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Concorde: end of the dream?

On the 40th anniversary of the supersonic airliner’s maiden commercial flight, we look at the dramatic story of the ascent and descent of Concorde.

Back in the 1970s, there was a fantastic magazine advert that seemed to sum up everything you needed to know about the world’s first commercial supersonic airliner: “If you were flying the Concorde tomorrow you’d wear a Rolex.” In 11 words of copywriting genius we are taken out of the tedium of long-haul flight and into the unashamed glamour and glitz of an aeroplane that seems to have a personality all of its own.

More than a million people flew on Concorde, Paul McCartney performed a spontaneous acoustic set of Beatles numbers to the crew and passengers, and Phil Collins flew the Atlantic so that he could perform at both the UK and US Live Aid charity gigs on the same day. Land speed record holder Richard Noble enjoyed crossing the pond on Concorde so much that he did it three times in one day, which is a record. The aircraft is held in such affection that when the interior was being refurbished and the old grey seats thrown out, a dentist in Vietnam paid $3,000 apiece for them so that he could furnish his waiting room with a certain je ne sais quoi.

The obvious advantage Concorde had over every other commercial airliner in the sky was that it was so fast. In one respect, it was literally a time machine: passengers could leave Heathrow early in the morning and be in New York an hour before they took off, ready for a day’s work.

Despite the exorbitant price of tickets, the aircraft’s interior was rudimentary and minimalist. Travellers’ bragging rights were secured with speed, service and exclusivity.

Yet Concorde’s story isn’t one of uninterrupted record-breaking and celebrity patronage. Right from the word go, the project was beset with political problems and lack of international agreement, which meant that the aircraft very nearly never got off the ground. When it did, the environmental lobby challenged it at every turn.

The end was tragic. When in 2000 Air France Flight 4590 picked up a strip of titanium from the runway, triggering a set of events that resulted in the aircraft crashing into a hotel in Gonesse near Paris and the loss of 113 lives, the writing was on the wall for Concorde. It was formally retired in 2003.

January 2016 sees the 40th anniversary of the first commercial flight. At 1140hrs on 21 January 1976, with Captain Norman Todd at the controls, flight BA300 took to the skies. On board were some of the key industrial and political players in the Concorde game to date. There was Sir George Edwards (chairman of BAC), the Duke of Kent, Peter Shore (secretary of state for trade) and Eric Varley (secretary of state for industry).

Meanwhile in the cockpit, flight engineers sat facing walls of analogue switches, dials and controls that, according to Concorde expert Jonathan Glancey, “would have been more or less familiar to Second World War pilots and especially to bomber crews. When asked by curious visitors to the flight deck what all these switches did, British crews would typically answer, ‘haven’t the faintest - they do look rather important, though, don’t they?’ Visitors to Concorde’s cockpit were often surprised at how very friendly and old-fashioned - so very 1950s - the flight deck seemed to be.”

Political complications

Glancey describes the events leading up to the aircraft’s first commercial flight as “a bit of a soap opera, because for all too long neither British Airways nor Air France knew whether Concorde would be allowed to fly in and out of JFK airport in New York.” This was something of a fly in the ointment as the plane had been designed specifically as a trans-Atlantic airliner: “the tension was very high indeed, as American uncertainty prevailed to very late in the day. It was to take real aviation ingenuity as well as diplomacy to get Concorde flying in and out of JFK.”

Meanwhile, Anglo-French relations were, as ever, complicated. Although Britain had eventually joined the forerunner of the European Union in 1973, before Concorde went into service, Harold Wilson’s Labour government put a spanner in the works by holding a referendum in 1975 to determine whether the electorate wished to remain in the union. The outcome was a definite ‘yes’, but the fact that the referendum had been held at all did little to encourage the French, who were never certain of Britain’s political intentions in any case.

Yet, according to Glancey, Concorde presented the opportunity to stabilise Anglo-French relations, despite the fact that there wasn’t even unity over how to spell the aircraft’s name. Harold Macmillan, who was prime minister when the project began, officially dropped the terminal ‘e’ in response to a perceived insult by French president Charles de Gaulle. However in 1967 Tony Benn, Wilson’s minister for technology, reinstated it, causing outrage in Britain that was only appeased when Benn claimed, with something of a flourish, that the ‘e’ represented “Excellence, England, Europe and Entente.”

When the plane eventually took off, it was headed not for New York as is often assumed, but to Bahrain. At the time, Britain was on particularly good terms with Bahrain: not only was Concorde welcomed there, but also the flight path allowed the aeroplane to fly supersonically. There were also discussions about a potential Concorde route to Australia, which would have involved refuelling, possibly in oil-rich Bahrain.

Just as political reaction to the supersonic airliner was mixed, so was that of the public. Glancey takes up the story: “There were environmental protesters on both sides of the Atlantic, on a scale from firebrand US senators to Rolls-Royce-driving English eccentrics, determined to prevent Concorde from crossing the Atlantic.” The problem was, of course, noise. Yet beyond this, there was an undercurrent of commercial and even technological envy in the air. “The Anglo-French endeavour had beaten the Americans and it would be galling to see this revolutionary machine land on US soil.”

There was also a change of attitude: the long time-lag between Concorde’s design and commercial operation had run parallel to steep rises in the price of oil and threats to its supply from the Middle East. There was a widespread feeling that Concorde was a gas-guzzling pterodactyl that belonged to an earlier and more extravagant era.

However, while protest groups took out full-page advertisements in national newspapers, the general public followed the aircraft’s slow progress into service with enthusiasm. Glancey says: “For all its faults it was a glorious machine full of the promise of adventure, excitement and progress.”

Does Concorde have a future?

There was a time when British Airways genuinely believed that Concorde would remain in service well into the 21st century. Had it not been for the Gonesse crash in 2000 it might still be flying, but Air France was looking for a reason to retire its unprofitable Concordes and by the end of 2003, supersonic commercial flight was a thing of the past. The real question is: does it have a future?

“Well, the Vulcan V-bomber flew again,” says Glancey, “so perhaps Concorde will too. There is no shortage of enthusiasm or money to make this possible. But the aviation authorities may take a dim view of Concorde flying supersonic. If it were to be limited to subsonic speeds, then any venture to get one of these magnificent machines back in the air would be rather pointless.”

In the near future, we may see a new generation of Mach 2 business jets, dubbed ‘sons of Concorde’. Yet it is inevitable that, unless the noise issue can be addressed, there will be a whole mountain of environmental obstacles to surpass. Even if they do make it into service, they won’t fly any faster than Concorde, and as such won’t represent a technical advance on a machine that captures our imagination to this very day.

Jonathan Glancey’s ‘Concorde’ is published by Atlantic.

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