Concorde – 10 years on

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Today marks a decade since Concorde’s final commercial flight.

The last Concorde flights took place in November 2003, a month after its final fare-paying passengers stepped off the most beautiful aircraft ever designed.

The impact of the post-9/11 air travel downturn on Concorde’s premium passenger market, rising support costs and the prospect of expensive life-extension work ended the supersonic era.

Supersonic vision
Back in the Fifties, when Britain and France separately began working on supersonic transport (SST) concepts before joining forces in 1962 to create what became Concorde, there was a spirit of modernity. That took many forms in Britain: consumerism, a re-energised pop culture with TV and new forms of film and music and the welfare state’s expansion.

But arguably the most potent symbol of that post-war spirit was the Jet Age. The pushing of boundaries and the exploration of new technologies held a powerful hold in the popular consciousness.

It was this spirit which gave rise to a belief, in Britain and France at least, that supersonic air travel was the way forward. Concorde was the result – as was the millions poured into its development by the British and French governments. The Anglo-French aircraft was, in Europe at any rate, the ultimate expression of the cultural impulse to go faster, higher and further.

However rocketing fuel prices in the Seventies and the problems of gaining permissions for overland supersonic operations would torpedo Concorde’s commercial hopes, with only 14 ever to be operated commercially by British Airways and Air France.

As The Independent‘s travel editor Simon Calder has recently noted, Concorde’s problem was a “commercially debilitating lack of range” which, combined with its relatively small size, meant its operating economics were manifestly unattractive compared to the more efficient larger widebodies then entering the market.

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Realities
The hope expressed in a January 1976 Aircraft Illustrated article that “Concorde will make for a more closely-knit world, most major cities will be within 12 hours’ flying time of one another” – a view also borne of that further, faster, higher idealism – just didn’t cut ice. The dream of SSTs like Concorde whizzing ordinary men and women around the earth ended up being just that. Grey Seventies realities washed away the Technicolor ideas of mass supersonic air travel.

Concorde therefore ended up as a transport for moneyed, time-sensitive premium customers so valued by flag carriers. The aircraft’s shape and supersonic capability gave it allure to start with, but its use by the rich and famous – and the idea of sipping champagne while flying along faster than a rifle bullet –   added lustre to its already glamorous sheen, and helped cement its place in pop-culture consciousness.

Phil Collins and Live Aid, Mick Jagger, Sir David Frost and Liz Taylor being regulars, Suggs hitting a golf ball down the centre aisle and claiming the world’s fastest golf putt – Concorde was the place where aviation met celebrity most vividly.

There was some democratisation.  Concorde charter flights in the 1980s and 1990s took passengers on supersonic hops over the Bay of Biscay. Sometimes BA operated these from UK regional airports like Manchester (where ex-BA Concorde G-BOAC is now proudly on show) and Liverpool – the latter sometimes involved fly-overs of the Grand National each spring.

BA and AF also occasionally flew Concordes at European and North American air shows, where its appearances boosted gate numbers. Apparently, a BA Concorde display in 1988 at an airshow at the small grass airfield of Barton outside Manchester caused such a large queues that traffic ground completely to a halt on both sides of the nearby M60 motorway.

Cultural icon
Stories like that – and the thousands who turned out at Heathrow on the day of the aircraft’s last commercial flights a decade ago – attest to Concorde’s true place in history: it’s one of very few aircraft to have captured the truly mass public imagination.

Not for nothing did the BBC, in the days when it covered air shows, invariably feature Concorde in its programmes, for example in this footage from Farnborough 1994.  And neither was it surprising that when, in 2002, a BA Concorde flew in formation with that other great British aviation icon, the Red Arrows, above The Mall in London as part of a flypast marking the Queen’s golden jubilee, it raised some of the loudest cheers of the day. There’s footage in this video, from the 6min 11sec mark.

Two sunsets in one day
Nuggets of Concorde trivia explain the aircraft’s hold over the imagination. Sat on Concorde you could see the curvature of the earth – the only passenger aircraft from where such a view was possible – because it flew at 60,000ft, just 40,000ft below space. Concorde flew faster than the speed at which earth rotates. At full chat, it covered three miles per second.

This is the best fact: when a Concorde departed Heathrow for New York in the early evening in autumn, it travelled so quickly that, with the time difference, Concorde arrived in America before it had taken off (which led BA to for a time use the ad slogan ‘Arrive before you leave’). Passengers therefore saw two sunsets in one day from different continents.

This was why Concorde captured minds: it cut through time and distance.

The SR71 Blackbird flew higher and faster. But that aircraft didn’t transport dozen of people in comfort: Concorde’s passengers wore business suits, not pressure suits. The engineering challenge overcome to achieve that makes Concorde an ultimate expression of man’s mastery of flight during the 20th century.

Concorde is the last few decades in microcosm. A mid-20th century ideal. Man’s genius in developing technology to make it possible. Design icon. The cult of celebrity. Environmental concerns. Air travel tragedy, with its Paris accident in 2000. The effects of terrorism on air travel demand at the turn of the century.  Looking back with nostalgia on something lost.

Concorde’s kaleidoscopic story – and simply its sheer beauty, brilliance and cultural impact – means it remains an icon.

Silent she may be, but she still flies in the mind.

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