Concorde Conspiracy: The Battle for American Skies 1962-77
Graham M. Simons
The History Press 254pp £17.99
The story of supersonic passenger transport is one of the strangest in aviation history. Once it was the obvious course of development for the American, European and Soviet aircraft industries. Yet within a decade no one wanted supersonic travel (SST) and the only viable plane, Concorde, was an expensive embarrassment.
Graham M. Simons, a prolific aircraft historian, has described how the Americans had been working on detailed feasibility studies since 1960 and it had been an ambition of President Kennedy to see the US produce such a plane. By the mid 1960s it was clear that, though the technical problems could be overcome, the development costs would be prohibitive. Then came the onslaught by the environmental lobby. As well as the fastest, the SST was thought to be the noisiest and most polluting passenger aircraft ever conceived.
US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was opposed to the SST and Simons suspects his agile mind was behind the initial anti-SST lobbying by environmentalists. I am unconvinced: the environment was a cause whose time had come in the 1960s; it did not need a puppet-master to promote it.
If these lobbyists brought down the American SST they certainly weren’t going to welcome Concorde. Campaigners such as Bella S. Abzug, a New York member of the House of Representatives, explained that she saw the Concorde debate as ‘a rare opportunity for us to put a halt to blind, senseless technology which is applied at the expense of the general public.’ This was not going to be a debate conducted in the calm light of rationality.
The Americans correctly judged that Concorde was a matter of pride and national prestige to the French, while the British tended to view it as a price they had to pay to avoid a French veto of British membership of the Common Market. Simons has found a US minute of 1965 advising the use of diplomatic and economic resources to delay Concorde to make it look less promising to the consortium and to detach Britain from the project.
Once it was built the American effort was directed towards preventing Concorde from becoming a success, notably by refusing it permission to fly supersonically on routes over the US.
Simons believes ‘the story of Concorde and the Americans is one of spies, lies, arrogance, dirty tricks and presidential hatred … deceit, treachery, mistrust and confusion.’ Well, up to a point. Simons is excellent at interpreting his masses of documentation to analyse technical ability and performance, right down to graphs plotting the number of seats against aircraft speeds and fuel costs. He is not so adept at understanding the uncertain flow of political briefing papers, which record the possibilities of policy, not necessarily future intentions. Still it is always fun to read formerly sealed Department of Defense documents and only recently unclassified CIA reports marked RELEASE AS SANITIZED.
The implication throughout this book is that the people who opposed SSTs were conspiratorial and those who supported them were honest engineers and political friends of progress. In fact big national projects are always political and always open to tricks by politicians, trade unionists, industrialists and bankers – dirty and otherwise.
That said, Simons has done excellent work with primary sources and some superb picture research, producing a huge number of original images, such as the mock up of a supersonic plane touching the rim of space. For anyone interested in aircraft this book is worth the price for the pictures alone.
Jad Adams is author of Tony Benn: A Biography (Biteback, 2011).
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