The Rise and Fall of Concorde, the Midcentury Supersonic Jetliner That Still Inspires Awe Today

The pop­u­lar­i­ty of the phrase “style over sub­stance” has encour­aged us to assume an inher­ent and absolute divide between those con­cepts. But as the most ambi­tious works of man remind us, style pushed to its lim­its its sub­stance, and vice ver­sa. This truth has been expressed in var­i­ous spe­cial­ized ways: archi­tect Louis Sul­li­van’s max­im “form fol­lows func­tion,” for exam­ple, which went on to attain some­thing like scrip­tur­al sta­tus among mod­ernists of the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. It was in that same era that aero­space engi­neer­ing pro­duced one of the most glo­ri­ous proofs of the uni­ty of style and sub­stance, form and func­tion, mechan­ics and aes­thet­ics: Con­corde, the super­son­ic jet­lin­er that flew between 1976 and 2003.

Nobody who flew on Con­corde (col­lo­qui­al­ly but not offi­cial­ly “the” Con­corde) has for­got­ten it. The sharp­ness and length of its ascent; the thrust of the after-burn­er, press­ing you into your seat like the accel­er­a­tion of a high-per­for­mance sports car; the vis­i­ble cur­va­ture of the Earth and the deep pur­ple of the sky; the impec­ca­ble food and drink ser­vice that turned a flight between New York and Lon­don into a sump­tu­ous French meal. A host of for­mer pas­sen­gers, crew mem­bers, and pilots rem­i­nisce vivid­ly about all this in the BBC doc­u­men­tary Con­corde: A Super­son­ic Sto­ry.  That sto­ry is told more briefly in the Vox video at the top of the post, which asks the ques­tion, “This plane could cross the Atlantic in 3.5 hours. Why did it fail?”

The short answer has to do with busi­ness via­bil­i­ty. At super­son­ic speeds an air­craft leaves a son­ic boom in its wake, which rel­e­gat­ed Con­corde to transocean­ic flights. Its inabil­i­ty to hold enough fuel to cross the Pacif­ic left New York-Lon­don, oper­at­ed by British Air­ways, as its sole viable route, with Air France also run­ning between New York and Paris. For Con­corde was an Anglo-French project, launched as a part­ner­ship between the two gov­ern­ments in 1962, at the height of the Space Age — and despite enor­mous sub­se­quent cost over­runs an effec­tive­ly un-can­ce­lable one, since one coun­try could­n’t pull out with­out the oth­er’s say-so.

With nation­al pride at stake, French com­mit­ment did much to make Con­corde what it was. “Because it went so fast, the V.I.P.s on board would­n’t need much more, from an Eng­lish point of view, than a sand­wich, a cup of tea, and a glass of whiskey,” says Jonathan Glancey, author of Con­corde: The Rise and Fall of the Super­son­ic Air­lin­er. But the French said, “No, this a lux­u­ry air­craft,” and it was ulti­mate­ly lux­u­ry — as well as a sleek­ly func­tion­al sil­hou­ette that nev­er stopped look­ing futur­is­tic — that kept Con­corde going until its retire­ment in 2003. (Nor could the con­ve­nience fac­tor be ignored, for invest­ment bankers and inter­na­tion­al celebri­ties alike: “It’s always excit­ing to get to New York before you’ve left,” said fre­quent fli­er Sting.)

“The real flaw in Con­corde was not tech­no­log­i­cal but social,” writes Fran­cis Spufford in the Lon­don Review of Books. “Those who com­mis­sioned it assumed that air trav­el would remain, as it was in 1962, some­thing done by the rich: and not the mobile, hard-work­ing man­age­r­i­al rich either, but the gild­ed upper-crust celebri­ty rich,” the orig­i­nal “jet set.” Alas, the future lay not with speed but vol­ume: “The Boe­ing 747 was just as bold a leap into the unknown as Con­corde, just as extreme in its depar­ture from the norm; noth­ing so large had ever left the ground before. And Boeing’s gam­ble paid off.” Super­son­ic jet­lin­ers have nev­er­the­less re-entered devel­op­ment in recent years, and if any come to mar­ket, they’ll sure­ly do so with such lux­u­ries unknown in the Space Age as per­son­al, on-demand enter­tain­ment sys­tems. But will any­thing they can show be as thrilling as Con­corde’s cab­in speedome­ter reach­ing mach two?

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry Of Avi­a­tion: From da Vinci’s Sketch­es to Apol­lo 11

Col­or­ful Maps from 1914 and 2016 Show How Planes & Trains Have Made the World Small­er and Trav­el Times Quick­er

NASA Cap­tures First Air-to-Air Images of Super­son­ic Shock­waves Inter­act­ing in Flight

Down­load 14 Free Posters from NASA That Depict the Future of Space Trav­el in a Cap­ti­vat­ing­ly Retro Style

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.