Concorde and supersonic travel: The days when the sun rose in the west

It's been 10 years since Concorde's last passenger flight. There was nothing quite like flying supersonic, says Simon Calder, but it's an experience he's unlikely to be able to repeat soon

Simon Calder
Saturday 19 October 2013 00:00 BST

Due to the ban on Cuban products on the US soil on which I would be landing in an hour's time, the cigar was not a Havana. But it provided the perfect conclusion to a gourmet meal that had been accompanied by the finest of French wines.

The purser called me forward. I left the cigar smouldering in the armrest ashtray, straightened my tie and – minding my head on the low ceiling – stood up to visit the flight deck.

The sun was rising in the west. The evening Concorde departure from Heathrow had chased the sunset and eventually overtaken it. The magnificent aircraft with its sensuous delta curves roared into Kennedy airport 90 minutes before it had taken off, local time.

That experience, as you will have spotted, wasn't last week. Nor was it 10 years ago, when Concorde made her final commercial flight. My one and only supersonic trip took place in 1986. In those days, cheapskates with an eye for speed could act as couriers. You paid £150 for a one-way Heathrow-New York JFK flight on BA's Concorde in return for surrendering your baggage allowance and agreeing to carry the waybills for several sackloads of "time-sensitive documents".

This was before DHL and FedEx had their own aircraft, and pre-dated the requirement for you to swear solemnly at check-in that you had packed the bags yourself. In the 1980s, the fastest way to transport financial documents and news film between the two most important cities in the world was as checked baggage on Concorde.

The ticket's face value was over £1,000. Before you were handed the precious document, a courier firm supervisor ensured you met the dress code; for fear of upsetting full-fare passengers, couriers were instructed to wear a jacket and tie.

Once on board, couriers were treated like everyone else, with the chance for first-timers to visit the cockpit. Even in the Eighties entering Concorde's flight deck felt like stepping into the past. Three men (and the odd tourist like me) were crammed into a narrow cylinder filled with controls and dials that had more in common with an early Cold War bomber than today's "fly by wire" jets. Which, of course, was Concorde's problem.

The world's first supersonic airliner was a child of the Fifties. A government committee gave the green light to the project in 1959. While the Americans and Soviet Union raced each other into space, the British and French agreed to combine their formidable aviation resources for civilian use. World-leading designers and engineers could have built a large "people carrier" – pre-dating the first Airbus – to democratise air travel ahead of the American wide-bodied jets.

Instead, politicians decided to order something that was almost impossible, thoroughly impractical and utterly elitist. Welcome aboard.

Captain sensible: Simon tries out the pilot seat for size

British Aircraft Corporation engineers at Filton, near Bristol, and their colleagues at Aérospatiale, in Toulouse, had the unenviable task of blending two conflicting cultures (and systems of measurement) to create a machine that would fly twice as fast and 50 per cent higher than any previous airliner.

While the boffins calculated the angle by which the nose would have to droop for a safe landing, and worked out how to cool the windows so that passengers would not get burnt, politicians on both sides of the Channel were gambling. They bet billions of pounds or euros (at today's prices) of taxpayers' money on a forlorn wager: that airlines beyond the captive market of the French and British national carriers would order the supersonic jet.

It didn't help that Concorde was as environmentally obnoxious as she was aesthetically elegant. The plane burnt far more fuel per passenger than any other. BA's new 787, carrying twice as many passengers, flies the London-New York route there, back and there again on the kerosene that Concorde used on a single hop.

The sonic boom that was triggered when Concorde pierced the speed of sound meant it could not fly over land, which rather limited its scope. And as any resident of London who used to set their watches when Concorde flew in over the capital at 10.20pm can testify, it was an order of magnitude louder than any other plane even when flying subsonically. That's because most passenger aircraft are fitted with quiet, efficient power plants, whereas Concorde's four Rolls-Royce Olympus engines fell off the back of a Vulcan bomber. They were originally designed to assist in the obliteration of Minsk and Moscow rather than to carry business travellers swiftly and serenely to Manhattan.

Perhaps the ready availability of military aircraft technology persuaded the Soviet Union that it could emulate the Anglo-French concept. The Tupolev Tu-144 beat Concorde to the skies, but crashed during the 1973 Paris Air Show. All six crew died, as well as eight people on the ground.

Hangar-bound: Crew mark Concorde's final supersonic trip

The Tu-144, like the USSR itself, was a ramshackle and unreliable muddle. For a couple of years before being scuttled, it shuttled between Moscow and Almaty in Kazakhstan.

