Supersonic Airplanes and the Age of Irrational Technology

Was the Concorde a triumph of modern engineering, a metaphor for misplaced 20th-century values, or both?

Fracnk Prevel / Reuters

The box sat untouched in his bottom desk drawer. For weeks we discussed opening it, and one January morning he was ready. I set the box on his white bedsheets and removed the stack of passports, which could have belonged to a family with dual citizenship. But all nine—from 1956 to a valid update issued in 2014—belong to my 89-year-old grandfather.

Lying in bed, he unfolded a stamp-covered page like an accordion and held it open above his chest. “Oh my,” he kept repeating. He paused, and pointed.

London. March 22, 1976. My then-50-year-old grandfather, Raymond Pearlson, the inventor of Syncrolift, was traveling the world selling his shiplift system. Concorde had launched commercially that January. He knew exactly what this stamp represented: Washington Dulles to London Heathrow in 3.5 hours—the first of at least 150 supersonic flights he took on the legendary aircraft.

Though Concorde flew in my lifetime, until 2003, I was barely out of high school when the jet took its final ride. I was more concerned with my Nokia flip phone than supersonic travel at the time. And then, just like that, the future was gone. I always knew that Concorde was sleek and fast, but it wasn’t until I sat there with my grandfather, poring over the artifacts from his traveling days, that I realized one of the most heralded technological advancements that existed in my lifetime had disappeared before truly fulfilling its promise.

“The only reason I was able to fly so much was because of Concorde,” my grandpa said, referring to his monthly business trips from Miami to London and back in the 1970s and 1980s. “The most wonderful thing was reducing the number of hours in the air. From London to Singapore, you cut 17 hours down to seven.” International businesspeople especially were inclined to splurge on airfare because of the practical benefit; saving hours, even days, and avoiding jet lag. With twice-daily service from London to New York, it was not uncommon for businesspeople to take day trips and return home before pubs closed.

Stamps in Cyrillic script, Arabic, and Mandarin speckle Grandpa’s extensive collection. He estimates he flew internationally up to twice a month for 15 years, with at least one trip per month on the Concorde. Aisle seat 1B was his spot, so often that flight attendants made a special name card for him. He remembers flights with Sarah Ferguson, the duchess, and Itzhak Perlman, the violinist. And he remembers the gifts. “Oh the gifts! They always had spectacular gifts.” A sterling-silver tie clip, picture frame, or whiskey flask often waited on passengers’ seats. Businesspeople received meeting portfolios with Concorde logos; logos that decorated stationery, luggage tags, and flying certificates. But these objects, in addition to a full set of branded kitchenware, hid in a box at my grandparent’s home. They were a less vivid memory than what he found most compelling about his experience. “It was a time machine that allowed me to cut down on so many hours of travel so I could be a human instead of a zombie,” he said. “It’s true, we did do something so advanced that doesn’t exist anymore.”

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When people talk about the Concorde, they describe it the way one might describe Marilyn Monroe: elegant, glamorous, classic, peppered with oohs and ahhs. That romance echoed through the words of pilots, staff, passengers, and anyone who touched or was touched by Concorde in some way. “You would always stop what you were doing,” said Brian Lovegrove, a former British Airways employee, of Concorde takeoffs and landings. “You could never have enough of seeing it. It was a delight to watch and hear.”

It was, in a word, loud. And the tilting sensation when climbing to 60,000 feet was akin to “being in a dentist’s chair,” Lovegrove said. He described feeling the power of the engine beneath you until the aircraft leveled out. Unless you looked at the Mach meter on the bulkhead, or until the pilot announced you hit Mach 1 then Mach 2, passengers had no idea they were moving twice the speed of sound: about 1,500 miles per hour, compared with 485 miles per hour on a commercial 737. “Just to let you know how the flight is progressing, the answer is quickly,” pilots would say. Champagne flutes and the first course of Sevruga caviar had already been served.

“I was like a kid in a candy shop the few times I flew,” said Neal Stebbing, the former director of sales at British Airways, which owned half of the 14 operating Concordes. (Air France owned the rest of the fleet.) He remembers the celebrities—Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Barbara Streisand, Richard Gere, among others. One flight, while he smoked a cigarette in the back of the plane, he eavesdropped on two men exchanging holiday homes.

