An icon of idiosyncratic genius

The Design
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Perhaps Concorde had been flying too close to the sun. Flight safety depends on two things: speed and height. Fly fast and you don't need altitude. Fly high and you don't need to be quick. After yesterday's catastrophe in Paris, we wonder if Concorde flew too high, too fast, too often. Too close to the sun.

Perhaps Concorde had been flying too close to the sun. Flight safety depends on two things: speed and height. Fly fast and you don't need altitude. Fly high and you don't need to be quick. After yesterday's catastrophe in Paris, we wonder if Concorde flew too high, too fast, too often. Too close to the sun.

After the stories about cracks in the wings, Concorde's first fatal accident forces a reassessment. But whatever the fate of the remaining Concordes, the aircraft will for ever be a symbol of endearingly idiosyncratic British genius.

In the Sixties Boeing took the decision that the future of air transport was the mass market and designed the stately jumbo. Concorde was more European - more élitist. Instead of lumpen, subsonic, long-distance travel through turbulence, this audacious aircraft offered a taste of the real opportunities of privileged air travel.

The French aeronautical tradition that began with Bleriot and Voisin came together with gentlemanly British design in the form of Geoffrey de Haviland. Sud Aviation had adapted de Haviland's pioneering Comet as the influential Caravelle; the Concorde was a cultural and technical extension of this strange alliance. It also became one of the most beautiful machines ever made.

Travelling in Concorde was a world apart. On board, the paradox was that while claustrophobic, with so much leather and claret and smoked salmon and caviar, you didn't want the journey to New York to be over in two hours 52 minutes. You wanted it to go on for ever. That view of the purple sky and the curvature of the earth was unforgettable.

American politicians griped at Concorde because they said it was "subsidised", ignoring that Boeing's entire commercial programme was underwritten by military contracts. The fact was that Boeing never made its SST (supersonic transport) while British Aerospace and Aerospatiale did.Never mind that, technically, Concorde dated from the Mini era: it was crude by contemporary standards with clockwork gauges, mechanical control lines and engines that sucked fuel like an erupting volcano in reverse.

But none of this matters when compared with Concorde's singular achievement: to demonstrate the beauty of technology. With its proboscic snout, its attenuated delta wings, its razor profile and its aristocratic demeanour, Concorde continues to make heads turn after a quarter-of-a century. Beautiful? Unquestionably. Useful? Probably. Unforgettable? Certainly. The Paris crash may be the end of a dream, but the vision remains intact.

The consultant and writer Stephen Bayley's books include 'Style and Design' and 'Commerce and Culture'.

Comments