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J A N U A R Y  1 9 7 7

Supersonic Bust

Faster than the speed of sound comes the plane of the future. It has cost at least fifteen times the original estimates. It is described as a "commercial disaster" by a review committee of one of the countries that built it. It is besieged by the environmentalists. The Concorde is the benighted offspring of Anglo-French diplomacy and once-and-future dreams of glory in the skies. Now its builders are trying to keep it from crashing in a sea of red ink

by Peter Gillman

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

THE supersonic Concorde has suffered a bewildering year. Last February U.S. Transportation Secretary William Coleman decided to allow the supersonic plane into Dulles and Kennedy airports for a sixteen-month trial period. But then the New York Port Authority banned Concorde for six months so that it could monitor the results of Concorde's noise tests as it flew in and out of Washington. British Airways and Air France, the only two airlines so far to have bought the plane, at first appealed the ban, then decided to postpone their suit until New York announced its decision -- expected momentarily. Jimmy Carter won big headlines in Britain for his opposition to the plane during his presidential campaign: afterwards he "clarified" his position by saying a final verdict would depend on the noise and pollution tests. British Airways and Air France had hoped to be flying Concorde into Kennedy by Christmas: recently they have been saying that if New York approves the plane, they will begin operations by the spring.

No other plane has had to undergo such preliminary tribulations. It was an unusual experience for British politicians and officials to participate in the rough-and-tumble of American political lobbying, or take part in a rowdy debate with Concorde opponents, as they did when they came to Washington for Mr. Coleman's hearings last January. The British pitched their arguments before Coleman at a modest level. Gerald Kaufman, Harold Wilson's former press aide, now Britain's minister of state for industry explained that they merely sought four journeys a day to New York and two Washington. All that they wanted was for Concorde to be given "a chance."

What Kaufman and his officials meant was the chance to save face. Already Britain, and France spent .46 billion ($2.3 billion) to reach this (and a London political economist has recently argued that the true cost is roughly three times this amount).1 As Kaufman knew, it is imposible for the two countries to recover any but a tiny part of this staggering total. It may be true that Concorde's progenitors spoke of a payload of 150 passengers, while Concorde has been flying to Washington this winter with a limit of seventy; it may be true that they spoke of operating costs "comparable with" other planes, while it costs three times as much per mile to carry a passenger in Concorde as in its subsonic rivals. But let us fly into New York, the British pleaded, and we can pretend that Concorde is not the most disastrous investment decision Britain has made since the war.

CONCORDE is already, in effect, twenty years old. The decision to begin the supersonic project was made in 1956, the year of Suez, Britain's last great imperialist gesture. It was a time when Britain was still enjoying postwar expansion, and had not yet had to face the economic consequences of the loss of empire. It was a time of the technological imperative, when the first suggestions that technology did not of itself represent progress were only just being made. And it was a time when Britain still believed that she had the capacity and expertise to rank with the world's major industrial powers.

For British aviation, the most traumatic event after the war was the disaster of the Comet. Early in 1954 two Comets exploded over the Mediterranean, killing all on board. The Comet was grounded for two years, and by the time it was ready to fly again, the 707 and the DC-8 had built up an unassailable lead.

It fell to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, a country town thirty miles southwest of London, to carry out the painful examination of the Comet crashes. Farnborough concluded that the explosions had been caused by metal fatigue at the Comets' windows. Faults in the manufacturers' preproduction tests had led them to underestimate the effects of pressurization.

It was from the experts at Farnborough, committed to technological advance, that the pressures for a supersonic project now came. One of the most important characters in the story of Concorde is Morien Morgan, a short, ebullient Welshman, who now, as Sir Morien, is master of Downing College, Cambridge. In 1956 Morgan was Farnborough's deputy director, and ideally placed to give the project its initial momentum. Later he moved into senior posts at the Ministry of Aviation headquarters in London, enabling him to keep the project on course. His enthusiasm and his advocacy were to prove vital.

One reason that Concorde is flying today becomes clear when one talks to Sir Morien. It stems from the competitiveness and envy toward the United States that grew out of decisions made in the heat of World War II. When America entered the war the British agreed to concentrate on building fighters and bombers, leaving transport planes to the United States; in 1945 the United States was much better placed to move back into civilian transport planes. "That was a bit heartbreaking," says Sir Morien. But Concorde, he adds, enabled Britain "to look the Americans firmly in the eye again."

In fact, the main reason Britain left transport planes to the United States was that the United States was well ahead in the field anyway. In 1941 the civilian Douglas DC-3 and DC-4 were already flying and the Lockheed Constellation was well under way. Britain's attempts to get back into the civilian market were painful; even before the Comet, flop followed flop.

