It makes grown men react like excited little children unpacking their long anticipated Christmas presents. It’s surrounded by equal amounts of widespread joy, fascination and not least myths. It’s a technical tour de force without its match. It possesses an almost Godly beauty. Yet, it’s also entrenched in a profound sensation of blissful sadness. Allow me to present:
Last Saturday, on March the 2nd, it was precisely 50 years since the Concorde first took to the air on its initial test flight. That is surely an occasion worthy of celebration. While ViaRETRO of course focuses on classic cars, I’m sure that anyone with a true appreciation of automobiles of yesteryear, will equally hold some affection for this fabulous supersonic passenger aircraft. I know that I do. In fact, since I was but a child, nothing else has managed to fascinate me quite like the Concorde. On the few occasions where it has landed in Copenhagen, I have always been there to witness the spectacle. During one of its visits, I even had the privilege of experiencing the cabin first hand. I have always been – and still am – hopelessly in love with this fabulous and beautiful aircraft. Unrequited love, one might say. As a boy and young man, it was entirely impossible for me to experience the joys of supersonic Concorde travel due to the hugely expensive tickets, and as an adult – well, commercial flights with the Concorde sadly ceased more than 15 years ago.
Through the years, I have followed multiple auctions for a variety of Concorde spare parts. Once, I even found myself bidding for the actual nose cone of a Concorde, but bidding went supersonic too and I was soon forced to retire from the action feeling vaguely depressed. Instead I have collected cutlery, plates, trays, old boarding tickets and a variety of other Concorde souvenirs from both Air France and British Airways. But it was all stolen several years ago when burglars broke into our house. Indeed, my love affair with the Concorde has never been simple or straight forward.
“At two times the speed of sound they commence serving our meals. The starter consists of carpaccio of pineapple with an assortment of red berries, while we’re given four choices for the main: Full English Breakfast, Beef Medallion in a Black Truffle Sauce, Salmon Terrine, or Open Lasagne with Spinach and Mozzarella. Dessert is either baked pears or a variety of cheese. It’s only half past ten in the morning, but I’m not bothered, so I opt for the beef medallion and a good glass of red.”
During my many years in the music industry, I would occasionally come across famous rock- or popstars from abroad, and my mandatory question to them would always be: “Have you ever travelled on the Concorde?” On the odd occasion, the answer would be positive followed by wonderful tales of elegant stewardesses, extravagant cheese tables and bubbly Champagne. Several have told me of the particularly deep blue colour of the sky, as the Concorde cruised at 60,000 feet – much higher than any other passenger aircraft. Others focused on the cramped cabin leaving very little room to move around. But all have told their stories with a spark in their eye and a passion in their voice, just like they have all recalled how there was a mach meter mounted in the passenger cabin for everyone to admire with awe. It was of course a necessity to witness cruising speeds of Mach 2.02 – more than twice the speed of sound – while consuming your perfectly presented foie gras. Especially Gary Barlow from Take That was particularly passionate about his Concorde tales, and even pulled his Concorde Flyers Card from his wallet for me to admire with envy. Needless to say, I ordered another G&T that evening and sat there dreaming while listening to Mr. Barlow’s Concorde adventures.
“While the pilot manhandles the aircraft, the stewardesses start serving us. We have reached Mach 1.89 when we’re treated to Champagne and canapés. The Champagne is a Pol Roger 1986 Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.”
The Concorde was developed as a joint venture between British Aircraft Corporation in the UK and Aérospatiale in France. The development costs for the supersonic passenger aircraft were astronomical, but at least this way, there were two governments to spread the financial strain over. After a challenging and prolonged development phase, the first test flight with Concorde 001 was undertaken from Toulouse, France on March the 2nd 1969, piloted by Captain André Turcat. Shortly after this, Concorde 002 went on its maiden flight from Filton, Great Britain on April the 9th with Captain Brian Trubshaw at the controls. On both occasions, the press were ecstatic! This was after all the beginning of the space race, and the Concorde was a clear example of what mankind could achieve.
Enjoy this wonderfully nostalgic report from the very first flight of Concorde 001:
After this, the two prototypes were presented to the public for the first time at the Paris Air Show on June 7th & 8th 1969. Development continued and Concorde 001 first broke the sound barrier on October the 1st 1969. During later testing, the Concorde reached its highest sustained level flight at 68,000 feet (almost twice that of normal subsonic passenger aircraft) and powered on to a record-breaking speed of Mach 2.23. Yet, it wasn’t until early 1976 that the Concorde finally entered commercial service with British Airways and Air France.
The Concorde was a technological success – but not a financial one. With the oil crisis of 1973, many potential buyers had opted out and in the end, only 20 Concordes were produced – nowhere near enough to absorb the vast development costs. Flying from London to New York only took three and a half hours, but it was much too expensive, and air travel was heading in the opposite direction with low cost airlines sprouting up on every continent. In front of thousands of enthusiastic spectators, the last Concorde on October the 24th 2003 in London.
The catastrophe in July 2000 was the Concords most horrific moment. Through more than 24 years of commercial flight it had maintained a clean record – statistically it was the safest aircraft in the world, and it was by many regarded as practically unfaultable. I suppose it was at least of some consolation that it wasn’t a fault on the Concorde which caused the tragedy. Instead it was a Delta aircraft of much more modest background which had left a metal strip of debris on the runway just before the Concorde. This debris punctured one of the Concorde’s wheels and then fractured the fuel cell within one of the wings, just as it took off for JFK Airport in New York. But the Concorde’s reputation took a hard hit nonetheless. Add to the equation the impact of September the 11th on aviation as a whole, and not least Airbus’s decision to stop producing replacement parts for the Concorde, and the writing was on the wall for everyone to see. It was the death of an icon – in fact, the death of a whole era.
“While ordinary aircraft fly at 30 – 35,000 feet, “my” Concorde will climb to 53.000 feet – a height of 16 kilometres. At such levels, there is no turbulence, and only astronauts fly higher! Here on the very edge of outer space, the sky is more beautiful than I have ever experienced before; a stunning deep blue colour. It’s claimed that we at this height can see the very curvature of the earth, but I’m still not entirely sure. Is it the windows which make it appear this way, maybe the Champagne is starting to have its effect on me, or is that really the earth curving away before my eyes…?”
Only with very few things can we truly claim that technology has gone backwards. It will probably never again be possible for passengers to travel that fast across the Atlantic. Our children and grandchildren will insist that we’re either lying or losing our memory, when we tell them that it used to only take three and a half hours between London and New York. But the Concorde was indeed capable of that. It even did so with grace and elegance.
Viva La France – Rule Britannia!!!
The quotes are from Kenneth Hansen Karskov’s passenger experience in the Concorde.
Translated from Danish by Anders Bilidt.