Fatal nosedive of aviation's talisman

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The Independent Online

In a few minutes outside Paris, the treasured prize of international air transport took a nosedive that may prove fatal to the dream of supersonic air travel.

In a few minutes outside Paris, the treasured prize of international air transport took a nosedive that may prove fatal to the dream of supersonic air travel.

Concorde is not just the flagship of the British Airways and Air France fleets, but the repository of hope for the industry's old goal of bringing higher, faster flying within the reach of all passengers.

It remains a remarkable aircraft, cruising at twice the speed of sound, faster than all but a handful of military jets. A hundred grannies could sit in the back doing their knitting, and it wouldn't shake their gin and tonics.

Although the aircraft was designed for scheduled operation, carrying the great, good and well-heeled across the Atlantic at £6,000 a round-trip, it is in the more prosaic charter market that Concorde has reached operating profit.

It will never make true profit, for only 16 were ever built. The two prototypes now stand at Duxford and le Bourget as museum pieces and the rest have never flown as a complete fleet for BA or AF.

Air France rarely flies more than five at a time, and BA has six operational aircraft at the best of times. Both keep at least one aircraft on the deck as a source of spares - "Christmas trees" as they are known.

The small size of the fleet makes the disaster more poignant. Until now, Concorde enjoyed an impeccable safety record. In one desperate moment it has become the aircraft with the worst reputation ever.

To lose one out of 10 or 11 aircraft is appalling. If it were applied to the Boeing 747, it would equate to more than 100 losses; for the B737 short-haul twin-jet, the world's most ubiquitous, it would mean up to 300 fatal accidents.

And yet, there remains a glamorous fascination about the beast. Pilots love it because it demands hands-on flying - "real piloting" - as opposed to the largely computer-controlled sub-sonic jets produced en masse by Boeing and Airbus Industrie. It also makes the mass of potential passengers look up as it passes noisily by. Its sleek lines point to the future, even though its technology stems from the late 1950s. Its very existence means radical newaviation developments are possible, although manufacturers have gone quiet on that front.

They all agree, however, that what is required is a Mark II Concorde which can carry 350 passengers across the Pacific at business-class fares, and without upsetting people below with sonic booms. No engine exists to power this dream, but then again, nobody but the Wright brothers had flown anything at all 97 years ago.

Chris Lockwood is an aviation writer who has covered the industry on both sides of the Atlantic for more than 30 years.

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