In October 1956, largely at Farnborough's prompting, a meeting was held at the Aviation Ministry headquarters in London, attended by the heads of Britain's nine airframe and four engine companies, and by officials from Farnborough, including Morien Morgan. The Ministry's permanent secretary, Sir Cyril Musgrave, chaired the meeting, and as he recalls, the choice presented to it was stark. "All the major airlines were buying the 707 or the DC-8 and there was no point in developing another subsonic plane. We felt we had to go above the speed of sound, or leave it."

The manufacturers at the meeting were dubious: their initial attitude, says Sir Cyril, was, "It's a bright idea as long as the government pays for it." The British government had indeed demonstrated that it was prepared to underwrite the mistakes of the British aviation industry, having paid out over $140 million by then for its various flops. The Treasury was now showing increasing opposition to financing aviation schemes, but that, for Morgan and other supersonic supporters, would all be part of the struggle.

ON November 5, 1956, at Farnborough, the first meeting of the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee, known as STAC, was held. On it were representatives of government, business, the airlines, and Farnborough; its chairman was Morien Morgan. The committee's goal, if not its formal brief, was to produce a report demonstrating that a supersonic passenger plane was both feasible and desirable.

It succeeded in its first objective with a large slice of good luck. Farnborough had already made a preliminary examination of the problems of designing a supersonic airliner. As Morgan later commented, "Only silly aeroplanes emerged." The one plane that would fly nonstop from London to New York -- to STAC, the prime route -- would carry fifteen passengers and cost five times as much to operate as existing subsonics. When STAC began its work, it had no clear idea of how it was going to build the plane. But working at Farnborough at that time was one of the brilliant German aerodynamicists for whose services Britain and the United States had competed in 1945: Dietrich Kuchemann. It was Kuchemann's work which made Concorde possible. In 1957 he declared that a supersonic passenger plane with a thin delta wing was "just possible."

Early in 1959, after a battery of tests had been completed, the STAC report was ready. Not surprisingly, it recommended that the supersonic project proceed. It was forwarded to the Ministry's controller of aircraft with a letter, written by Morien Morgan, of extraordinary enthusiasm and urgency, and with none of the hesitations of Kuchemann's basic aerodynamic verdict, none of the social implications of building a supersonic plane for an elite dozen or so passengers expressed.

Morgan wrote: "We feel it right to proceed with the two supersonic aircraft outlined above, and we must emphasize that a decision not to start detailed work fairly soon on the transatlantic aircraft would be in effect to opt altogether out of long-range supersonic transport field. Since we would never regain a competitive position this could have a profound effect on the pattern of our Aircraft Industry and on our position as a leading aeronautical power."

Seventeen years after it was produced, and even though the plane it recommended has now been built, the STAC, report remains officially secret. There is no Freedom of Information Act in Britain; secrecy and anonymity remain fundamental to the way government decisions are reached. Had the issues involved been discussed and examined in public, it is doubtful whether Britain and France would ever have built Concorde. But the very first time the British Parliament was permitted to debate the project was in December 1962 -- one month after an Anglo-French treaty had committed Britain irrevocably to the plane. In the United States, public debate on the Boeing led to its cancellation in 1971.

But why should the British government withhold the STAC report even now? The answer can only be that there is considerable embarrassment at the report's estimates of the costs of the supersonic plane, and of its commercial possibilities.

STAC did say that costs were "difficult to estimate at this stage," but promptly overrode that caveat by stating that they would be in the range of 59 million to 95 million ($165 million to million), depending on range, speed, and payload (At that time two versions were being considered: a Mach 1.2 plane carrying 100 people for 1500 miles, and a Mach 1.8 plane carrying 150 passengers from London to New York.) Even if the figure of 95 million ($266 million) is taken, and Professor Henderson's more pessimistic formulation is ignored, STAC was off by a factor of around 15. The British government's latest figures of development costs, shared between Britain and France are l154 million. To that must be added production costs and losses sustained through operating Concorde by British Airways and Air France bringing the total to around 1460 million.

STAC's optimism over costs was matched only by its optimism over the plane's market prospects. It concluded that by 1970 there would be a world market for 150 to 500 supersonic planes. Conjoining the two equations, Morgan estimated that a supersonic plane could recover its entire research and development costs on just thirty sales.

There is nothing exceptional in cost estimates being wrong; one American study has shown estimates for military projects have been too low by an average factor of 6.5. But in the case of Concorde more than mere miscalculation is involved. Dietrich Kuchemann died in March 1976. Shortly before, he described how the head of Farnborough's aerodynamic department, Philip Hufton, sat down and invented the figures. "It was done on the basis of let me see, what will the politicians stand," Kuchemann said. He added: "In the whole STAC report, those estimates are the only thing that are rubbish. I have a very bad conscience about that."

