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When Concorde was the future

When Concorde was the future

Fifty years ago, the world’s first supersonic aircraft was preparing to take its maiden flight. It would become the ultimate symbol of the jet-set lifestyle

Fifty years ago, the world’s first supersonic aircraft was preparing to take its maiden flight. It would become the ultimate symbol of the jet-set lifestyle

Stuart Nathan | September 3rd 2018

Aircraft, like sports cars and motorbikes, are machines with charisma. Many of them attract a cult following: some because of the narratives attached to them, some for their appearance, some for their performance and some for their notoriety. Possibly the only non-military aircraft to gather such a following is Concorde. The first supersonic passenger aircraft took its maiden flight 50 years ago next year. Watching it take off was like looking at the future. In many ways, it was Britain and France’s Apollo programme: concrete proof of their technical expertise and industrial capability. 

Lawrence Azerrad, a Los Angeles-based graphic designer, is one of Concorde’s many fans. His book “Supersonic: the design and lifestyle of Concorde” is a survey of the aircraft’s design, branding and cultural legacy, illustrated with items from his collection of Concorde memorabilia. Details of Concorde’s engineering are mentioned in passing – its needle-sharp nose shape allowed Concorde to punch through the accumulating air pressure of the sound barrier – but if you want to know why its wings were shaped like they were or the materials science that enabled its engines to operate, you’ll need to look elsewhere. What you will find in these pages is a ravishing visual archive, which ranges from advertising to cutlery to Concorde merchandise. 

The book memorialises Concorde as the ultimate symbol of the jetset lifestyle. It might have been narrow, low-ceilinged and short on legroom, but the seats were leather, the food was gourmet, champagne was on tap, you weren’t on board long enough to get uncomfortable and you had a chance of a singalong with Paul McCartney. Yet Concorde never lived up to its potential: only 14 were ever in service and only two airlines – British Airways and Air France – operated it. The fatal Concorde crash of 2000 – in which 113 people were killed – marked the end for an iconic aircraft. Screamingly loud and thirstier than a rugby team on tour, it also symbolised an insouciance towards the environment that was very last century.

 

Original interior design

Concorde was pitched at the business set of the 1970s, with all of its 106 seats priced at first-class levels. With its own dedicated lounge at the airports it served, even the check-in and waiting experience was luxurious: possibly more so than the aircraft itself, which despite its leather seating had tiny windows, a low cabin ceiling and similar knee room to today’s economy class. Pop stars were frequent flyers: Concorde famously (or infamously) allowed Phil Collins to play both the London and Philadelphia sites of Live Aid on the same day in 1985.

 

Ferranti advert

The supply chain for Concorde’s manufacture was long, and companies such as Ferranti (which made the in-flight computers) were keen to be seen associating themselves with the project, even three years before Concorde’s maiden flight in 1969. Other commercial partners using Concorde’s image in their advertising included Mobil, spark-plug maker Champion, electronics firm Plessey, Bristol Siddeley, tyre makers Kleber Colombes and Dunlop, landing gear specialists Mesier and Dowty, and Triplex safety glass.

 

Rolex advert

Luxury brands also wanted to be associated with the supersonic airliner. Rolex positioned itself as the watch brand for high-speed aviators. Airlines such as Pan Am and Braniff International used Concorde in their advertising even though they never went ahead with the purchase of the aircraft.

 

A scale model of Concorde

Designing Concorde was less glamorous. Taken in 1964, this photograph shows the director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment next to a windtunnel model of Concorde’s airframe, one of many experimental designs that were tested for aerodynamic performance. Located at Farnborough in the south of England, on a site now occupied by BAE Systems and still used for a famous airshow, the Royal Aircraft Establishment developed the RAF’s first airships and many of its early models, and went on to develop the Harrier and the rockets for Britain’s entry into the space race (rocketry was later abandoned to fund Concorde). It closed in 1969.

 

Concorde in flight

What endures of Concorde is its grace and beauty: the reflective white surface to dissipate the heat of subsonic flight, the drag-reducing, triangle-shaped delta wings (named after the letter of the Greek alphabet they resemble) and stabiliser-free vertical tail, the needle-nose designed to punch through the air pressure build-up at trans-sonic speed, and the minimal, linear forms that housed its mighty Olympus engines. 

Supersonic: the design and lifestyle of Concorde by Lawrence Azerrad (Prestel)