In the mid-1970s the Wall Street Journal reported that residents of Long Island felt that "opening JFK Airport to the Concorde was like opening the gates of Hell." On CBS News Eric Sevareid called the Concorde controversy the biggest event in U.S. Anglo-French relations since the Suez Canal crisis. And sonic boom became the bugbear of the moment.
On Saturday, it will be exactly 10 years since the supersonic Concorde first touched down on American soil. That spring day, as the two aircraft, one French, one British, taxied into Washington's Dulles Airport, as they stopped nose to nose and seemed to kiss, the champagne corks popped and the crowd watching broke out it riotous applause. I was there on that day -- I had followed the fortunes of the Concorde eagerly for more than a year, as I have ever since.
The applause and the toasts that day were not just for the wonderful aircraft, one described by British writer Brigid Brophy as "a witty mechanical toy, a non-naturalistic fantasy on themes sketched by grasshoppers" but for the very fact that it had finally landed at all. Permission for the first commercial supersonic aircraft ever to land in the United States had been hard won. (In fact, the Concorde was not allowed entry into New York, its main destination, until November 1977.)
The crisis the Concorde caused is a little hard to imagine now as the Concorde marks its 10th anniversary on the North Atlantic route. It has flown tens of thousands of trips across the Atlantic, and -- according to both British Airways and Air France, the two airlines that operate it -- it will go on flying well into the 21st century.
The Concorde run has become almost routine. Each week, Air France Concordes (four in active service) make the daily round trip from Paris to New York, and British Airways Concordes (there are seven) fly twice daily on the London-New York run and three times a week on the London-Washington-Miami route. The majority of the passengers are businessmen. To them, the Concorde is an excellent machine, one that crosses the Atlantic in three hours and 45 minutes (or less) at Mach 2 (1,350 miles per hour, twice the speed of sound) at an altitude of 55,000 feet.
The cabin of the Concorde, which carries 100 passengers, is more comfortably pressurized than that of a subsonic, and travel in it seems to induce less fatigue than in other aircraft. What's more, travel on the Concorde seems to produce almost no jet lag, although -- in produce almost no jet lag, although -- in spite of a great many scientific explanations and experiments -- no one quite knows why. At least one businessman, Fred Finn of New Jersey, has set the record for flying the Concorde more frequently than anyone else (about 600 trips and still counting).
Almost routine, but not quite. A flight on the Concorde is the ultimate in luxury today as it has been since its beginnings. Meanwhile, except for certain technological kinks that have been removed, Concorde remains much as it was 10 years ago. The changes are largely decorative, and each airline has recently redesigned its aircrafts' interiors. The Britain Airways Concorde has a plush high-tech look in shades of gray and taupe with a good deal of soft leather. The Air France planes have been redesigned in shades of red, and the French have put their female flight attendants in silk dresses by Nina Ricci.
Even before the flight begins, the pampering starts at special airport lounges with champagne and gourmet snacks. On board, there is vintage champagne to sip out of real crystal glasses. The meals are served on specially designed fine bone china. On an Air France flight from Paris, you might dine on lobster salad, lamb noisettes in truffle sauce, fabulous desserts with fine Armagnac or raspberry eau de vie afterward. On a British Airways morning flight out of New York, you could start the day with fresh trout or smoked salmon. As the Concorde soars across the Atlantic, every whim is catered to.
But the real sense of luxury on board Concorde comes from the feeling that this is a club. An elite. An all-first-class company. No matter if you are an ordinary traveler who will fly it only once in a lifetime or a business mogul who does it every week or the queen of England, you are a member of the same class. It's called Concorde.
For most everyone, the Concorde is largely a symbol of luxury, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, perhaps, the venue of the stars. (I once saw Rudolph Nureyev, Arnold Palmer and Bob Dylan all board the same British Airways Concorde in London.) It is a swift, elegant craft on which you munch caviar and admire the curve of the earth -- which is visible at 55,000 feet.
Crowds still gather to ogle the aircraft's beauty at airports when it takes off, and no cinematic tale of the rich and famous is now complete without a glimpse of the Concorde. Little else seems to generate so much excitement in the minds and hearts of ordinary people. In fact, I have a friend in England who reports that his 83-year-old mother, while unable to make it from the house to the garden without help, yearns to travel on the Concorde and is perfectly prepared to do so should anyone offer her the chance.
Until the summer of 1975, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of the Concorde at all. That summer, I was invited by British Airways on what were known as "Endurance Flights" of the Concorde. These flights were the final stages in testing the aircraft's ability to cope with passengers, and they usually went from London to Gander in Newfoundland. To be absolutely honest, I went because I didn't have much to do that summer, not because of any particular interest. But by the time I came back, I was hooked. Flying in the Concorde was like nothing else I knew. No one, military pilots and astronauts apart, had ever traveled so high or so fast. Here is part of what I wrote about that first trip I took on Aug. 31, 1975:
It is drizzling at London's Heathrow Airport. There have been bomb scares and the flight is delayed. We wait. Outside the expanse of glass at the terminal building, fat jumbos wait placidly. Suddenly, the sun breaks through the gloom as ripe and suggestive as in the tropics and, in its hot light, we see her for the first time. The Concorde. The extraordinary big bird, delicate, arrogant, gleeming, hard and white on the black tarmac.
This bird seems built only to feed on expensive draughts of fuel, and she is surely much too slender to carry us.
But inside, the aircraft seems normal, banal, even, like any other, all of it intended to give passengers a cozy sense of well being. A press release tells us that the seats have been constructed with "a contour to fit all but the oddest-shaped passenger." Some of us, settled in, feign the indifference of the frequent traveler.
The engines begin to purr.