WITH the presentation of the STAC report, a powerful mix of brilliant aerodynamics and disreputable propaganda, the political battle over Concorde was joined. The British Conservative party had been in power since 1951. Churchill had been prime minister then, followed, in 1955, by Anthony Eden; Eden had departed after Suez. His successor, Harold Macmillan, was represented as part of the "meritocratic" strain of modern conservatism, but his Cabinet still contained such members of the old guard as Lords Salisbury and Kilmuir. And the story of Concorde was to demonstrate that the age of irrational decision-making was not yet past.

The first minister of aviation to take up Concorde was Aubrey Jones, a young economist who at once foresaw the inevitable Treasury opposition to the project. He proposed to his officials that he seek a European partner for the venture as a way of sharing the costs and pre-empting Treasury objections. Jones was also one of the group of Conservatives who had been disappointed when Britain had not joined the European Common Market, formed in 1957. To him and others like him, a joint venture on so major a project offered some kind of "surrogate" for entry. Jones made the first tentative proposals when he met the French transport minister at the Paris air show in the summer of 1959, and also asked two British firms to carry out preliminary studies on the designs suggested by STAC.

In October 1959, the Conservatives won their third successive general election and Jones was replaced at the Ministry of Aviation by Duncan Sandys, a member of Churchill's wartime Cabinet who had organized Britain's defenses against Hitler's flying bombs and rockets. Sandys was now charged with organizing the British aircraft industry into more compact and -- it was hoped -- more efficient groups. Britain's thirteen aircraft firms dwindled to four; on the airframe side, the British Aircraft Corporation and Hawker-Siddeley on the engine side, Bristol-Siddeley and Rolls-Royce.

Sandys made a tour of European capitals -- Rome, Bonn, Paris - in search of a partner for the supersonic project. The strongest interest came from France. Sandys now presented the scheme to the Cabinet, adopting the arguments Morien Morgan had used to persuade the Ministry itself in 1956. If Britain was to continue as a power in world aviation, Sandys told the Cabinet, it had to build a supersonic. "We have to go on," Sandys said, "or opt out."

Sandys left the Ministry, having completed reorganization, in July 1960, to be succeeded by Peter Thorneycroft, a former chancellor of the exchequer. But continuity was ensured by the presence at the Ministry of Geoffrey Rippon, a young Conservative MP who served as the minister's parliamentary secretary. Rippon's role was crucial. He was another pro-European, deeply committed to the supersonic project, who formed an alliance with Morien Morgan and a handful of other senior officials to see the project through. As chairman of a small steering committee at the Ministry, Rippon accepted that it had two tasks. The first was to keep the project from Treasury scrutiny for as long as possible; the, second was to ensure French cooperation.

Rippon had total disdain for the Treasury. "They have no concept of the national interest" he declared. "They judge everything with the narrowest possible perception." To prevent the Treasury from learning of the project's progress, he decreed that as little as possible should be committed to paper. "We were small, informal, united," he said later, "a band of brothers."

But Rippon's most decisive single action concerned the STAC report. When completed, it bore the melodramatic imprint, "Confidential: UK Eyes Only." Though it remains secret in the UK today, Rippon gave a copy of the report to the French.

The STAC report was handed over, on Rippon's authority, in the summer of 1960. Containing the aerodynamic secret of Concorde, it convinced the French that the project was feasible; and if the French were to come in on the deal, they had to learn the secret at some time. But the delivery of the report two years before the deal was formally agreed upon provided the project's supporters in Britain with the argument that if Britain decided not to build the plane, France would go ahead anyway.

Peter Thorneycroft -- even while his subordinate Rippon was vigorously pursuing the French -- did make one effort to cushion Britain from the financial implications of the project, which he was certain would far exceed the STAC estimates. Better than a partnership with France, Thorneycroft judged would be one with the United States. Britain would clearly have only junior status, but the financial burden would be eased, and there would be an assured market among the American airlines.

In 1961, Thorneycroft discussed collaboration with American officials in Washington; both they and Boeing visited the Ministry of Aviation in London. Eventually the Americans turned the idea down, and one of their negotiators later told a British official that they doubted whether the British plan for a Mach 2 aircraft in conventional metal was technically feasible, and whether the proposed payload, in the 125-150 range, would be economic. As it turned out. the American solution proved even more dubious: Boeing aimed to build a titanium passenger plane carrying 250 people at almost Mach 3, but the company's inability to design an economic version led eventually to cancellation of the SST in 1971. In 1961, however, their decision to turn down the British proposals, and to continue with their own research, helped create a sense of urgency which Concorde's protagonists skillfully turned to their own advantage. Thorneycroft himself now looked again to France.

