Fifty years ago, Concorde first took flight and became a British icon. It was ahead of its time then – and still would be today, reflects James Fisher.
It was usually at 5:30pm that it started – distant at first, like a malicious storm brewing, but it kept coming like a wave, louder and louder.
As my parents’ plates started vibrating in the cupboards, I’d run outside. I’d got used to the noise of planes by that point. We lived under the Heathrow flight path and, from early in the morning to late at night, aircraft of varying shapes and sizes would pass over unnoticed, causing perhaps just the briefest hesitation in conversation.
You became numb to it, but there was one that was different. It was another kind of sound – a richer and deeper rumble that infused those who heard it with awe. It was a sound that resonated with power and pride in equal measure. I’d run outside, look up and see the delta wing and stare, because I was a young boy with Lamborghinis and Ferraris on my wall, but they meant nothing compared with Concorde.
Fifty years ago, Concorde 001 left its hangar and proceeded toward the runway at Toulouse airport. Cameras clicked as André Turcat spooled up the mighty Olympus engines and accelerated into the distance. As the wheels came up, what had begun as a dream in the mind of Sir Arnold Hall back in the 1950s came to life. The age of the Concorde and supersonic passenger travel began.
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‘Perfect,’ said Turcat, when he stepped down from the cockpit on March 2, 1969. ‘It was as perfect as we had expected.’ British test pilot Brian Trubshaw was slightly more Wodehousian: ‘It was wizard. A cool, calm and collected operation.’
‘Imagine his horror when Mick Jagger would rudely overtake him while devouring an oyster’
When I visit Capt John Hutchinson, who flew Concorde from 1977 to 1992, in Hertfordshire, I notice a theme: ‘It was a pilot’s dream. It was – and will remain – the ultimate airliner that’s ever been. Without question.’
That’s quite the statement, but the evidence is tough to resist. Concorde had a maximum speed of Mach 2.03 or about 1,350mph – in the 1970s, the fastest plane in the skies of Britain was supposed to be the Lightning, which was flown by a man in a spacesuit. Imagine his horror, then, when Mick Jagger would rudely overtake him while devouring an oyster.
At 60,000ft, Concorde’s operating altitude, you could see the curvature of the Earth and at such heights and speeds, John informs me, rather strange things would happen. ‘I used to pinch myself, sitting up there, above the weather and the wind. There was no feeling of speed, no concept of it,’ he says wistfully.
‘The only time you would notice how fast you were going was when you overtook a 747, 20,000ft below you, and it looked as if it was flying backwards.’
When John flew the 7pm flight from London to New York City, he’d take off in darkness. Halfway across the Atlantic, he’d catch up with the sun and, by the time he landed in the USA, he could enjoy his second sunset of the day.
‘The problem that Dulles had wasn’t noise, but the coachloads of people who turned up at the airfield fence to watch it take off and land’
I never heard Concorde when I lived in New York. For a long time, it didn’t visit at all. The Americans refused to let it take off and land for much of its early career, citing safety concerns for local residents. However, the real reason, as British Airways knew then and John confirms, was jealousy.
‘The Americans were very envious of the fact that we’d done it,’ he believes. ‘At Dulles airport [near Washington DC], they finally decided to give Concorde a chance. It was a six-month trial in 1976. Of course, the problem that Dulles had wasn’t noise, but the coachloads of people who turned up at the airfield fence to watch it take off and land.’
Concorde was never just for the British or the French. It was for everyone. As with the Moon landings, it was the pinnacle of human endeavour at the time.
It was another year before flights to New York began, such was the New York Port Authority’s stubbornness. It set tests that Concorde could surely never pass: would it be able to take off from JFK, climb fast enough and turn quickly enough to avoid flying over residential areas? You know the answer – in the words of the authority chairman, ‘the damn thing didn’t even trip our noise meters’ and the iconic route of London to New York, in less than 3½ hours, began in 1977.
‘At a time of crippling national debt, blackouts and strikes, Concorde kept flying’
For the great and the good of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Concorde was the only way to fly. Whether it was The Queen, the Queen Mother, the Pope or Victoria Beckham, standard class simply wouldn’t do. Pavarotti was also a passenger and any aircraft that could tow him along at twice the speed of sound was clearly special.
