This is the last article until June 6th – by then all of the pending Gemini’s and Phoenix’s will have arrived so they’ll be a massive backlog! It’s my annual “digital downtime”, and we’re off to San Francisco for three weeks. I leave you with this, it’s a bit longer than usual – but you’ve got plenty of time to read it!
It seems extraordinary now to think that Concorde was still flying when this model was made. Certain iconic British identity artefacts – both physical and cultural – have a disproportionate place in our national consciousness. We are often surprised when we find that, for example, a 1970’s comedy that now looks painfully dated, but remains ridiculously funny, Fawlty Towers has just 12, 30 minute episodes. It seemed to go on for ever. Like the Queen, she has for most people alive today, always been there. Indeed so much so that the idea of her death and what might follow leaves many wondering if that isn’t the end of monarchy as we know it. Nobody could imagine, once Concorde was flying after years of development, that it would ever not be there.
Probably one of the most amazing civilian engineering projects ever undertaken, given the technology, even if as a sales project it was a total disaster. Conceived in what was described as, “the white heat of technology” in the 1960’s. Only 20 were ever built. 2 were prototypes (one of which is at the Imperial War Museum at RAF Duxford, and is crammed with analogue computers to the point you can hardly move), and 4 were pre-production prototypes. BA had 7 and so did Air France, but by the end AF only operated 5, having retired one for spares in 1982 and then the awful 2000 crash destroyed the other; that will be etched in my memory for as long as I live.
In monetary terms, the cost of each aircraft was about the same as an A380 now – so in today’s money, around £250 million each. Development costs were the modern equal to around £18 billion. Yet without it, Airbus would never have emerged and be what it is today. The reality was that only 9 were ever really purchased by the airlines, the remainder were sold to them for £1 and BA bought out the UK government’s share and rights to parts and spares for a nominal fee. The oil price shocks of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, then the 1979 crisis as Iran fell into revolution, killed any real hope for it, and few wanted to allow it supersonic overflights.
I had my first flight in Concorde to New York in 1989, I was so excited it was ridiculous. Later in 1991, I was one of the very lucky few who went on a tour of the BA servicing facility at Heathrow – one of the amazing things was they couldn’t get the aircraft in, so the nose had a special 12ft extension high up on the wall that poked out the rear of the hangar! That enabled them to get it inside and shut the doors.
It was only years later that the question crossed my mind as to where the luggage went! On the starboard rear side, behind the wings is an ordinary looking passenger door, it was basically a tail-end hold. The aircraft at Brooklands Museum in the very south of London,(inside the old motor racing circuit, and also one of the places parts of Concorde were actually manufactured), G-BBDG, had this as the main entrance for visitors.
The crash was the only time I’ve ever seen an air disaster, (though I watched Columbia live in 1986, that unbelievable moment she exploded), and I never want to see another. 25th July 2000. We were on the way back from Switzerland, driving. We’d stopped at a place you could see the runway, along with a few others. I still had a film camera, and no film. I’d have been too shocked to think about using it anyway. It was the most tragic, shocking and devastating thing I have witnessed in person. You simply cannot imagine how it gets to you, I hope you never do. Only 9/11, barely 15 months later – again something that circumstances allowed me to watch live, made those feelings come back. It’s like your stomach and heart have fallen through the floor and your mind cannot process the vastness of what you’re seeing.
Despite it they brought Concorde back, but the magic, the invincibility and glamour had somehow been tarnished so badly it just didn’t have the caché and prestige it had once enjoyed. BA weren’t really over keen to resume flying, nor were Air France. It was almost a publicity thing, it gave them what marketing people call the ‘halo effect’ – shining a light of superiority on everything in the brand that others just don’t have.
9/11 and the collapse in airline fortunes following it, brought a fairly rapid financial demise. By 2003 she’d gone. Fuel was astronomic, marketing mistakes (discount tickets especially), to fill seats irritated those high-end customers who paid full price, and the growing and much cheaper availability for First Class on 747’s and 777’s undermined the whole concept. Some have alleged it was done deliberately. Indeed there is much argument that BA just wanted it gone and the French Government, busy trying to sell off Air France, didn’t want the liability of it on their books to make the airline more saleable.
Virgin Atlantic tried to buy the fleet but there was no way BA were ever going to allow that. I suspect it was more publicity stunt than anything else. There are some rare 1:400 models of Concorde in the ‘Silver Dream Machine’ livery, but it looks a bit tacky.
This model is the one in Manchester museum, it was closed last time I was there, but I hope to see it and the end of June on a brief visit. The Brooklands one is full of the original models from the Airlines who said they would originally buy the aircraft, painted in the old livery, she’s well worth a visit if you ever have the opportunity. The mock-up model that used to sit in the roundabout at Heathrow, is now at the entrance.
I had another sad duty, but it was a fascinating journey with Concorde. During a short stint ‘agency side’, I helped organised the move of the Concorde G-BOAA to Edinburgh Museum of Flight. It was exceptionally poignant for me, she was the one I’d first flown on, the one we saw in the service tour, and the last one I flew on in 1999.
She’s carried by a special barge, the Terra Marique, that itself, is an amazing piece of engineering, able to sink itself and re-float; a key element in getting the aircraft out of Heathrow and down the river. The whole thing was re-assembled at Edinburgh.
As time’s gone on, science has revealed that Concorde did huge damage to the environment, travelling at 55-60,000ft pumping vast amounts of nitrous oxide into the high atmosphere where it does most damage. Nobody knew. One of the things that new supersonic business jets are already looking at is how to minimise the high altitude pollution issue. Small amounts of the wrong gases can do huge amounts of damage, as we found with the ozone layer in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Swift international action prevented that disaster from worsening.
Concorde was a legendary aircraft. It’s demise somehow diminished us all. We’d lost something. It was a technical giant, possibly the most extraordinary of the analogue age. Being British nobody minded that only the rich and the famous could afford it, though towards the end that was far from true. It was something the Russians had failed at doing properly and the Americans had abandoned. (Though the SST, the nose and front end on loan for many years to Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, is now being restored to its original condition by Boeing in Seattle). It Made Britain proud. It made us feel we could do things others cannot. We did it with France, co-operation, industry, worked. It was one of the big projects that convinced Europe – especially France that Britain was serious about working towards real cooperation.
Concorde may no longer fly, but she symbolised advancement, national pride, co-operation and, nothing has or probably ever will, look as ageless or as simply awesome in flight, or have that magic – everybody misses her, even though we all know her time has passed.
This is a lovely model, the detail is clean and elegant. The under wings and engines are superb, only the wheels seem a little too big and the landing gear is fairly basic. It’s been with me for years, and I’ve used it as a diorama museum plane – until I ran out of space for such a luxury! Now and again I bring her in to run a mythical tourist flight. Despite my love for, and my precious memories of Concorde, it’s hard to look at sometimes.
There have been many versions, I only need one. This is it.
I’ll be back on June 6th!
I’ll be making a few posts on 1400reviews page on Facebook while I’m away, you can find that here: www.facebook.com/1400Reviews