Concorde's route network was hardly less random. The North Atlantic was the only part of the world on which the airlines had any hope of a coherent business plan for the supersonic era. But the Americans had abandoned plans to build their own SST (supersonic transport). They were in no hurry to grant permission for a plane specifically designed to lure all the high-spending first-class passengers from the big US airlines, Pan Am and TWA.

Permission was finally granted for flights to Washington DC; New York followed only after a legal battle that ended with the Supreme Court. While lawyers argued, Concorde had to fly somewhere. In 1976 BA launched the jet to Bahrain on a convoluted route down the Mediterranean, while Air France began with Rio – but not non-stop. Due to the distance and Concorde's commercially debilitating lack of range, it had to refuel at Dakar in Senegal. A few months later, the people of the Azores found themselves on the route map; the island of Ponta Delgada served as a pit stop between Paris and Caracas – which was in the middle of an oil boom.

The soaring price of oil meant that, by the late Seventies, every prospective foreign airline customer had cancelled their order. Yet for a time BA flirted with other carriers. It combined with Singapore Airlines to extend the Bahrain route to Singapore and with Braniff to add a subsonic leg from Washington to Dallas. But these, like almost every other route on which Concorde was deployed, lost money.

Concorde's finances were horrendous. Only 14 of the supersonic jets ever flew commercially (for comparison, the contemporary Boeing aircraft, the 747, has 100 times as many still flying). The development costs per plane were sky high. British taxpayers could have been funding an overhaul of the railway network, but instead bankrolled a heroic failure at exactly the time that the tracks the Victorians bequeathed us were being torn up. Eventually, the 14 aircraft were given away to Air France and British Airways.

Thirty years ago, the futuristic folly found a new role: offering joy rides. Goodwood Travel, which operated motorsports holidays, took a punt on chartering Concorde to fly enthusiasts to the Monaco Grand Prix. Even without the help of the internet, the trip sold out in two days. No longer was the aircraft the preserve of time-pressed business travellers; it became a plaything of the moderately rich and possibly famous, offering a supersonic venue for birthday celebrations and wedding anniversaries.

Whether you wanted a 90-minute flit around the Bay of Biscay, or a round-the-world tour, there was a "Flight of Fantasy" for you. In 1994, the BBC Holiday programme featured a supersonic tour of the Middle East, with the late Jill Dando on board.

British Airways abandoned the Washington route, but kept New York twice daily and started flying to Barbados; there was good business to be had in getting the late Michael Winner to dinner in the Caribbean, even though a refuelling stop in Shannon was often necessary. With oil bubbling along below $30 a barrel (in comparison with $100-plus today), the future looked manageable. Until 4.45pm, local time, in Paris on 25 July 2000.

"For all aircraft listening I will call you back shortly. We're going to get ourselves together and we're going to recommence take-offs."

That was the message broadcast to the flight crews on the ground at Charles de Gaulle airport. Two minutes earlier, Air France flight 4590 had accelerated along runway 26 Right, destination New York. It was a Concorde charter full of German holidaymakers. During the take-off roll, one of the tyres ran over a strip of titanium that had fallen from a previous aircraft. The metal shredded the tyre. Part of the rubber hit a fuel tank, sending a shock wave that burst a valve. Fuel started to pour out. It was ignited by sparks from part of the landing gear that had also been damaged by debris.

The aircraft was on fire as it took off. Despite the desperate efforts of the crew, it failed to gain altitude and crashed into a hotel in the village of Gonesse, five miles from the end of the runway. All 100 passengers and nine crew were killed, along with four workers in the hotel.

Once the causes of the Paris crash were identified, Concorde was grounded for extensive (and expensive) modifications that took more than a year to implement. On 11 September 2001, the first proving flight with passengers aboard took off from Heathrow. It was always intended to fly to the mid-Atlantic and back – making it the only plane that day that did so deliberately. Many more aircraft were turned back after the terrorist attacks. The jet landed shortly after the World Trade Center was hit.

The unwillingness of Americans to fly in the wake of 9/11 was later cited as a key reason why Concorde was grounded in October 2003. On the day in April that year when Rod Eddington made the announcement, the afternoon Concorde flight from JFK to Heathrow carried just 20 passengers. Which is why Concorde is now in its third incarnation: museum piece, with a licence to host weddings.