At a time of crippling national debt, blackouts and strikes, Concorde kept flying. It was something that the British people could get behind.
Jeremy Clarkson agrees. ‘It’s been argued that Concorde was for the elite, but this is nonsense,’ he says.
‘The whole project was pushed through by the old Communist Tony Benn and you can tell. Life for the toffs and the industrialists on board was noisy, uncomfortable and cramped.
‘But for those on the ground, looking up, it was wondrous and magnificent and as stirring as a bit of Elgar. Tony Blair would have called it “the people’s plane”. And he’d have been right – for once.’
It wasn’t only those on the ground who adored her, but those on board as well. ‘Once you got on Concorde, you were seduced by her,’ reflects John. ‘Everybody involved – crew, ground engineer or dispatcher – was passionate about that aeroplane and they would do anything for it.’
Life on board may have been cramped and noisy, but the customers were treated like royalty. There were post-takeoff drinks, a full lunch service with the finest wines and it was all chased down by fresh coffee and sweets. ‘In the early days, we had cigars,’ chuckles John. ‘The place took on the atmosphere of a gentleman’s club.’
‘It should have retired, at its peak, with dignity’
Concorde inspired those involved to hold the highest possible standards. ‘We were elite and elitists. We were proud – proud of the aeroplane and proud of the fact that we were a part of it.’
It seems strange to think that flying at 1,350mph in a lounge suit is an endeavour of the past and not the future. Life is about moving forwards, improving ourselves, but, with the loss of Concorde, it feels as if we’ve gone backwards. The crash in Paris, in 2000, had a major part to play.
‘British Airways understood very well that, if there was ever an accident, it would spell the aeroplane’s doom. History proved that to be true,’ John sighs.
‘I was terribly sad when the plane was grounded – it had at least another 10 years left in it. It should have retired, at its peak, with dignity.’
Supersonic passenger travel isn’t finished, but it will be a long time before we see it again. NASA and others are working on designs for a smaller supersonic airliner that will be efficient and economical – words that would never have been associated with Concorde. However, even with all the advances in technology and design of the past half-century, one thing remains the same: the shape.
‘I’ve seen the designs,’ says John. ‘They’re basically identical, which reinforces just how clever those designers were more than 50 years ago. The sophisticated computers they’re using to make these new aircraft produce the same profile that we did, in wind tunnels with paper models.’
‘there I was, talking to somebody who, in her lifetime, had gone from flying with Louis Bleriot at 23 miles an hour to flying with me, in a Concorde, at 23 miles a minute’
Concorde, it seems, wasn’t only ahead of its time in 1969 – it’s ahead of its time now. As Trubshaw once said, ‘it is not unreasonable to look upon Concorde as a miracle’. After all, only 66 years before Concorde first flew, Man couldn’t fly at all.
As I get up to leave, John tells me a story of an American lady he once flew to Washington DC. ‘Lunch service finished and I asked the crew to bring her up onto the flight deck,’ he remembers. ‘We were chatting away and eventually I asked her “So, when did you first see an aeroplane?” “Oh,” she said. “I first saw an aeroplane when one of the Wright brothers landed at Savannah, Georgia, in 1908.”
‘“Okay,” I replied. “So when did you first fly?” “I first flew with Louis Bleriot in 1911.”
‘I was stunned – there I was, talking to somebody who, in her lifetime, had gone from flying with Louis Bleriot at 23 miles an hour to flying with me, in a Concorde, at 23 miles a minute.’
There’s a Concorde at Brooklands Museum in Surrey. Even stationary, it screams of speed, as if it will turn itself on at any second and rip away into the sky. To think that something as futuristic-looking as Concorde was born so long ago still seems like science fiction.
‘It was our mascot, our chip at the global table’
Sir Hugh Casson described it as a piece of 20th-century sculpture and it’s easy to see why – Concorde was a fusion of art and technology into a sublime, iconic whole.
As John says: ‘It was quite unmistakeable. It made a statement everywhere it went.’
What did Concorde mean then? To children like me, it meant everything. It was a window into the future. To the population, it was our mascot, our chip at the global table, an icon that loudly declared, wherever it went, that Britain was still able to share a ring with the heavyweights.
More literally, it meant ‘agreement’ – an agreement on shared interests, shared goals and dreaming bigger. It’s something we should learn from.