraft never actually initiated a climb, it simply drifted up as it burned fuel and became lighter.

Also discussed in the episode is the complex approach and departure procedure. Due to the fuel burn schedule the Concorde did not really have the ability to hold for more than a single lap in a holding pattern or do a stepped climb with some route adjustments like many airliners. They had a special departure procedure that was more or less runway to cruise with no interruptions and a similar descent option. So the flight was effectively a climb to cruise block then a glide down right to landing. Depending on the wind and conditions of any given day as well as the load on board, the cruise altitude could vary greatly.

• The Concorde cruise climb would actually be the most efficient cruise procedure for all aircraft, anyway, but no other aircraft are allowed this due to traffic density. Normal aircraft approximate this by step climbing a couple of thousand feet every few hours. Concorde was very much alone at her altitude, hence a gradual climb didn’t risk any loss of separation with other traffic. – Cpt Reynolds Nov 13 '18 at 19:45
• Link for what @CptReynolds said: Step Climb. As the aircraft changes weight the efficient altitude changes. Apparently conventional aircraft used to cruise climb, but since the skies are pretty busy now isn't no longer an option. Interesting read. – Nathan Cooper Nov 14 '18 at 10:53

Concorde had a 10,000fpm climb and a max altitude of 60,000ft, so time to climb was not a problem. It had an optimum cruise altitude that varied with weight, so as it burned fuel it climbed higher to stay on the optimum.

There were no other aircraft operating at those altitudes, so it would get clearances to climb 15,000ft at a time and would cruise climb throughout the trip until descent to destination was required.

• Is there a link to graph/formula of optimum cruise altitude vs weight? – smci Nov 14 '18 at 5:38
• @smci It is more complex than just weight. I found a repository of the flight manuals but it is thousands of pages. If you are interested avialogs.com/index.php/en/aircraft/europe-and-consortiums/… – Pilothead Nov 14 '18 at 20:01
• can you just tell us the first-order approximation to the relationship between optimum cruise altitude vs weight? – smci Nov 15 '18 at 11:54

## "We've hardly got any climb on."

This is what Concorde's Captain David Rowland said at around 43,000 feet.

While Concorde had better thrust/weight ratio compared to a subsonic jet-liner, most of it was needed for the supersonic drag (image source).

This drag is what made Concorde cruise-climb as it lost weight (fuel), and also if the air became colder (more engine thrust).

In fact, Concorde's ROC (rate of climb) is only slightly better than today's typical subsonic jet-liner. From Eurocontrol:

• Initial Climb: ROC 4000 ft/min
• Climb to FL 150: ROC 2000 ft/min
• Climb to FL 240: ROC 1500 ft/min
• Cruise Ceiling FL 600: ROC 1200 ft/min

An SR-71 on the other hand had an impressive total average of 3530 ft/min to get to 70,600 ft.

Concorde's afterburner use (past takeoff and initial climb) was limited to breaking the sound barrier and until reaching Mach 1.7. Which took place around 43,000 feet. After which the appropriate cruise-climb autopilot mode was selected (either Max Climb or its extension Max Cruise, depending on the Mach number).

Max Climb engaged; note that the target altitude reads 60[000] feet.

From ITVV's Concorde programme (disc 1) during that acceleration to Mach 1.7, the captain remarked that the rate of climb was 700 ft/min (afterburners were still engaged). At Mach 1.7 and with the afterburners off, the captain noted, "it's a very slow acceleration at the moment, in fact we've hardly got any climb on." (ISA was +9°C; it was a warm day.)

But he quickly pointed out that it is not bad (being a warm day), because that makes the local speed of sound faster, and therefore Mach 1.7 would be a faster true airspeed than if it were a colder day.

The ISA deviation

The two figures above are from a paper written by Concorde's design director, chief test pilot, and a flight test manager.

Fig 5 shows the continuous climb as the plane lost weight. Fig 6 shows the impact of ISA deviation.

It is interesting to note that in tropical conditions it frequently takes less than 10 minutes to M = 1.0 and approximately 20 minutes to M 2.00. In the North Atlantic it can take 50 - 60 minutes to reach M = 2.00 but block speeds are little different since the higher T.A.S. in the hot conditions compensates for the reduced time at M 2.00. This point is Illustrated in Figure 6.

The quotation and Fig 6 confirm the captain's remark, that the slow acceleration/climb is offset by the increase in the local speed of sound.

Amazing how we humans skew altitude and distance. 60,000 feet up is 12 miles. Transatlantic 2400 miles. The climb would be a gradient of 12 miles vertical / 1200 miles horizontal = 1.0%

I daresay the Concorde could climb a bit faster. A 1.0% gradient would be barely noticeable in an automobile.

• This answer does not have any sources (and doesn't make any strong claims at all) and may be more fitting as a comment. – 0xdd Nov 13 '18 at 20:40
• On the other hand, a freight train climbing that same grade (12 miles in 1200) could be handled by normal locomotive allocation if they didn't mind it going slower than normal. If speed is a factor, e.g. Fast container train, it will get helper units added mid-train simply to keep speed up. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 13 '18 at 23:19
• Math nitpick: it should be "x 100%" (="x 1"), not just "x 100". – amI Nov 14 '18 at 4:03
• @RobertDiGiovanni User aml is right though. 12/1200 * 100 = 1200/1200 = 1 and 1% = 1/100, from which follows that LHS and RHS of your post's equation can't be equivalent. – Inarion Nov 14 '18 at 12:38
• Better nitpick: There should be no x 100. 12/1200 is 1%. 12/1200 x 100 is 100%. – pipe Nov 14 '18 at 12:39