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Published: November 29, 2005

 
 

Flying Blind

It’s hard to recognize a daring failure when it’s taking off. Consider the Concorde.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
Early one summer morning in 1909, a man on crutches hobbled across a field near the seaside town of Sangatte in northwestern France and approached a small airplane built of wood and cloth. Although his foot had been badly burned in a recent flying accident, he was determined to do what no pilot had done before: cross the English Channel. Ignoring a last plea from his wife to abandon the venture, he hoisted himself into the tiny seat that served as the plane’s cockpit. At exactly 4:35, he took off, just managing to clear a nearby telegraph line. Almost immediately, he found himself blinded by the heavy mists hanging over the water. “I am alone,” he would later write of the experience. “I can see nothing at all. For 10 minutes I am lost.”

But then, catching sight of a castle on the far coast, he regained his bearings. Operating a steering lever with his injured foot, he forced his plane back on course and, after fighting a last gust of wind and dodging a brick farmhouse, touched down on English soil. Although the flight took little more than half an hour and covered a mere 23 miles, it was momentous. It inaugurated the age of international air travel, and it propelled the pilot, a French engineer named Louis Blériot, to a triumphant business career. His Blériot XI monoplane became the coveted high-tech product of its day, and, during World War I, Allied pilots flew 5,600 of his SPAD fighters over Europe. As demand for international flights expanded, so too did Blériot’s enterprise. He became one of the leading aircraft manufacturers in France and licensed his designs around the world.

Inspired, intrepid, and pigheaded, Louis Blériot fits the archetype of a business innovator. And his flight itself serves as a worthy metaphor for the innovator’s journey: a leap into the unknown followed by a spirit-testing passage toward an uncertain destination. For Blériot, the journey ended well. His personal passion anticipated popular desire, and he prospered. But many equally daring flights of innovation don’t come to such happy conclusions. They either fail to produce a product, or they produce one that goes nowhere in the marketplace. It doesn’t appeal to customers, or it can’t be produced economically, or competitors are able to create knockoffs easily.

Think of another milestone in commercial aviation: the Concorde supersonic passenger jet. Many consider its creation second only to the Apollo moon landing as the greatest feat of 20th-century engineering. Yet as a product, the Concorde never turned a profit and in the end, just two years ago, it was pulled off the market. Its troubles reveal some hard truths about the challenges facing even the most remarkable of business innovations — and offer lessons on why great inventions can fail to produce profits.

Launching the Concorde
Back in 1956, when the British government organized the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee to begin work on a passenger jet that could fly at twice the speed of sound, the commercial logic seemed ironclad. Ever since Blériot’s flight, the aviation market had been driven by the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for faster flights over longer distances. The prospect of cutting flight times in half — turning a six-hour transatlantic slog into a three-hour jaunt — stirred the enthusiasm of both travelers and the airlines that served them.

The technical challenges, however, were forbidding, ranging from heat management to engine reliability to fuel storage. Most daunting of all was the so-called compressibility drag problem. When a plane moves through the air, it creates sound waves. In a normal subsonic flight, some of those waves travel forward, preceding the plane. They have the effect of smoothing the air, dramatically reducing wind resistance, or drag. When a plane flies at supersonic speeds, however, it outraces its own sound waves. The air compresses in front of it, creating a shock wave that makes for a turbulent and inefficient flight. Many aviation experts believed that the drag problem alone would doom any attempt to build a supersonic passenger jet.

 
 
 
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