The Concorde was birthed as a symbol. It was a symbol of diplomacy (the result of a treaty between France and England) and a symbol of progress (the first commercial supersonic airliner). But it died a symbol of failure.
The project started off on the wrong foot. As the result of a political obligation (said treaty), both sides were compelled to proceed despite hindrances and setbacks. Hindrances like the gargantuan cost of each aircraft—which cost French and British taxpayers billions of dollars, between research, testing, and manufacturing.
And despite its record-setting performance (2 hours, 52 minutes, 59 seconds between New York and London, the fastest of all time), it simply wasn't terribly well liked. It was a source of nationalist pride for the English and French, but for many others, it was considered a bit obnoxious. A toy of the rich. A luxury of the jet setter.
And extremely loud. It was supersonic after all, and those sonic booms were never appreciated by anyone within earshot—noise from the jet during takeoff exceeded 110 decibels (about what you'd hear at the front row of a rock concert), and was described as "intolerable" in archival reports.
It also was not exactly eco-friendly, using three times the fuel of a standard transatlantic passenger plane, and dumping an inordinate amount of exhaust into the sky.
So it shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise that only 14 Concorde were sold, compared to an anticipated 200. Think of it as sort of the Laserdisc of aircraft.
But as much as it was ultimately a bust—retired in 2003 after the project was embroiled in a legal conflagration surrounding a terrible runway crash—the craft was still a spectacular achievement in many senses. When the first routes began—thirty five years ago today—between London and Bahrain and Paris and Rio, they were the first flights of their kind. The flights were loud, polluting, and expensive, yes—but they were fast as hell, and for the first time in history, supersonic travel was available to anyone with the scratch for a ticket. Not exactly a democratic moment, but still—it was out there, and it'll always be history. And for that, we recognize you, brilliant, booming failure. Happy birthday, Concorde.
Photo by teclasorg