BRITISH manufacturers, meanwhile, had been continuing technical discussions with British government officials, and with manufacturers in France. These discussions were through with confusions whose resolution was to prove most costly.

First there was the airframe. In 1960 the British government had given the new British Aircraft Corporation a $1 million contract for a feasibility study. BAC was also asked to have informal talks with the Toulouse firm Sud-Aviation, which was drawing up its own preliminary plans. Sir Archibald Russell, BAC's chief supersonic designer, visited his old friend Pierre Satre, Sud's technical director. Russell's first approach was cautious. Considerable savings could be achieved, he argued if each company built separate aircraft but shared the components, such as the engine, and the hydraulic and electrical systems. But this was not enough for the politicians: the Ministry of Aviation told the companies to amalgamate their work completely.

The problem was that the two companies favored entirely different versions. BAC was pursuing the Mach 2 transatlantic plane that had been the rationale behind STAC; Sud preferred a medium-range plane (which STAC had also considered). No politician at that time was read make a decision.

A bitter commercial battle was also being fought over the choice of engine. The contenders were the two new British engine firms, Bristol-Siddeley and Rolls-Royce. Rolls-Royce showed considerable realism toward the problem of noise. In a two-and-a-half-inch-thick report on the engine requirements, Rolls pointed out that the New York Port Authority had already introduced a takeoff level of 112 Perceived Noise Decibels (PNdB) today's limit at Kennedy, and that Heathrow was considering stricter limits. Rolls concluded: "The next generation of subsonics is being designed to be appreciably quieter -- of the order of 100 PNdB -- and this is the order to which the supersonic should be designed throughout."

Rolls's honesty did not win them the contract, and they were politically outflanked by Bristol-Siddeley. whose managing director, Sir Arnold Hall, had realized at an early stage that the only way the project would go ahead was as a joint production. He paid a discreet visit to the French aero-engine company SNECMA and suggested a deal; when the governments came to consider who should build the engine, Bristol Lind SNECMA were able to point to the progress toward collaboration they had already made. The engine chosen was a "civillanized" version of the Olympus which Bristol had been developing for the multirole combat plane the TSR-2 (eventually cancelled by the Labour government in 1965, after $532 had been spent).

It is clear that the project's supporters had little to contribute to the noise problem, beyond optimism. Morien Morgan declared in 1960: "The prize is a golden one. We will bring tremendous research efforts to bear to the noise problem." But the Olympus engine was already quite old: the first version had been used in an RAF Canberra in 1952. And all attempts to reduce noise were entirely outweighed by the continued increase in power required as the airframe makers tried to extricate a feasible aircraft from the confusion over what they were building.

In the political sphere the project was gaining momentum. In July 1962, Thorneycroft was replaced as the minister responsible by Julian Amery, the man who finally signed the Anglo-French treaty. Amery, the fourth of the ministers to handle the project, was the most passionate in its favor. He was ambitious. politically adroit, and a gambler: three characteristics which were to see the project through. Soon after becoming minister, Amery sent his new parliamentary secretary at the Ministry. Basil de Ferranti -- whose family made electronic aviation equipment -- to Farnborough to assess the project. Ferranti remembers being impressed by the argument that the plane would sell "either none at all or a hell of a lot."

The attitude he and Amery took was: "It is a gamble. But if we can do it with the French, it will halve the ante. So let's have a go."

By 1962, too, the project had become a vital part of the Foreign Office's strategy for securing entry to the Common Market, which Harold Macmillan had decided earlier that year to pursue. A co-production deal was important as an earnest indication of Britain's European intentions, and the project demonstrated the kind of industrial expertise Britain would contribute to the European community.

* * *

ENDNOTE: In May 1976, Professor David Henderson, newly appointed professor of political economy at University College, London, argued that the government's figure of 1.46 billion shared between Britain and France was a drastic underestimate. It had been reached by adding the yearly expenditure on the project at the current prices. if these were adjusted to 1975 prices, and interest charges of 10 percent added, then the cost of Concorde was not 1.46 bilion but 4.26 billion ($6.82 billion at the present exchange rate of $1.60).

Consideration of the "true cost" of Concorde is further complicated by the pound's fluctuating exchange rate. In 1959, when the first cost estimates were made, the pound stood at $2.80. Devaluation in 1967 took it to $2.40. In mid-1973 it was back to almost $2.60 but then its decline began. in April 1975 it was at $2.40; December 1975, $2.01; May 1976, $1.82; August, $1.78; September, $1.64; October, $1.59. In this article, where dollars are used for British figures they have been converted at the rate prevailing at that time.


The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

Copyright © 1977 by Peter Gillman.All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1977; Supersonic Bust: The Story of the Concorde - 77.01; Volume 239, No. 1; page 72-81.