Last Saturday, Concorde Delta Golf hosted the marriage of Miss Lucy Stewart from Weybridge and Mr Graham Pearse from Wagga Wagga. The couple married at Brooklands in Surrey, where G-BBDG sees out her days as a tourist attraction and venue for supersonic romances. A Routemaster bus was parked beneath the port wing, a reminder that Britain could do mass transit well; the model is still shuttling between the City and Kensington, and providing a transportational backbone in Commonwealth countries such as Sri Lanka and the Falklands.

My Concorde trip, like the career of the supersonic jet, ended ignominiously. While fellow passengers with proper tickets headed for their waiting limousines, I stood around waiting for the baggage tags to be reconciled with the mailbags. Then I stepped outside and caught the local bus: the "loser cruiser," as public transport is disparagingly known by some Americans.

Concorde was a lost cause – a fatally flawed time machine for different times. But no aircraft before or since has turned so many heads, nor borne misfortune so beautifully.

Concorde timeline: The highs and lows

1959 Government committee recommends that the UK build a supersonic passenger jet

29 November 1962 Anglo-French treaty signed. A wide range of airlines began to make non-binding orders.

2 March 1969 first flight

1 November 1969 first supersonic flight

21 January 1976 Concorde enters service with BA300, flying from Heathrow to Bahrain

24 May 1976 Concorde flies to Washington DC

22 November 1977 Concorde starts flying to New York JFK

15 May 1983 first Concorde charter, from Heathrow to Nice for the Monaco Grand Prix

27 March 1984 Concorde begins flights to Miami

13 July 1985 Phil Collins performs in both Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia, courtesy of Concorde

12 December 1987 Concorde starts flights to Barbados

25 July 2000 Air France Concorde crashes outside Paris, right, with 113 deaths

15 August 2000 BA flight to New York returns to gate when cause of Paris crash emerges. Concorde grounded

11 September 2001 first post-crash proving flight with passengers lands at Heathrow just after the attacks on the World Trade Center

10 April 2003 BA and Air France announce the end of Concorde

24 October 2003 Concorde's last passenger flight, BA2 New York to Heathrow

26 November 2003 last flight, to Filton.

Hypersonic flight: Fact or science fiction?

Every couple of years, it seems, British travellers are told that they will soon be able to get from their front rooms to Sydney Harbour in two hours flat. The key, we are assured, is hypersonic travel.

Sci-Fi dream or genuine prospect? A question for Dr Phillip Atcliffe, senior lecturer in aeronautical engineering at Salford University He isn't confident about the chances of a new generation of ultra-high-speed aircraft.

"There are plenty of people prepared to put in the time and effort to develop a hypersonic aircraft, including me, but you need money and political will – which aren't forthcoming.

"Boeing bet the company on the success of the 747, and they got away with it. But I can't see the same happening with hypersonic flight."

Just suppose, though, someone came up with the money. What would the experience be like?

"I'd be on one tomorrow if they existed. The take-off might be a bit shocking – halfway between an aeroplane and a ballistic missile. It would need to leave Earth's atmosphere because otherwise it could melt through air friction."

The closest we've ever got is the X-15 research aircraft, which once flew above 4,500mph. But, says Dr Atcliffe: "That particular X-15 never flew again." He adds: "What really killed Concorde was the energy crisis of 1974. You go that bit faster, you have to pay for it."

Concorde on show

The obvious way to re-create the age of Concorde is to resurrect the jet that powered through the sound barrier. What are the chances?

Poor to non-existent, according to Jan Knott, who ran Concorde charters for 20 years:

"There's no one in the world who'd love to see that more than I would. But the costs of getting it up and running again would just be phenomenal."

Mr Knott has the impressive title of Concorde operations manager at Brooklands Museum in Surrey, where a rebuilt supersonic jet stands proudly. Visitors can take the £4 tour of the aircraft – or hire the whole thing to tie the knot ( His aircraft, Delta Golf, never saw commercial service.

The magnificent seven Concordes that did fly for British Airways are in museums in Barbados, Edinburgh, Filton, Manchester, New York and Seattle. One (Alpha Bravo) was not modified after the Paris crash and remains at Heathrow.

Concorde by numbers

100 number of seats on BA and Air France Concordes, although it could have carried up to 128 passengers

204 length, in feet, at supersonic speed; on the ground, it was 8in shorter

84 wingspan in feet

173 minutes between take-off and touchdown of the fastest New York to London flight, achieved on 7 February 1996

4,143 range in miles

1,350 cruising speed in mph

60,000 highest cruising altitude in feet

45 miles flown per ton of fuel. The 787 does 120 miles, with twice as many passengers

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