Guest Post. On the 10th anniversary of Concorde’s final commercial flight, David Long muses on the magic of our magnificent, lost Speedbird.
“I’ve flown Concorde.” Actually I’ve flown in a Spitfire – a rare two-seater, which is much more unusual – but somehow people relate more to the Concorde experience and even now, 10 years after this shimmering white exemplar of Anglo-French cooperation was canned, those few brief words will still bring a conversation to a sudden green-eyed halt.
For years, right until the very end, its unmistakable profile coming into Heathrow still made people look up – not just tourists, but Londoners too who must have seen it nearly every day – and as a child I remember the conductor at an outdoor concert at Kenwood or maybe Crystal Palace stopping the performance mid-symphony and gesturing for the orchestra to stand and applaud as the magnificent creation passed over.
Generally speaking most of us very quickly get used to anything new, but Concorde was always different. For nearly 30 years it really was one of the sights of London, and it belonged to London in a way that no other aircraft could possibly have done. (On the contrary: who in West London doesn’t literally hate the Boeings and Airbuses crashing into their consciousness at 6am every morning?)
Even people with no interest in aircraft loved Concorde, and in the face of the dreadful disaster in Paris, the far-reaching effects of 9/11, and a growing environmental awareness, most wanted it to continue flying even though for the overwhelming majority the chance of ever climbing aboard was never more than zero.
Admittedly our passion for it sometimes blinds us to the fact that when it all started Concorde wasn’t alone in racing for the stars. The Soviets actually entered service a few months earlier with the similar-looking (and slightly faster) Tupolev Tu-144. But rushed into production for propaganda purposes the shine very quickly came off ‘Concordski’ when one crashed at an airshow (also in Paris as it happens). The Americans took a run at it too, with the much larger Boeing SST – intended to upstage Concorde, it was designed to fly at three times the speed of sound instead of just the two – but the Senate refused to back Nixon as the price spiralled out of control and eventually the one completed fuselage was auctioned off for a mere $31,000
That left only Concorde. Not that it ever made much sense either, financially, although mentioning this now seems vulgar and in decidedly poor taste. Some things, we like to think, are simply above price although there’s no escaping the reality that the original budget of £150 million reached something like two billion of public money before the ‘planes were sold to what is now BA for a mere £1 apiece.
But then there are so many ways in which Concorde made little sense. That graceful, slim shape, for example, meant it was far more cramped than even the cheapest charter. (And this despite the fact that, in flight, it stretched by nearly 10 inches as its surface temperature rises to 100°C+) It was also a good deal noisier than conventional aircraft. Inside, I mean. From outside it was in a whole new league altogether with a signature sonic boom that would have shattered windows more than 60 miles away had it ever broken the sound barrier over land.
And as for the fuel consumption of its four gigantic Rolls-Royce Olympus 593 engines, famously the most powerful jet engines in commercial service? Well, let’s just say that given that they were already slurping 5,638 gallons an hour in the early 1970s – when OPEC started holding the world to ransom with increased prices for crude oil – the ability to fly at twice the speed of sound wasn’t the only miraculous thing about Concorde’s continued existence.
But balancing all of this, and flying at an apparently effortless 1,340mph, few then or now could deny that Concorde was beautiful. Really, really breathtakingly beautiful. It was also, inarguably, such a technological tour de force – the result of more than five million test-flight miles, much of it at Mach speeds – that it quickly came to symbolise European technical achievement and pride in a way which today – post-Dome, post-Eurotunnel, and in the midst of Crossrail – is impossible to imagine. The authorities weren’t blind to its symbolic value either, and when the US finally cleared Concorde to land in America two were sent over, carefully timed to land simultaneously and to taxi up to the terminal in a perfectly orchestrated delta-winged ballet of elegant, nose-drooping, synchronous showing-off.
From then on passengers on both sides of the Atlantic welcomed the chance to slice hours off their journeys: London to New York took less than three and a half hours, roughly half the normal time and surprisingly only 20 minutes more than if Boeing’s rival SST had made it to Mach 3. But, while not quite just a rich man’s toy, the example of Concorde certainly demonstrated that supersonic travel was never going to be for the masses – or at least not any time soon.
By the mid-1980s the hundred passengers on each flight had to cough up £2,200 apiece for a cheap-day return to New York and eventually you could more or less treble this for a fare which made First Class look a snip. The flights were therefore mostly full of corporate grandes fromages, show-biz types and the odd professional sportsmen. (Some of the former did it on a regular basis, like the oil exec. who according to BA was clocking up an average of three supersonic flights a week until the bitter end.)
To such people the time saved was clearly worth the money: the five-hour time difference between the UK and US meant in effect they arrived before they had taken off. But to those down on the ground it is, even now, much harder to say quite what Concorde represented or why 10 years on its loss is still keenly felt. But perhaps some things are never meant fully to be understood, and the truth might just be that Concorde really was that special.
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