Concorde: The Rise and Fall of the Supersonic Airliner, by Jonathan Glancey

Seven stars

In an era of fast-paced travel and a desire to arrive before departure, Jonathan Glancey offers a biography of Concorde, the airplane of the future. While this juggernaut had a short-lived existence, just over a quarter century, Concorde changed the playing field on many levels. Glancey posits that it was extremely futuristic, something Captain James T. Kirk might have used to usher his family to the in-laws between intergalactic missions. In a thorough analysis, Glancey examines three areas of significant importance related to Concorde: its unique approach to aviation, the political undertones of its existence, and the strong ‘anti’ movement it garnered. With both technical and intuitive arguments, Glancey provides the reader with a stellar narrative to better understand Concorde and its place in the annals of aviation history. Not to be missed by aircraft enthusiasts and the curious layperson alike, in which I strongly put myself in the latter category.

Concorde was unique in its approach to aviation on so many levels. Its aeronautical design differed greatly from anything else on the market, appearing more like the plaything of a science fiction novelist. A sleek body and oddly shaped nose served a highly scientific purpose, but to the lay traveller, this uniqueness turned the eye towards it, no matter where it taxied. Glancey mentions in Chapter 7 that,“[t]he wonder of it is that its beauty…was not the work of an artist, but of the artistry of aerodynamics. The subtle curvature of Concorde’s wings is alone a study in elegant design and functional beauty, and a thing of beauty is truly a joy forever.” Additionally, the fact that it broke the sound barrier during flight, pushing up to speeds of Mach 2, led Concorde to challenge the norm in an era when flight was becoming an everyday occurrence for the common person. First seen in 1969, it was the culmination of decades of scientific calculations and trials, seeking to push past its subsonic airline competitors, while also offering a level of comfort that passengers could enjoy, in sleek and silent style. Glancey uses some of the early chapters to elucidate the numerous attempts in the military realm to perfect the speed of flight, with little interest in comfort. However, after Air France and British Airways came together with their respective governments to fund the development of Concorde aircraft, production and further testing came to fruiting, eventually leading to public displays as Armstrong prepared to leap across the Moon. Glancey illustrates these discussions and the gamble taken to push the envelope before selling this unique means of travel in a fraction of the time. However, with all this inherent uniqueness comes a price unique to other forms of air travel. This is, perhaps the downside to the sleek ‘aircraft of the future’ as it sought to compete on a burgeoning market, where the casual traveller could only marvel. Glancey does not shy away from the individualised nature of Concorde, standing alone in many comparative categories.

Concorde was surely a political instrument, from its nexus through to its ongoing presence in the airline industry. Few might see this on the surface, but Glancey argues that the Anglo-French Union required to bring Concorde to fruition is nothing short of stunning. Two allies whose respect remained tepid, though essential in a post-War era, needed to come together not only to produce these aircraft, but to fund their ongoing costs and commercial presence. Air France was significantly funded by the government, seeking millions to ensure Concorde not only made it into the air, but remained afloat, having to twist the arm of General de Gaulle. British Airways, equally, sought money from Her Majesty’s government in an era when subsonic airlines were slashing costs and Conservative mandates saw cabinets try to shuffle away from signed agreements. In a humours aside, Glancey mentions that there was a strong dispute between the French and British over the use of the ‘E’ in Concorde, with the stuffy British seeking to sweep this excess letter under the rug. The French prevailed, adding another layer to the unique nature of Concorde. This Anglo-French union was only the beginning of the politicized nature of Concorde, whereby both Cold War superpowers wanted in, seeking to create their own programs to benefit their respective populations. Both the USA and USSR sought to create commercial supersonic flight programs, but required significant monies to do so. On the American front, Congress balked at the offer and shut down any funding in 1971, leaving NASA to turn back towards travel outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Soviet attempts to match their sworn enemies led to the creation of Tupelov. In a county where the ruble could only go so far, this fast airliner stuck strictly to mail delivery for a period! thereby shelving any Communist equivalent to serve behind the Iron Curtain. That Concorde soared between these two great powers serves to support its determination to make a mark on the world, entering the political realm even if it tried to circumnavigate turbulent skies.

While Concorde was loved by many for its speed and sleekness, there were many who wanted it grounded before it caught on. While the science of aeronautics were heavily studied before any of the fleet rose into the sky, the environmental critics attacked it from all sides. Be it chemicals in the fuel that would lead to the depletion of the ozone layer to sonic booms that could destroy ecosystems and material items, Concorde did not have carte blanche acceptance during its tenure in the skies. Glancey mentions that the environmental lobby helped the US Congress scrap any supersonic funding and led various airports to close their gates to any Concorde presence, due to destruction of property caused by sonic waves. When Concorde entered the Asian market, countries banned it from entering their airspace, leaving flight plans to be redrawn while still keeping costs down. Another detractor to Concorde was the inherent cost to fly aboard its fleet, as mentioned above. While the speed was surely a selling point, fuel costs and the fact that the slightest alteration in weight changed the aerodynamic nature of this behemoth meant that cabin sizes could not be as large as the jumbo jets capable of making the same flights, albeit in a much longer time. Concorde came up against much friction, though its engineers could not alter these impediments to the point of creating the perfect aeronautical experience.

Where does that leave Concorde now, in 2016? Early forecasts when it soared into the commercial airline industry saw the first planes only retiring in 2017. It was after a decision by Airbus in 2003 not to build replacement parts needed for Concorde that saw the fleet grounded. British Airways and Air France would not sell their fleets, even to private buyers, choosing to use some in airline museums and let others gather mothballs in hangars. The future is still uncertain when it comes to supersonic air travel, though Glancey illustrates many scientific studies underway to push past Mach 2 and into the realm of Mach 10, 15, or even 24 (as one German company has been trying to do). For now, Concorde acts as the glimpse into the future and what may one day be the norm, a peek at Star Trek in our modern lives, where flight will be more about how fast one can get there over the travel experience. However, as long as discount airlines can offer dirt cheap flights, the ultra-superclass traveller will be too closely aligned with the dodo bird to make it cost effective, therefore keeping the general public from enjoying Concorde travel. Until these, and many other nuances can be rectified, the future of Concorde is, if you pardon the pun, up in the air.

Kudos, Mr. Glancey for this wonderful piece of work and insightful arguments on both sides. I am curious to see where Concorde finds itself in the decades to come, especially as I have its biggest fan in my own family.