From as young as I can remember, I had a recurring nightmare. I’d be walking along the road, or doing something completely normal, or just standing about minding my own business, when I would look up. And there would be a Concorde falling from the sky, fluttering down on a trail of fire. I dreamt it time and time again until it happened for real on 25 July 2000, when Air France Flight 4590 crashed near Paris. I’ve never dreamt it since.
I make no claims for the prophetic power of my dreams. People dream about accidents all the time and some of them are bound to be realised, just out of sheer random coincidence. What those dreams of mine illustrate is the position Concorde held in the national psyche, me included. It was a transport icon that transcended the civil aviation sector in which it operated. Quite a few people can correctly identify a Boeing 747 (even if only through its nickname, the Jumbo Jet). Some could still give a Comet its name. But everyone knew what a Concorde was. When they were withdrawn from service in 2000, we lost something intangible that was more than just an aeroplane, for it also marked a very important – and largely overlooked – turning point in the history of passenger transportation.
Concorde’s unique position as a cultural phenomenon even extended to the semantics regarding the aircraft. You see “a Jumbo Jet” or “an A380” and “the Dreamliner” might put in an appearance at an air show. But most people (non-transport geeks, I mean) saw Concorde. Not “the Concorde” or “a Concorde”, just “Concorde”, even though there were just 12 in passenger service when withdrawal came, seven with British Airways and five with Air France (the latter originally also having seven).
The Concordes entered service from 1976, after pre-production prototypes began flight testing in 1969. They were the result of one of Britain’s last great state-driven technology projects, and even more extraordinary than that, a joint effort with the French government. It’s an inconceivable method of project delivery today. There’s so much casual xenophobia about mainland Europe today in Britain, so little trust in government spending rather than that driven by the private sector. Which was why the next great Anglo-French engineering project, the Channel Tunnel, had to be delivered by the private sector, even if it was effectively underwritten by both governments.
Concorde was, quite simply, the most beautiful machine ever built. It looked like nothing else because it did a job like nothing else; in civil aviation at any rate. It flew higher, at 60,000ft (a little over 11 miles) instead of the more usual passenger aircraft cruising altitude of 8.5 miles. At that height the curvature of the Earth was visible. Its passengers felt like they were all-but astronauts. It flew faster, at twice the speed of sound. That’s some 1,350mph compared to the 675mph cruising speed of a modern Airbus A380. It stretched by up to 30cm during a flight, as a result of friction on the airframe, before shrinking down again as it cooled.
It looked so exquisite because its shape was primarily dictated not by a designer, but by the immutable laws of physics themselves, the flow of air over its wings at both subsonic and supersonic speeds, the need to fit within its own supersonic shockwave, to outrun its own sound, the need to pierce the thin air at nearly the speed of a fired bullet. Nature itself carved Concorde, its designers subservient to a greater power. So it was, for instance, that it featured double-curved wings, to better perform across the wide range of speeds at which it travelled.
That’s not to downplay the role of its designers at all. With the limited computational power available to them at the time, they were practically magicians, feeling their way to a design which would work, and refining it even through the production process. The tails of the production Concordes are longer than those on the first three pre-production prototypes, and look all the better for it. And those designers produced another of its idiosyncratic features, the drooping nose and retractable visor which gave pilots a better view of the runway as their highly-strung thoroughbred screamed towards the ground on landing.
The Concordes were the ultimate Speedbirds, British Airways’ call sign, and the BOAC logo, brought to glorious life.
The moaners, of course, moaned then and continued to moan. Concorde was a waste of money, they said (and still say). The 14 fleet Concordes were essentially gifted to Britain’s and France’s state airlines, wiping off its development costs in the process. The reasons that orders from other airlines never materialised, or were placed and then cancelled, remain mired in controversy. The crash of a similar Russian supersonic passenger aircraft at the 1973 Paris Air Show didn’t help. Orders from American carriers were dropped in favour of a homegrown aircraft, itself subsequently cancelled. And then there were the environmental rules suddenly introduced by various governments, putting limits on Concorde’s operation, and which seemed as though they could have been designed specifically to kill Concorde’s volume production opportunities.
Yet Air France and British Airways eventually managed to operate their Concordes quite nicely as a commercial proposition, despite the small fleet size, once the development costs had been written off by the two national governments. Had orders for additional Concordes materialised in a less overtly hostile regulatory environment, the economics of the overall project would have been significantly improved. A production fleet of 14 was never going to be able to amortise the development costs incurred. It would be like stopping the Model T Ford production line after the first few cars had been produced, and saying the high costs incurred proved that the concept of production line cars was never going to pay its way.
For those who could afford it, Concorde was perfect, allowing people to make day visits from London to New York and back again. Generally we think of such premium offers as good examples of market segmentation. We don’t become morally indignant about the provision of Business Premier on Eurostar, or the availability of Bentley cars to those who can afford them. Yet the mere fact of Concorde’s existence, its provision of an exclusive service to the wealthy few, seemed to offend many.
But if the public money spent on Concorde’s development had been spent on something else instead, would it really have been spent on something better? Or would it have been frittered away on things with little or no lasting impact, as so much public sector spending tends to be? And I ask that as someone who’s spent their own share of public sector monies. Maybe the money spent on Concorde would have been better used to deliver a minuscule tax cut for British and French citizens?