Elite though it may have been, Concorde’s interior was not necessarily luxurious. There weren’t, for instance, large, plush massage chairs in place of cramped airplane seats. It was, in fact, quite the opposite: The cockpit and cabin were small. The seats themselves, former passengers told me, were not exactly comfortable.

Professor Chris Ivory, who specializes in technology and innovation as the deputy director of the Institute for International Management Practice at Anglia Ruskin University, described the “outside-in” development of the Concorde as “by engineers for engineers.” He called it “a technologists’ dream, not really a customer’s dream,” created by engineers who “built metal tubes that flew very, very fast and then grudgingly bolted seats in afterwards.”

By this rationale, engineers asked, “Can it be done?” not “Should it be done?” “The idea of Concorde was bigger than Concorde itself,” Ivory said. “The idea was perhaps more important than the actual experience, which was cramped and expensive.” Even the tiny, hand-sized windows were designed strategically to maximize the strength of the aircraft’s frame.

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The idea of supersonic transport on a commercial scale was brewing in the 1950s, when small fighter jets began breaking the sound barrier in short distances. And it’s no surprise, given the era, that the word “race” appears frequently in discussion about supersonic advances in flying: analogous to the Space Race, Cold War rivals wanted to be the first, and they wanted to be the fastest. The political climate created a rationale for big government spending on huge-scale technological experiments—such as NASA missions and Apollo rockets. Concorde almost certainly fit into this competition for national prestige. And it flew into the public eye at a time when people were already obsessed with flight technology. Neil Armstrong had just set foot on the moon. Boeing made headlines with its fuel-efficient 747 Jumbo Jet that carried up to 660 passengers, one of the keys to popularizing commercial aviation. Concorde not only flew but went supersonic, two months after the Soviets’ Tu-144 in late 1968. The groundwork had been laid by Eisenhower and JFK, who both publicly encouraged supersonic advancements during their presidencies. It seemed we’d all be Jetsons by 2020.

Concorde launched commercially in January 1976, with a British Airways flight from London to Bahrain and an Air France flight from Paris to Rio. Partnering made it financially feasible, and the British and French had added incentive to establish credibility as Boeing, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas dominated the aviation market. The future was big; the future was fast.

“I've always thought of the Concorde as a magical object, a symbol, a miracle,” the French designer Andree Putman told The New York Times of her collaboration with the Air France Concorde in the 1990s. Putnam helped overhaul the look of the plane’s interior as part of a rebranding campaign.

In the 2010 documentary Concorde’s Last Flight, Captain Jack Lowe, the Concorde chief pilot, called it “the airliner of the future.” The English designer Sir Terence Conran, who led the £14 million interior redesign in 2001 said, “It symbolized optimism, it was everything that the 20th century could have stood for.” During a century of progressive industrialization—light bulbs, cars, television, not to mention computers and the Internet—it became clear that technological advancements were more than national progress, they were the source of national pride. For this reason, said Stebbing, “Concorde was phenomenally successful.” British and French citizens were proud of their national airlines’ prized fleets; even pilots waved national flags out of the cockpit windows while on the runway. Thousands of people—civilians who would never likely board the aircraft—attended takeoffs and landings simply to admire the show, flags in hand. Paparazzi waited for celebrities on the runway. Even today, Save Concorde Group has nearly 2,000 Facebook fans and over 4,000 Twitter followers.

There are many theories about the reasons for Concorde’s demise. One of the big ones: money. “Technological advancements are still guaranteed by big military spending—Concorde’s engines came from military aircrafts,” said Ivory. “But Concorde was never economically viable.”

The project ultimately cost British and French taxpayers over $1.5 billion even prior to operation by the airlines, which some still consider a drastic underestimate. Capital costs were written off by government subsidies, and elevated national pride justified high taxes. Self-selecting passengers who could afford fares represented operating costs, thus contributing to the illustrious Concorde aura. Still, Concorde’s first six years ran at a loss, launching an initiative to rebrand, introducing a new fare structure. Early on, one-way tickets from JFK to Heathrow were roughly $1,500; by the 2000s, $7,000 was standard, and $10,000 round-trip was a deal. “In its heyday, BA was making 30 [to] 50 million pounds per year in operating profit, but it was not financially sustainable after 30 years of service,” Stebbing said.

