A Tale of Two Concords

There is an odd museum just off the autobahn between Frankfurt and Stuttgart. Normally, museums have a curated feel about them; this one feels more like a bunch of stuff. There’s a Stuka dive bomber sitting next to a giant pipe organ. There is this bizarre frankencar named Brutus, created by dropping a massive 46-liter WW1 aircraft engine onto a 1907 vintage firetruck frame. Apparently created by some bored BMW engineers after the First World War. Who thought this was a good idea? There’s a 1970s NYPD police car and even, I think, a copy of the Wall Street brass statue of a bull.

This is not to say that the museum’s collection is without merit. If you’re a motorhead there are numerous must-see classic cars. For example, a D-type Jaguar and a Lamborghini Miura. I guess if you buy enough stuff, some of it will be worthwhile.

The collection also has a few aircraft on display. The collection of aircraft is nowhere near as comprehensive as the car collection but it has two that you won’t see anywhere else: a Concord and a Tupolev Tu-144 (also known as the Concordski). These two aircraft represent the only two types of supersonic passenger aircraft to enter service.

The story of the Concordski holds two valuable lessons for small businesses, especially for small businesses in the UAV industry. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

The Concordski was not what you would call a success. It flew a total of 102 scheduled flights, only 55 of which carried passengers, the rest were cargo. A supersonic cargo aircraft is even nuttier than putting a 46-liter aircraft engine on a fire truck. It gets worse.

A total of sixteen Concordski’s were built but two of them crashed. One spectacularly at the Paris airshow and the other on a pre-delivery test flight. During the 102 scheduled flights the Concordski experienced over 200 failures, 80 of which occurred in flight.

During one particularly inauspicious flight a Concordski took off with 7 on board systems indicating a failure. The flight was ordered to proceed despite these failures as there were many foreign journalists on board and cancelling the flight would have been an embarrassment. Seems like strange logic to me. The flight proceeded and after takeoff the failures continued until 22 of 24 systems failed including the landing gear. Fortunately, the pilots were able to extend the landing gear as landing with the gear up at a speed of more than 300 kph (190 mph) would not likely have ended well.

Thankfully, after only 102 flights the authorities realized that this aircraft was too dangerous to fly and all flights ceased. It must have been a great relief to the crews flying these aircraft.

The first lesson to learn from the story of the Concordski is that ego and aviation are a lethal combination. The Concordski was a response to the Concord and it had to do everything sooner and better than the Concord. Competition does not always make us better. Sometimes it leads to cut corners, and in the air, this means disaster. Anything that flies is much harder to design, manufacture, service, and operate. Just ask 3DR. Just ask GoPro. Sometimes, in business, ego can be a powerful motivator. Sometimes though, it just makes you do stupid things.

The second lesson is that you have to know your limitations (to misquote Dirty Harry). In the West, we have this belief in the power of positive thinking, that just so long as you think positively, you can do anything. Well, it ain’t true. You may be able to do more than you realize, and sometimes you can do a lot more but you can’t do everything. The Concordski is a powerful example of what happens when you exceed your abilities. The Soviet Union thought they could build a supersonic airliner but they couldn’t. They lacked critical technology, they lacked patience, and at some level, they lacked humility.

This is an especially important lesson for small business. I often run into businesses that don’t know what they can’t do. I often hear small businesses brag that their product is so much better and costs so much less than the big guy’s similar product. Sometimes this is true; sometimes it isn’t and the small business is selling one quarter the value for half the price. The cost to make a product that mostly works is much less than the cost to make a product that really works. If your product has to only mostly work you can skip a lot of testing. There are a lot of processes you can leave out. No need for rigorous design reviews. Corner cases hardly ever occur so you might as well ignore all of them (or not even look for them in the first place). Why bother with a failure analysis? There are many shortcuts. The product will still work, it just won’t work as well as the product that has a greater level of maturity.

The Concordski mostly worked. Almost every time it flew, it didn’t crash. The Concord, on the other hand, worked.

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