With a small and ageing fleet, Concorde was always going to get increasingly difficult and expensive to operate as the years passed; spare parts, for instance, proving expensive and difficult to provide for such a small number of aircraft. The Flight 4590 crash was just another nail in the coffin, not the defining cause of its end, which eventually came in 2003.
Concorde has earned its place in wider culture for many reasons. It was a machine of extremes, an Anglo-French recordbreaker. But it was more than just the highest, fastest passenger plane in the world. It had a more subtle and bittersweet impact, too. It marked the last time that the state led a project on behalf of Britain’s population to build something clever, and aspirational, and beautiful. It was the final swansong of technocracy. That is a cause of quiet satisfaction to free marketeers, but sadness to others. The British have a long and troubled history of snatching defeat from the jaws of technological victory. We’re the only nation to abandon a successful space programme. We somehow lost our lead on post-war jet aircraft. We opened the first proper civil nuclear power station in the world, and yet headed off down the dead end of Advanced Gas Cooled reactors. Concorde, on the other hand, looked exquisite and it actually worked.
Concorde was also the last gasp of the international airline industry as a glamour product. After Concorde, it was (and still is) all about pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. That has reached its ultimate in the double deck Airbus A380. It’s an astounding machine, but also a depressing one in so many ways. Air travel is all about grim endurance these days, not elan and escape.
Concorde was an icon that remained ever popular. You could (and still can) buy models of Concordes in toy shops. British Airways itself used to do very nicely selling Concorde memorabilia, including to people who had never travelled on it and had no immediate chance of doing so, and anyway were thwarted by its withdrawal from service in 2003. People loved Concorde, you see, and we wanted to be associated with it in some tiny way.
The Concordes used to fly over my flat in south-east London in the early 2000s, as regular as clockwork, on their way in to Heathrow. They had a distinctive engine note and I would drop whatever I was doing to stick my head out of the window and watch them head west. Below was the grim mundanity of the A2 in New Cross Gate, clogged with traffic and acrid with fumes. Above, for a moment or two, was the pure engineering beauty of the most glorious machine in the world, as free as a bird.
You can find the Concordes today in museums, still beautiful, but now bound to the earth. Like caged birds, they are exotic, and wonderful, and melancholy, all at the same time.
But here’s the real sadness about 26 November 2003, the day a Concorde last flew in passenger service. It was the first time in the history of the industrialised world that the speed of the fastest mode of passenger transport available has dropped. Horses reached their peak with the stagecoach, then the early railways made it possible to travel further and faster. The railways then improved their technology. A steam locomotive could hit 100mph by the early 1900s, and 126mph by 1938, but this was just as planes were becoming the fastest passenger transport available.
During the 1930s Imperial Airways was operating Short Empire flying boats at 200mph. Maximum speeds continued to increase after the second world war and the De Haviland Comet, the first commercial passenger jet, was introduced in 1952 with a cruising speed of 460mph. Speeds of the fastest jetliners continued to increase gradually until 1976 when Concorde shrunk the world by a massive margin.
Then, suddenly, on 27 November 2003, the fastest speed that you could travel on passenger transport was just over halved to the mid-600mph range. The fastest current aircraft is the Airbus A380, at 676mph. Until Virgin Galactic introduces point-to-point travel on SpaceShip Two or Three or Four and goes faster than Concorde, we’ve taken our first ever step backward in our attempts to shrink the world.
In a small but important way, progress in passenger transport has ceased. I’m amazed that people seem so unconcerned by it.
About Transport Icons
For three and something years I’ve tried very hard to keep The Beauty of Transport away from vehicle design, and largely succeeded. For a start, it’s very subjective, and tastes vary widely. Secondly, there are many websites where you can argue the merits of the attractiveness of different models of trains, planes, buses and probably even monorails for all I know. But it occurred to me that there are a few passenger transport vehicles which have achieved an unusual level of public recognition; which have become something greater than simply parts of the transport industry. They are now, for one reason or another, part of our wider culture and heritage. Concorde, it seems to me, admirably fits such a description, as do a few others.
It’s not easy to do references or bibliographies for an article like this. How do you know there were 12 Concordes in passenger service at withdrawal? Because you’ve heard or read it so many times in so many places, in books, on display boards at museums, in documentary films. So there’s no one reference book I’m quoting. There are seemingly squillions of books about Concorde and its development. However, I would particularly recommend Jonathan Glancey’s recent Concorde: The Rise and Fall of the Supersonic Airliner, published in 2015 by Atlantic Books. If you like this blog you’ll like this book, because it doesn’t get overcomplicated, and instead majors on the political and cultural phenomenon Concorde – and other supersonic aircraft projects – came to be.
Meanwhile, this is a rather splendid web resource about the Concorde fleet, a real labour of love and very helpful on the technology and timelines for when you do need something a bit more technical: www.concordesst.com
Corrections and Clarifications
Thanks to Passenger Transport‘s deputy editor Andrew Garnett for pointing out some confusion in the original version of this article between the 12 Concordes in service at withdrawal, compared to the original fleet size of 14. The article has been corrected accordingly.