Flight of the Concordes
2003 saw the end of the supersonic passenger jet age. Here's why the Anglo-French aircraft is such an inspiration to my work.
I'm fascinated by Concorde, the world’s only luxury supersonic aircraft. This lifelong interest led me to my to a passion project, a chronicle of the design, technology, lifestyle trappings and history of supersonic travel.
More than just an aircraft, Concorde was an idea. Like the Apollo program, it was aspirational, a space-age idea of how to advance and elevate society. Between its wings, one traveled at up to 1,375 miles per hour, faster than the rotation of the Earth itself.
With flight times cut in half, it was anticipated that people could travel more efficiently. On westbound transatlantic flights, Concorde brought passengers to their destination at an earlier local time than from the time they left their departure city. With travel times shorter, destinations seemed closer. Our world was a little smaller; humankind around the globe, within reach.
As we know, supersonic travel did not meet its early promise, and did not become the worldwide standard. Concorde’s limited availability, along with the aircraft’s speed, instead became a signature of the service itself, and the economics of its operation ensured a unique list of passengers.
Operated by two airlines, British Airways and Air France, Concorde specialized in shuttling royals, sheikhs, heads of state, captains of industry, movie stars, rock stars, socialites - in short, the kind of people for whom a $12,000 round-trip airfare was no big deal. The Concorde was where Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell, and George Soros (not to mention Sting, Mick, and Elton) met up to talk shop; where the Queen Mum celebrated her 85th birthday; where Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein got caught smoking a cigarette in the lavatory. This led to a travel experience that ended up being more like a flying club than transport to the destination. After its retirement, Concorde’s regulars generally migrated not to standard first class flights, but to their own private jets.
Concorde's engineering excellence was reflected in the finest details, from custom luggage tags and silverware to a passenger lounge designed by Sir Terrance Conran. Everything a passenger came into contact with was imagined as part of an experience.
The aircraft itself exemplified this belief in exceptional engineering and design. The form of the craft was defined by the needs of its function, polished to a mirror finish to eliminate friction, and delta-winged to refine its glide characteristics. Concorde’s engines each poured out more than 18.7 tons of thrust, rocketing 100 passengers at Mach 2, a mile every three seconds.
Concorde was the only aircraft--commercial or military--to maintain Mach 2 without afterburners. At an altitude of 60,000 feet, twice that flown by typical commercial jets, passengers saw the curvature of the Earth. Above them, the Earth's atmosphere thinned to a suggestion of the blackness of space. And like the Space Shuttle, supersonic passenger service is history, for now anyway.
Lunch or dinner comprised most of the two hour, 45 minute transatlantic flight time, and Concorde had its own menu and wine list.
The Concorde program hit obstacles, dramatically limiting the reach of the program. In the United States, Boeing tried to develop a supersonic passenger airplane of its own. The Soviet Union produced a fleet of supersonic passenger aircraft, providing service from Moscow to Eastern Russia. What resulted, much like the space race, was a race for superiority of the supersonic passenger market.
The US Congress decided not to allow the Anglo-European Concorde to fly supersonically over the continental US, citing noise concerns. This resulted in almost all of the airlines that had plans to operate Concorde (Pan Am, United, TWA, among many others) dropping their orders, leaving British Airways and Air France holding just 16 of jets. Without the economy of scale that would have gone with worldwide use, they became exotic.
At about the same time that Concorde came into service, the Boeing 747 debuted, putting passenger seat volume ahead of passenger speed. Instead of getting people there twice as fast, commercial airlines opted for getting four times the number of people there--at the same speed we’ve gone since the dawn of the jet age.
As my interest in Concorde grew, I collected ephemera, brochures, passenger gifts from the airlines, in-flight service items, toys and other souvenirs. Collectively, those artifacts tell the story of this exceptional chapter in our design and travel history.
In 2003, after the aircraft’s manufacturer limited maintenance support, British Airways and Air France ended supersonic service. When the final passenger flight landed at London's Heathrow airport, 10,000 spectators watched the last flight touch down. In the weeks before the last flight, I took the last chance I'd have, and flew Concorde on my thirtieth birthday, New York to London. Probably the closest I’ll get to outer space, with the Earth 60,000 feet below, it was seemingly over before it began yet was still the fulfillment of a dream.
And for those who flew the other direction, faster than the Earth spins, the sun rose in the west.
More of my Concorde project is viewable at www.supersonicsite.com
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