Jad Adams looks back to a time when, wracked by industrial decline, a nation embraced the world’s first supersonic airliner.
In December 1971, around the coast of Britain and in the south of the country, people could look up to see the test flights of Concorde, the world’s first supersonic passenger aircraft. With its elegant ‘slender delta’ lines it was as though the Skylon sculpture from the 1951 Festival of Britain or a Dan Dare spaceship had taken to the air capable of flying at twice the speed of sound. It was truly the shape of the future – and that was part of its problem.
The challenge for which Concorde was the solution was a commercial one: the US had come to dominate the civil aviation market and the main European manufacturers, Britain and France, were eager to recover the initiative and create the next phase in aircraft development. As Sir Philip Jones, director general of the Concorde project from 1971-73, later characterised it:
America dominates the civil aircraft market, we in Britain want to be in it, we the French want to have a stronger stake in it, let’s take the next leap. Let’s go to the supersonic transport ... We can take this great leap, we will be in the vanguard again and everybody will always pay for speed.
The assumption was that supersonic speed, developed for military use, would translate to passenger travel, just as so many military developments had led to improvements in civil aviation.
In a period of industrial decline, there was a particular need for Britain to prove itself. Aircraft production along with shipping, cars and other manifestations of manufacturing might were dwindling. It was a unifying apprehension in a divided country, something that both Labour and Conservative governments and the people they represented could agree upon. Duncan Sandys, Harold Macmillan’s minister of aviation, said:
If we are not in the supersonic aircraft business, then it’s really only a matter of time before the whole British aircraft industry packs in. It’s obviously the thing of the future.
Geoffrey Rippon, parliamentary secretary at the ministry of aviation, thought the alternative to Concorde was ‘flogging hand-knitted union jacks to tourists’. Britain simply had to compete at the cutting edge of technology or become a historical theme park.
Impossible hopes were pinned on the project. Technology minister Tony Benn, in whose Bristol constituency Concorde was partly built, giving work to thousands, said in 1969:
It’ll change the shape of the world, it’ll shrink the globe by half. We’re trying to build the Model T Ford of the supersonics for the 1970s and 1980s. It replaces in one step the entire progress made in aviation since the Wright Brothers in 1903.
Concorde was also a totem of political progress: it symbolised Britain’s future position within a European union, leading the continent in alliance alongside France with whom the aircraft was developed. General de Gaulle’s veto in 1963 on British membership of the Common Market dealt a bitter blow to the Macmillan government’s hope for a European role, but the project that symbolised it soldiered on.
Concorde enthusiasts were not alone in the belief in a supersonic future for passenger aircraft. The Soviets were at work on a prototype supersonic jet, the Tu-144, inevitably dubbed ‘Concordski’ by British newspapers. In the US a competition was held to design a new supersonic passenger plane. Boeing won it and in 1966 produced its own prototype. With an interior in lurid 1960s colours, it was designed with scrupulous attention to detail and passenger comfort, incorporating colour television screens in the seat-backs and a system for televisual communications.
The Russian Tu-144 crashed spectacularly at the Paris Air Show in 1973, delaying its development. The US military transferred its attentions to missile technology rather than supersonic aircraft as the primary ‘delivery system’ for the atomic weapons of the Cold War. There would be no military subsidy for a supersonic aircraft. The $4.5 billion price tag on the Boeing project made even the world’s richest nation quail.
An easier way for the US to win the race for domination of the airline industry was to ban commercial supersonic flights over its territory. The Senate voted for this on December 2nd, 1970 citing environmental grounds, eliminating in one stroke a highly lucrative market for Concorde. A full order book of 74 ‘options’ to buy the aircraft disappeared as fuel costs and environmental concerns grew. Thirty-six of those options had been held by US airlines. In the end none bought Concorde.
Concorde should have been the first of many supersonic airliners, but it was now out on the field alone. Yet it was still the most elegant object in the skies and an extraordinary example of technology: its public appearances and performances attracted vast crowds. One journalist taken on a test flight rhapsodised:
This is the fringe of space where time runs backwards ... The sky is deeper blue than any airline passenger has seen it before – halfway to the darkness that astronauts know.
