The two countries have signed an agreement at the Paris Air Show to develop a next-generation jet that is larger, faster, quieter, safer and more fuel-efficient than its illustrious predecessor - although it is too early to say yet when the project might be airborne.

The Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies will work with France's Aerospace Industries Association to build the aircraft, which appears similar to the original version in design images, including the pointed nose and long, flared wings.

"We would like the industrial groups to bring about supersonic transport by combining Japan's manufacturing technology with France's supersonic technology," Shoichi Nakagawa, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, said at the official unveiling of the project at Le Bourget Airport, in France.

Under the terms of the agreement, the two groups will conduct three-year studies on the technological requirements of the aircraft - presently only known as the SST project, for Supersonic Transport - before starting to build an updated version of a jet that first flew in the 1960s.

Strong interest

 

"A lot of companies and countries have shown an interest in the project, with some expressing a desire to actually take part in the future, but it is a bilateral plan and we are committed to that," said Akira Yanagida, who heads the SST project team in Paris.

"A lot of companies and countries have shown an interest in the project, with some expressing a desire to actually take part in the future, but it is a bilateral plan and we are committed to that"

Akira Yanagida,
Paris head of SST project

Widely admired for its graceful lines and speed on the trans-Atlantic route, Concorde was unable to turn a profit and its fate was sealed in a fiery crash when an Air France version bound for New York crashed shortly after take-off from Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport in July 2000.

 

All 109 passengers and crew aboard were killed, as well as four people on the ground when it hit a hotel.

An official inquiry into the disaster subsequently determined that a piece of metal that had fallen off an aircraft that had taken off from the same runway previously had been caught up in the Concorde's landing gear. Fragments of debris punctured the jet's fuel tank on the underside of the aircraft.

Public confidence

 

While the Concorde fleet was subsequently given a clean bill of health and clearance to take to the skies again, television images of flames belching from its engines just seconds after take-off damaged public confidence in technology that was three decades old.

Only Air France and British Airways operated the 18 aircraft that were eventually built, but tougher standards on noise emissions had already been threatening flights to the United States.

In October 2003, the Concorde fleet - which underwent flight tests at the height of the Cold War as a potential supersonic bomber - was finally retired, with the last remaining examples relegated to museums.

Quieter and faster

 

The Japanese and French aerospace experts hope that new technology will make the aircraft much quieter and faster.

 

Concorde had a speed of Mach 2,
twice the speed of sound

New engines being developed by a consortium of Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ishikawa-Harima Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, will enable the aircraft to travel at a speed of Mach 5.5, or 5.5 times the speed of sound. Concorde had a maximum speed of Mach 2.

Japan has enhanced its aerospace technology through arrangements with European companies involved in the Airbus A380 project as well as Boeing's development of the cutting-edge 787 airliner.

Advanced technology

 

Even though its civilian-use aerospace know-how is limited to smaller jets, Japan has developed advanced fighter aircraft technologies that are likely to be incorporated into the new passenger vehicle.

Japan and France envisage the jet cutting the flight time between the two countries, by half, as well as a similar time saving on routes across the Pacific.

 

They also hope the aircraft will be able to carry 300 passengers instead of 100.

According to the ministry in Tokyo, $1.1 million (Y110 million) has been set aside for the project this fiscal year, while both countries will contribute another $1 million each year during the research stages.

 

Officials were unable to say how long it might be before the first prototype is able to get off the ground, or when the completed airliner might take passengers to the edge of the stratosphere en route to the other side of the globe.