Breathtaking icon that flew in the face of reality

Now that Concorde is to be grounded Fiona Harvey looks back on the impossible dream that inspired a generation of engineers.

Concorde was, of course beautiful but it was more than that. For many readers of The Engineer, despite its dubious economic and political origins, Concorde was an inspiration.

It could break the sound barrier and it halved trans-atlantic flight times but above all, it made you feel good just to look at the thing.

But oh, the reality. Concorde always cost too much. It never made back the investment that the UK and French governments poured into it (estimated to be equivalent to £29bn in today’s prices). And its many detractors claim that Concorde didn’t create novel technology either. All of the engineering that went into Concorde from its famous droop nose to its heat insulation to its ultra-reflective paint to its massively powerful engines, they say, represented not a new departure but a continuation of what went before.

But these arguments don’t diminish the magnitude of the achievement. Taking off at 250mph (compared with about 190mph for its subsonic peers), seasoned Concorde passengers thrilled to the ‘push-back’ into their seats as the plane rose into the air.

Somehow, no matter how much you knew about the grey realities underlying the project, the sheer audacity of Concorde left those of us of a romantic bent with a breathless feeling – a sort of faint echo of the way we feel when we see (and hear) a Spitfire.

The fatal crash in 2000 scared some passengers off, and highlighted for many the fact that Concorde really was an old aircraft. A few minor incidents since the crash served to reinforce safety fears in the mind of the public.

But, while the safety record might have been getting patchy recently, it was a simple question of cost that eventually grounded the old bird. Flights were priced too high for all but the super-rich and sustaining a cruising speed of Mach 2 for up to three hours, the engines guzzled fuel at a rate that could never be justified.

Meanwhile, businesses drastically reduced their travel budgets after the high spending 1990s and business travellers and tourists alike grew more wary of airline travel. The war in Iraq must have been the final straw.

So, with Concorde gone, what is the future for supersonic flight? Do people even want high-speed travel? Well, yes, actually. Ask most people. The idea of getting to New York from London in three hours certainly thrills. Going even further afield excites even more – Concorde flew round the world in 29 hours in the mid 1980s; what could that mean for travel times on a huge number of exotic routes? Yes, we still love jet travel. The problem is we now want it on the cheap.

We no longer feel the need to shell out big money for a ride, no matter how fast the plane goes. As the rise of the no-frills airlines shows, we have become used to flying at ever-lower prices – and we expect that most agreeable trend to continue, thank you.

The history of supersonic flight does not encourage optimism over its future. Other planes designed in the US and Russia were meant to challenge Concorde’s dominance; none ever got off the ground leaving Concorde, after 30 years, still the only ‘commercial’ supersonic jet. Recently, plans by Boeing to create a Sonic Cruiser have also been shelved. Though the company still believes it can push its ‘blended wing body’ design close to Mach 1, Boeing now reckons it will be at least 20 years before we see another real supersonic airliner. Other contenders, such as Dassault, may have plans on the drawing board, but these run very much counter to the trend in the aviation industry.

The emphasis for the foreseeable future will be on cutting fuel consumption and engine noise while concurrently ramming in more passengers. That’s economics.

But to an old romantic, it’s a shame that Concorde has fallen prey to harsh reality. New generations of jets that are less noisy, easier on the fuel consumption and have more room for passengers, are set to please the beancounters at the airlines, and pull in the bargain-hunting punters in big numbers.

Some of these designs might even present very good and sometimes even elegant solutions to engineering problems in their own right. But they are unlikely to inspire… awe.

Like so many of the great historical examples of design that manage to combine functional excellence with beauty – think the Pyramids or the Forth Bridge – Concorde showed engineering at the height of its imaginative power.

There is no doubt that new generations of aircraft will be more efficient, more functional, cheaper to run and more utilitarian. How dull? Where is the romance in that to inspire the next generation of engineers?