The tragic beauty of Concorde

'Once again, human beings have reached out to create something special, succeeded and then been humbled by catastrophe'
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The Independent Online

It represents the heights of human endeavour; and now it has plumbed the depths of human tragedy.

It represents the heights of human endeavour; and now it has plumbed the depths of human tragedy.

Concorde is the cathedral of our age. The architects of the medieval cathedrals explored the limits of the available technology to create buildings we wonder at today. The designers of Concorde pushed the limits of their available technology to create an aircraft of extraordinary sensuous beauty and power. In a world where the demands of commerce and physics combine to make most aircraft look pretty much the same, Concorde is utterly different.

But the cathedrals were sometimes also struck by tragedy. The tower of Beauvais cathedral, just 30 miles from yesterday's crash, collapsed because the builders drove on upwards without first building the nave and buttresses to support it. The spire of old St Paul's in London, which stood at just below 500 feet, a height not surpassed in London for 700 years, also collapsed. When it was finally destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, it was just a stump.

Our human quest to build higher became, with the industrial revolution, a drive to go faster. Our more recent technological marvels demonstrated this counterpoint between achievement and catastrophe. William Huskisson, the statesman, was killed on the opening day of the Liverpool to Manchester railway. The Titanic became a symbol of European achievement and arrogance in the months before that whole world was swept away by the First World War. The Hindenberg airship, the early Comets, and the space shuttle Challenger all stand as examples where human beings have reached out to create something special, succeeded in a way, and yet were then humbled by catastrophe.

To fly in Concorde is to experience a magic of our age. The Boeings and the Airbuses shuttle around the world, often in the air for more than 20 hours out of the 24, filling up with people and fuel, turning round, filling up again - a great testimony of our ability to combine technology with commercial organisation. But the extraordinary thing about normal airline services is their ordinariness. Concorde has been flying across the Atlantic for a generation, but there is still a sensual beauty to it that is utterly unordinary.

The long, thin silver dart; the oomph in the small of your back as the afterburners kick in for take-off; the very idea that you can beat the sun to New York - all makes for an experience denied to most of us in our world of traffic jams and school runs.

But you may also be reminded that these are elderly planes operating at the limits of Sixties technology. The one time I pretended I was in a hurry to get back from New York to London and booked myself onto Concorde was the one time in my life that I have ever made an emergency landing. We were about half an hour out from New York, had just gone through the sound barrier, when an engine had to be shut down and we returned to Kennedy with fire engines racing out to meet us.

"Does this sort of thing happen often?" I asked the cabin crew. "Oh yes, pretty often," was the answer, though I think this must have been to reassure us.

And now? In flying hours, the Concordes may be only middle-aged and they are certainly very pampered. But whatever decisions are taken in the aftermath of this crash, at some stage, maybe within the next 10 years, these aircraft will have to be retired. It is hard to see them being replaced. Just as the cathedrals uplift human spirits but cannot be justified by hard economics, so too Concorde. It has been a commercial failure, made possible only by subsidies from the French and British governments, who never recovered any of the development costs.

It was not just a commercial failure. It was a failure of the European decision-making process, for building Concorde was an example of the elitist instincts of European governments a generation ago. In effect, we took away money from ordinary taxpayers so that rich celebrities could get to New York three hours earlier that they otherwise would. In real terms the cost to ordinary people was the Dome multiplied more than ten-fold.

By contrast, Boeing took a gigantic commercial risk, built the 747 with its shareholders' money and democratised air travel for a generation. One decision, by European political leaders, may have uplifted the spirits. The other decision, by American business leaders, changed the world. Arguably the second decision was the braver one, for had the 747 been a commercial failure, the company would have gone down with it. In Europe the taxpayers were just taxed a bit more. Score one for business people over politicians. Score another for American democracy over European elitism.

Human beings, however, will always want to explore the edges of the possible. They will always want to soar. So at some stage in the future there will of course be another generation of supersonic aircraft. These will have to be commercially funded, for it has become politically very hard to justify using taxpayers' money to fund the transport of the rich. It has also become very hard to justify the environmental costs of supersonic flight: the amount of fuel used per seat, the dispersion of emissions in the upper atmosphere, and of course the noise of the sonic boom.

My understanding is that at the moment the best technological, environmental and commercial window looks like being for a smaller plane, more an executive jet than a full-sized commercial aircraft. There are quite a lot of people who are prepared to pay to fly supersonic but who want to travel directly to their destination rather than be crammed through the hubs of Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle and J F Kennedy. It would also be easier to make a smaller plane environmentally acceptable, in terms of noise and fuel consumption. It has to be environmentally acceptable not just to satisfy the green lobby, but also to be allowed to fly supersonic across the US. Commercially that is essential.

So will, in the future, supersonic travel just be for people with private jets? Not necessarily. If you could build a supersonic executive jet, it probably then would be possible to scale it up for small-scale commercial use.

This is not, however, a big window. And if another supersonic plane is built it will hardly be the glamorous and now tragic beauty that is Concorde.

The ideas of one generation often seem odd to another - especially perhaps the immediately succeeding one. Many ideas of the Sixties seem strange to us now. The world was more "top down", less "bottom up". Then we had more faith in elites. We trusted governments to make the right decisions and trusted the ability of scientists to deliver the technology to fulfil our aspirations and needs.

Now we are not only more sceptical. We are more concerned about the environment, for we are more aware of the threat to humankind from neglecting it. We are also ultimately more democratic, voting with our credit cards for what we want, instead of relying on other people to make those choices for us. Given the choice we would not now "vote" for Concorde. As taxpayers we do not comfortably pay for grand projects that benefit the rich and cost the rest of us money.

But we still respect human endeavour. We still see beauty. And we still grieve for the 113 dead. But for myself, I cannot see (or indeed hear) Concorde make its swing over London just before 10.30 each evening without feeling a sense of wonder that little than three hours earlier it was pulling up across the bay out of New York.