Beyond the small, thick, curved windows, smaller than my face, the tarmac slides by. Meandering purposelessly, it seems, down the taxi way, suddenly there is an imperceptible shiver and the pilot guides her down the runway. She skates fast and hard and begins to climb, the thrust of the four enormous Rolls Royce engines palpable. As she climbs harder and higher, soaring on wings that never flap but remain elegantly rigid, she levels at 25,000 feet.
Beneath us, the doll-size airport falls away. We seem to drift like a paper dart. The machmeter at the front of the cabin registers Mach 1, the speed of sound. Everyone relaxes, drinks, chats.
As we close in on Mach 2, there is an intake of the breath, a tensing of bodies. Then, wild applause. We have reached Mach 2. We have reached twice the speed of sound and we are traveling faster than a bullet. Everyone gets up, clapping, shouting.
We cruise at twice the speed of sound and, outside, the skin of the aircraft is hot enough to fry eggs on. But there is no sense of motion here, no sound. Outside, far far below, I can see the curve of the earth and, as the sun sets and we prepare for the descent, the languid blue air, which is thinner at these heights, turns violet and is chased upwards with luminescent paint.
After that first, incomparable trip (I have been on the Concorde since and it is always wonderful, but never quite like the first time), I became interested in its history, its design and its politics. On one occasion, I was taken to an old Royal Air Force airfield in Fairford, England where I was allowed to sit in the cockpit of the Concorde by myself. It seemed to be literally wallpapered with electronic equipment. It was "Captain Video." It was "Star Wars." It was better.
Breaking the sound barrier was, for decades, the ultimate challenge to aviation, as anyone who's read or seen Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" knows. In 1947, Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier. The event was largely kept secret by the U.S. military for whom Yeager flew, and as a result, a great deal of attention was focused on British efforts.
The British inventions of radar and the jet engine meant that in 1952,the British de Havilland Co. could produce the Comet, the first pure jet commercial aircraft. But supersonic flight was always the challenge. David Lean's film "Breaking the Sound Barrier" chronicles the enterprise and, in it, Ralph Richardson plays the ruthless de Havilland, who stopped at nothing in achieving flight at the speed of sound. As a result of his obsession, his own test pilot son Geoffrey was killed. There is a plaque at Hatfield in England where the de Havilland factory stood. It reads "Geoffrey de Havilland died flying at speeds faster than any previously known to man."
Work on a supersonic transport really began in Britain in 1959. Around that time, Sir Archibald Russell -- the chief British designer of the Concorde -- wrote down his projected specifications for the world's first commercial supersonic on a scrap of paper. Years later, when the Concorde flew at Mach 2, as he had predicted, he discovered that his projections were almost exactly right. Meanwhile, the French -- who also had a great tradition of civil aviation -- came up with similar supersonic technology.
Around 1961, the two countries, each of whom needed a financial partner, came together. Their cooperation was implicit in the name they chose for the aircraft which the French Aerospatiale and British Aircraft Corp. -- the French and British equivalents of Boeing or McDonnell Douglas -- designed together: Concorde.political wrangling and the fact that every specification had to be produced in both inches and centimeters, the Concorde was a brilliant technological achievement.
Concorde made its maiden supersonic flight in 1969. Both TWA and Pan Am had their eyes on the beautiful bird. But financial problems as well as the impact of the U.S. environmental lobby were a constraint. In fact, in 1971, the United States suspended development of its own SST program, and supersonic became a dirty word in America.
On Jan. 21, 1975, Air France and British Airways (who took over the actual operation of Concorde from the manufacturers) made their first commercial Concorde flights, from Paris to Rio via Dakar and from London to Bahrain. At the same time, anti-Concorde hysteria in this country rose to fever pitch. New Yorkers promised to lie down on the runway should Concorde be granted permission to land at JFK.
Environmental issues were luridly hyped and exploited by certain politicians. In his campaign to keep the Concorde out of the United States, the then New York Rep. Lester Wolff said, "Ordinary men and women depend on us to protect them from the ravages of so-called progress, from the rapacity of unnecessary technology."
The whole issue was dumped on the desk of then Secretary of Transportation William T. Coleman, who is the real American hero of this story.
On Jan. 5, 1975, Coleman held a day of hearings in Washington. Everyone testified: environmentalists, politicians, engineers, experts and fanatics. As a result of the hearing, Coleman, refusing to restrain the Concorde without a trial, granted it a 16-month test period with flights authorized to land in Washington and New York.
So it was that on May 24, 1976, the Concorde landed at Dulles. The New York Port Authority, however, procrastinated until the courts forced its hand, and it wasn't until November 1977 that Concorde came to New York.
No one died. No one went insane. The ozone layer was not destroyed. Nothing much happened at all. And then, quite quickly, the hysteria was all over and hardly anyone recalled a time when Concorde wasn't simply a symbol of speed and luxury.
In fact, today the Concorde has even begun to show a profit for the two airlines -- if you eliminate the development costs -- but then that isn't really the point. It is and always has been a great source of pride for the French and the English. Writing in the British newspaper, The Guardian recently, Terry Coleman said, "Of course so daring a thing as Concorde cost money it will not recoup. But neither did the great ocean liners of the 1930s. Both were built out of national pride. In my patriotic moments, I tell myself that Concorde is the last great gift of the British and French empires to the world. That's hyperbole and I stand by it."
I went to the airport recently to have another look at Concorde. It sat on the runway with that same insouciance I remembered, slender, arrogant, the first generation of the supersonic future. And I recalled what Morley Safersaid on "60 Minutes" during the controversy in the mid-1970s:
"If Concorde is destroyed, it will be a tragedy of sorts. It is the fruit of man's collective genius, that urgency that may result in a great symphony or a great tapestry or even a great airplane. To deny it is to deny one of the few positive instincts our rather pitiful species can claim, that curiosity that makes us seek out the unknown and conquer it."