Concorde was fortunate in the British ministers who oversaw its development, with Tony Benn having overall responsibility for the project during two periods: 1966-70 and 1974-75. Benn was the son and brother of pilots and had served in the RAF during the Second World War. He was committed to aviation. During his time in charge of the project Benn cornered a leading industrialist, George Edwards, chairman of the British Airways Corporation, in a lift and told him, in a behind-the-scenes briefing, to get a message to the French telling them what to ask the British government for, in order to keep the project going. Concorde survived.
The Concorde project was politically secure: neither the French nor the British governments could face the shame of backing out, despite the expense. Production costs had already escalated alarmingly: there would be a tenfold increase over the projected £150 million figure before it became operational. The aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war saw the Arabs increase the cost of crude oil as a protest against western support for Israel. The oil price increase was a serious long-term threat: supersonic passenger transport had been predicated on the use of a cheap, plentiful fuel.
The political climate had other unsettling ways of impinging on the Concorde planners’ vision. In 1969 a Palestinian terrorist group hijacked a TWA plane and (after landing and releasing the passengers) blew it up in the Jordanian desert. Now there was something else to calculate: in the future more time would be spent at airports on security checks; no one would walk straight on to a plane as once they did. Another increase in travelling time came with the inexorable rise in car ownership and resultant traffic jams. A reduction by half the standard flying time to New York now looked less attractive, as many hours were spent not in the air but getting to and from airports at either end of the journey.
By the time Concorde entered service in 1976 a different idea of modernity had replaced the vision of the future it once symbolised. Now the goal was mass air travel. The first Boeing 747s had appeared in 1970 and Concorde was already a relic from an earlier age as low-cost foreign tourism and cheap flights became the dominant focus.
A ban on flights that made sonic bangs, the characteristic double boom created when a supersonic aircraft breaks the sound barrier, had been introduced in Sweden in 1967 when parliament declared that it would prohibit noise that could disturb sleep. It was further evidence of a growing environmental movement. Now the one-time public vision of the future was encapsulated in an advertisement from US anti-supersonic transport groups: ‘airplane of tomorrow breaks windows, cracks walls, stampedes cattle and will hasten the end of the American wilderness’. Scientists who had once heralded a benign, technologically advanced future were now the prophets of doom, environmental ruin and ultimate global catastrophe.
Concorde became the symbolic rallying point for environmental protest. Experts lined up to explain how it would disturb the oxygen balance and leak toxic additives into the atmosphere; about higher radiation levels due to ozone layer depletion leading to skin cancer; about weather modifications caused by the effect of water vapour, which would ultimately culminate in a new Ice Age.
Nevertheless, Concorde remained in service for 27 years. It would not be a passenger aircraft frequently used by any but the rich, but many ordinary folk did travel on it as a once-in-a-lifetime luxury or as a competition prize.
The technology was developed no further, however. By 2000 it could be seen that Concorde’s cockpit was filled with the analogue dials of the mid-20th century. It was as if its creators had become ashamed of Concorde and saw it as a flying museum piece, already part of the past, and would not spend any money to upgrade it.
It was a superlative aircraft in terms of its appearance and performance and was the safest passenger aircraft in the world with nil deaths per passenger mile until a crash at Gonesse, near Paris, on July 25th, 2000. A piece of titanium debris, dropped on the runway by an earlier Continental Airlines flight, caused a rupture to the Concorde’s tyre; a chunk of the tyre was thrown up to the aircraft’s wing and caused shock waves that ruptured a fuel tank. A total of 113 people died, four of them on the ground when the plane came down. Concorde was grounded; flights resumed for a brief while in 2001, but it was ultimately scrapped in 2003.
The unfolding story had been of politicians, engineers and business people imagining what the future would be like and trying to design it. They desperately wanted the supersonic aircraft to succeed, for industrial and political reasons. Despite all the obstacles, the complexity of international relationships meant neither Britain nor France could back out when the project became unrealistic: they had already invested so much. By the time a changing landscape had limited the plane’s use and profitability the dream still remained. In the end it was a hopeless hybrid: the aircraft of the future had become the aircraft of past fantasies, a flying symbol of a science fiction world that never came to be.