The Concorde was birthed as a symbol. It was a symbol of diplomacy (the result of a treaty between France and England) and a symbol of progress (the first commercial supersonic airliner). But it died a symbol of failure.
The project started off on the wrong foot. As the result of a political obligation (said treaty), both sides were compelled to proceed despite hindrances and setbacks. Hindrances like the gargantuan cost of each aircraft – which cost French and British taxpayers billions of dollars, between research, testing and manufacturing.
And despite its record-setting performance (2 hours, 52 minutes, 59 seconds between New York and London, the fastest of all time), it simply wasn’t terribly well liked. It was a source of nationalist pride for the English and French, but for many others, it was considered a bit obnoxious. A toy of the rich. A luxury of the jet setter.
And extremely loud. It was supersonic after all, and those sonic booms were never appreciated by anyone within earshot – noise from the jet during takeoff exceeded 110 decibels (about what you’d hear at the front row of a rock concert), and was described as “intolerable” in archival reports.
It also was not exactly eco-friendly, using three times the fuel of a standard transatlantic passenger plane, and dumping an inordinate amount of exhaust into the sky.
So it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise that only 14 Concorde were sold, compared to an anticipated 200. Think of it as sort of the Laserdisc of aircraft.
But as much as it was ultimately a bust – retired in 2003 after the project was embroiled in a legal conflagration surrounding a terrible runway crash – the craft was still a spectacular achievement in many senses. When the first routes began – a quarter of a century ago today – between London and Bahrain and Paris and Rio, they were the first flights of their kind. The flights were loud, polluting and expensive, yes – but they were fast as hell, and for the first time in history, supersonic travel was available to anyone with the scratch for a ticket. Not exactly a democratic moment, but still – it was out there, and it’ll always be history. And for that, we recognise you, brilliant, booming failure. Happy birthday, Concorde.
Photo by teclasorg