There are rare times when I feel extreme contempt for my fellow man and even rarer yet, specifically my fellow British man. When our Concordes were stopped from running because in 30 years, a French one had crashed once was such an occasion. Crappy Fords crash every day – we still buy millions of the things every hour. Concorde was a beautiful testament to the best of Humanity. Supremely elegant, unashamedly phallic in character and technically gobsmacking. Sure, the shuttlecraft is pretty damned impressive, but in terms of sheer technical brilliance, it’s frankly a big deal simpler to create than Concorde was. And it’s NASA that says that, by the way. Getting Neil up on the rock was easier than throwing overweight bankers across the Atlantic at Mach 2.2. Sure, we already had cloned specimens of Human perfection doing 750mph plus up there in fighter jets, but they were wearing special suits, oxygen masks and bloody great helmets, aside from which they usually ran out of fuel in less than five minutes and subsequently spent three years getting fixed on the ground. Concorde had to fly at that speed, cope with the friction-induced heat which makes it swell by a foot every time it’s up there and turns the pilot’s dashboard into an egg-fryer (literally), it had to cope with the sonic boom which makes the controls freeze up and everything stop working, and it had to deal with this hellish resistance every single day for 4,000 miles. Then it had to come home.
If Tony Benn can do nothing now but intermittently point out how much better it was under Wilson than Blair, we can perhaps allow him this with a smile because he knew a thing or two about being British. We’re never going to have New York’s gargantuan skyline, the technical sophistication of Tokyo or the perceived (but really entirely contrived and false) romanticism of Paris. But every now and again, our small island does something pretty cool, and Benn played his part in a number of these events. He pushed for London’s iconic Post Office Tower which was for years the city’s tallest building. He dragged the hoverboat to the Channel almost single-handedly and got it going on the water. And he pushed and pushed for the Concorde project.
The Americans had already tried to make a supersonic transport and failed. So had the Russians (the Tupolov had a range of about twenty metres). And now the British and French were going to try and build one together? As you can imagine, the project was not smooth sailing. We couldn’t even agree how to spell the name of the thing – should it have that ending “E” or not? Benn jumped in by saying it should be E for England, E for Europe and E for entente cordiale,* cooling the tempers (and egos) of MacMillan and de Gaulle.
And as if the rivalries between the two colonial powers couldn’t be guaranteed upon to flummox matters enough, the Americans kicked up a stink, banning the thing from their airspace on the grounds that it would make their cows fall over (as if BSE wasn’t doing that already). And because of the most powerful nation on Earth continually attacking the project, the world began to lose confidence. Of sixteen original orders from around the globe, eventually only two remained. BOAC and Air France. And it didn’t look like the white dart was going to be making much money so once again Benn was needed to step in and keep the thing funded until it was ready to go and this was not cheap – it cost between £1.3 and £1.5 billion pounds – even today that’d get you most of the way towards two idiotically funded Millennium Domes. But eventually, on 21st January 1976 the thing took off. For the first time, passengers could watch the sun rise in the West and arrive in America before they left home.
Amazingly, Concorde made money; regularly £20 million a year for BA. And it never crashed. Oh, it came bloody close on occasion – one time upon returning from New York, drag was increased thereby causing the plane to use more fuel, and the pilot ignored advice to put down in Ireland, instead making it to Heathrow where the great girl ran dry whilst taxiing on the runway. But that wasn’t really news and if it were, it’d be a story of British designing strength and fortitude.
Of course in 2000, AF’s Flight 4950’s wheel burst on the runway, puncturing the fuel tanks whereupon the content ignited. Both engines then shut down, the undercarriage froze so the wheels could not be retracted and despite the best efforts of the crew to divert to a nearby airport, the thing crashed into the side of a French hotel. In 2004, it was revealed that the original puncture of the tyre was due to a titanium strip that had fallen from a Continental Airlines flight that had taken off minutes before. The use of such strips had not been approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration and in March last year, the French began a criminal investigation of Continental Airlines. But at the time, none of this mattered. Concorde had crashed.
Immediately, the remaining planes were grounded and investigations began. The chassis was strengthened, with Kevlar added to the fuel tanks and new burst resistant tyres which were later added (as were a degree of Concorde firsts) to other aircraft designs. Finally, safer and stronger Concorde was ready to fly again. BA would take her out on a quick spin, half-way across the Atlantic and then back home again. Whilst in the air, the pilot received a special message regarding America. It was September 11th.
Like all other aircraft around the world, Concorde now faced empty seats, loss of revenue and where there had once been admiration, fear. In April 2003 both BA and Air France announced that they would be retiring the greatest passenger plane ever, and even an attempt to buy the wonder by the entrepreneur of entrepreneurs, Richard Branson couldn’t save her.
Some would say that to compare the loss of Concorde to the loss of lives on 9/11 is disgusting and I can certainly understand such a viewpoint. But whereas one has simply served as a catalyst for an Administration’s already laid plans to promote fear and intolerance, the other has seen a step backwards for Humanity, and marginally less importantly, for Britain. Concorde was the cutting edge. It was, and I use this word with no qualms about over-emphasis, amazing. It was a symbol of cooperation – a sign that even the arrogant French and the haughty British could work together and create something wondrous. That two powers that really weren’t It any more, could still shock the world. And now it’s gone. And it’s a safe bet that even with Gordon Brown’s newfound patriotism, Britain will not be involved in the next great leap forward for Humanity. We can’t afford it, and the money that could pay for the next national project such as Concorde would likely be better spent on a study into how long it takes a digestive biscuit to dissolve in a cup of tea. Even if we could afford it though, (and we can – what the fuck do you think the National Lottery’s there for?) British people don’t care anymore. Any nation which can so wilfully gorge itself on the meaningless ramblings of has-beens, never-was’ and never-will-be’s as Britain has for the past three weeks with the televisual black hole that is Big Brother neither wants nor deserves to be at the forefront of Human endeavour, and for that reason, I despise them today.
Concorde’s demise and 9/11 are not the same. When al-Qaeda struck, America and its friends around the world quite rightly and predictably mourned the loss of nearly 3000 lives. Who could be untouched by such a number, especially when accompanied by the vivid imagery we all saw? These were Human beings.
A year earlier however, at least sixty million people mourned the loss of a machine. That’s something truly special. And now it’s gone.
This article was originally posted in January 2006.