Money aside, Concorde had other challenges. Noise and environmental concerns shrunk the open skies. Many countries banned it from their airspace because of the loud sonic boom it produced. As a result, nearly half the planned routes, notably those over land, were off-limits. The crucial “Blue Ribbon” route between New York and London was miraculously approved in 1977. Whereas most Concorde takeoffs and landings were warmly attended, others became protest sites, with signs reading: “Ban the Boom” and “Save the Ozone Layer.” The Anti-Concorde Project founder Richard Wiggs was the face of this movement, publishing advertisements, organizing demonstrations, and calling Concorde “elitist and inherently unsafe.” Aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first to fly transatlantic in 1927, became an active environmentalist later in life and lobbied against supersonic travel. Ozone emissions and atmospheric pollution were the greatest environmental concerns and turmoil over the loud, disruptive boom that had the power to break windows were constant contentions. Today, new Quiet Supersonic Transport technology might solve the noise issue, at least.

Even pilots who applaud the Concorde’s technological rigor and safety record admit that flying the thing was not without challenges, due to the aircraft heating up at high speeds—requiring cooling mechanisms in the wings and windows—and custom maintenance for the handcrafted fleet. Fuel efficiency was not a concern when gas was barely $0.30 a gallon, but that changed after the Six-Day War and the 1973 oil crisis. Concorde burned over two tons of fuel just taxiing onto the runway, and over 100 from London to New York, the reason for its refueling stops on routes such as London to Singapore, with a pit stop in Bahrain. Compare that to today’s 777, which uses 44 tons for the same London to New York route, or the 787’s maximum capacity of nearly 130 tons, even flying its longest, quiet 14.5-hour journey from Los Angeles to Melbourne.

And though the Concorde’s safety record was good, it wasn’t perfect. The tragic Air France crash of the oldest Concorde in 2000 prompted evaluations of the rest of the planes in the small, aging fleet, 13 of which remained in service. The crash shed light on design flaws and led to pricey modifications, but the handcrafted fleet needed special attention and maintenance costs were expected to increase while gas prices were rising. Then, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, happened, drastically changing the travel industry, and diminishing the number of airline passengers significantly in the years following. After almost 30 years, British Airways and Air France announced Concorde’s retirement in 2003.

“It wasn’t really the 2000 crash that ended Concorde; it was a nice time to bring it to an un-embarrassing close,” said Ivory.

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“It’s the first time ever that an airplane has never had a successor,” said John Lampl, a retired public-relations manager for British Airways.

Why hasn’t a superfast commercial alternative to the Concorde been built in its place? It was not for lack of interest. Sir Richard Branson, who went on to found the space tourism company Virgin Galactic, attempted to save Concorde in 2003 when he offered roughly £5 million for British Airways’ fleet of five; some suggest this number was trivial compared to real costs. Charters, even short flights to nowhere at subsonic speeds, were a meal ticket for the fleet; rentals remained a money-maker even towards the end of Concorde’s reign, notably Tony Blair’s £250,000 one-way charter to Washington, D.C., partially funded by taxpayers. Today’s lightweight materials, innovative designs, and improved engines have revolutionized supersonic production on a private scale.

Concorde isn’t the only example of a once-popular technological trajectory petering out: The last manned moon landing was in 1972, and commercial space travel is nowhere near its projected potential; energy and transportation sector progress has slowed compared to strides in previous decades. In a 2012 speech, Peter Thiel, who started Founders Fund to invest in revolutionary technologies, argued: “We’ve had tremendous progress in computers and the Internet, and almost nowhere else.”

“You’re more likely to see private jets going supersonic,” said Lovegrove. In fact, it is already in the works for 2022: private supersonic jets promising no boom up to Mach 1.2. Meanwhile, there are very fast, nearly supersonic options not far behind: the Cessna Citation X flying 12 passengers at Mach 0.935 and the Gulfstream’s G650 flying 18 passengers at Mach 0.925. Just last month, NASA announced a $2.3 million plan to revive supersonic aircrafts by 2030. For now, the convenience of slower point-to-point private jets will remain the dominant way to fly. In its own time, as Peter Gillman wrote for The Atlantic in 1977, “the story of Concorde was to demonstrate that the age of irrational decision-making was not yet past.” That may well be true in the future, too. The central appeal of the Concorde, after all, wasn’t about the technology itself—but about what that technology allowed people to do.

Even my grandfather, a life-long scientist and inventor himself, harped on only one memory of Concorde: “It saved time.” Nowadays, it seems, the value of our time is what we can afford. As he flipped through his passports and Concorde artifacts, recalling people and places from long ago, he added: “Our time is precious.”