Next year marks the 60th anniversary of the birth of the supersonic Concorde plane, which was to be both a triumph and tragedy of technological optimism. Jonathan Glancey has just written a biography of the aeroplane.
“Engineers like nothing better than iconic designs, and they don’t come more iconic than Concorde,” says Jonathan Glancey, who vividly recalls seeing the supersonic aircraft when he was a boy. “It was just one of those memorable experiences.”
It’s become a cliché now that most people of a certain age can remember where they were when President Kennedy was shot. But for Glancey the real question is where were you when you first saw Concorde? “I saw this glorious plane flying over St Paul’s Cathedral in London – which is of course another fantastic piece of engineering – and everyone around me pointed to the sky. But the most exciting thing about Concorde is simply the fact that it ever got off the ground in the first place, which is why I wanted to tell the story.”
To Glancey, whose latest book ‘Concorde: the Rise and Fall of the Supersonic Airliner’ is an affectionate and highly readable biography of the aircraft, it doesn’t matter that here was essentially a luxury product that was available only to very few. People cheered it on, he says, as a great icon of British design, despite the fact that it was a collaborative effort with the French (hence its name).
But today, says the author, Concorde may have even more potency as a symbol of technological evolution. We used to put men on the moon and we used to fly supersonic jets to New York and the Caribbean, because we could. “Now we just use the Internet. People seem only to get excited about the latest mobile phone. Communication technology and mass consumerism seem to have taken over our national psyche to the point where all that seems to matter is spending money in the moment. Today, people just want there to be lots of stuff that they can buy. And that is very different from growing up in an age when there were these grand scale projects of national significance, which were paternalistic and lifted people’s spirits.”
Glancey concedes that he’s being nostalgic and that these endeavours seem old-fashioned in with comparison today’s “grand passion for mass-market communications technology that seems to have blotted out the desire to do anything that says something about us as a nation.”
Despite his book going into great depth about the technical narrative that informs the story of Concorde, it’s difficult to get Glancey to talk about anything more than what he describes as the sheer beauty of the machine. “This beauty is, of course, informed by the engineering logic that has gone into its design and construction. There was also a lot of trial and error that ran alongside the precise scientific methodology.”
Glancey recalls vividly his 21st birthday, when he received a flight on Concorde as a present. Upon visiting the flight deck he was “amazed by how old-fashioned all these old analogue instruments appeared to be, while the aerodynamics came straight from the Space Age. It was almost as if some of the more everyday technology was trying to keep pace with the overall design of the machine.”
By today’s transcontinental passenger aircraft standards, Concorde was small, seating only about 100 travellers (it had originally been designed for as few as 15). But the experience for the few was that once the aircraft had risen above turbulence they would be able to travel to New York in three hours without so much as spilling their drink. It gained a reputation for being glamorous and elitist, yet there were popular charter flights from Bournemouth airport. But this popularity with the public somehow disguised the problems that surrounded the aircraft on a political level.
Cooperation between the French and British governments came at a steep price: the British hoped it would help gain entry into the EEC, but President De Gaulle famously said ‘non’. At home, there was no unanimity of political will either. In 1964, Harold Wilson’s Labour government was keen to pull the project. But it had an unlikely champion in Tony Benn, a Second World War RAF fighter pilot who ensured that those who had worked on the project got the chance to fly aboard Concorde.
One of the toughest problems for any supporters of the aircraft was the sonic boom it created when it broke the sound barrier. This is one of the key reasons why it almost never flew beyond New York on the American eastern seaboard. Concorde was also partly a Cold War project: the similar Russian TU-144 (known as Concordski) had been rushed through production and was seen as a major rival, though ultimately it was found to have safety problems. The Concorde soap opera is one of the main propulsion mechanisms of Glancey’s book. It’s a story that seems to work on every level: commercially the project was always teetering on the edge of collapse. “British Airways did get it to make a profit,” says the author, “but it was touch and go, because what they really wanted was a 250-seat aircraft. But it wasn’t possible to do this at the time.”
In researching ‘Concorde’, one of the biggest problems Glancey encountered was that previous books about the aircraft had only really given either the French or the British perspective, rarely both. “What I’ve tried to do, as far as possible, is to tell the story from both sides. But the story is much more than one of Anglo-French collaboration. Dietrich Küchemann did much of the pioneering aerodynamics. It’s interesting really that after the Second World War a lot of the Nazi Germans were seen as having been pioneers in the vanguard of supersonic flight.
Britain was lucky to get hold of these people. So you got this very strange mix of characters starting to emerge in the story. That was very exciting for me.” Glancey says it would be quite wrong to assume that the project was “simply a British team of aerospace engineers assisted by a few French helpers. It’s much more complicated than that, especially as the Americans and the Russians were trying to get their supersonic aeroplanes off the ground.
At this point the story includes certain amount of espionage.” Which is probably why Glancey says his book is “as much an international thriller as a biography of an aeroplane, no matter how iconic.”
‘Concorde’ by Jonathan Glancey is published by Atlantic Books, £20