A supersonic collaboration
Ever since the early years of the aviation industry, pioneers had been striving to go further and faster. This aim reached its pinnacle in the 1970s with Concorde, the sleek, delta-winged aircraft that introduced supersonic air travel to the world.
The legendary airliner had numbers that airlines and pilots could previously only dream of – a cruise speed of Mach 2 at 60,000ft and the ability to transport 100 passengers from London to New York in just 3.5 hours. Developed and manufactured by the Anglo-French consortium of Sud Aviation (later Aérospatiale) and the British Aircraft Corporation, the first Concorde prototype flew from Toulouse in southern France on 2 March 1969 and first went supersonic seven months later, on 1 October.
While many advanced technologies combined to make Concorde a reality, the development of high efficiency powerplants were one of the most critical. The Rolls-Royce/Snecma Olympus 593 Mk610 turbojet was selected to power Concorde. The aircraft’s four turbojets used afterburners at take-off and to accelerate to supersonic speeds.
One key consideration was ensuring that Concorde had exactly the right fuel to maximise performance. From 1964, Shell Aviation played a leading role in defining Concorde’s fuel requirements, testing the behaviour and usability of different fuels under its extreme flight conditions. Shell’s research, which included building a test rig at its Thornton Research Centre to simulate the fuel system conditions, was conducted in close collaboration with Sud Aviation and the UK Ministry of Aviation. The testing helped to determine the true significance of thermal stability in relation to the performance of heat exchangers and filters. In addition, it provided valuable evidence on the durability and mechanical integrity of fuel pumps and other components under high temperature conditions.
The development and testing phase of this amazing aircraft continued into the early 1970s, culminating in its first commercial service with British Airways from London Heathrow Airport to Bahrain on 21 January 1976, with Shell supplying the fuel for this inaugural flight.
That was not the end of Shell’s contribution however. Concorde reached its supersonic speeds thanks to the mighty Olympus engines. But the performance demands of these Rolls-Royce powerplants was exacting, with the four engines producing 152,000lbs of afterburner thrust on take-off, and delivering a speed of Mach 2 in cruise. A higher performance engine oil was needed to deal with the greater combustion temperatures and load-carrying requirements of the engines for the supersonic aircraft.
Shell Aviation worked closely with Rolls-Royce and Sud Aviation to develop a suitable oil, and in 1975, AeroShell Turbine Oil 555 was launched. AeroShell Turbine Oil 555 was an advanced, synthetic hindered ester oil incorporating a finely balanced blend of additives to improve thermal and oxidation stability and to increase the load carrying ability of the base oil. As a Shell advertisement for the oil in 1975 proclaimed: “We’ve proved our new turbine oil at the sharp end of the market”, with this smart headline accompanying an image of the needle-nosed Concorde.
In addition to offering Concorde’s Olympus engines superior protection, AeroShell Turbine Oil 555 proved to be of benefit to existing subsonic engines, especially in terms of oil system cleanliness.
In total, 20 Concordes were built, including six prototypes and development aircraft. It was operated commercially by Air France and British Airways. Both airlines retired Concorde in 2003, bringing to an end the 30-year era of supersonic flight, perhaps one of the most thrilling in the history of civil aviation.
R. van Egmond and A. Westra, Shell and aviation. The story of more than a century of collaboration. Shell International B.V., 2019, p. 80-81
Website CNN: ‘What it was really like to fly on Concorde’, https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/concorde-flying-what-was-it-like/index.html
Website BBC: ‘Concorde flies for the first time’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/2/newsid_2514000/2514535.stm
Website Shell: ‘About Shell Aviation’, https://www.shell.com/business-customers/aviation/about-shell-aviation.html
Shell Aviation News, 1964, p. 233.
Shell Aviation News, 1967, p. 130-135.
Shell Aviation News, 1967, p. 150-153.
Shell historical archives.