Faster than a speeding bullet

And so a little piece of the future ended on Friday as the last three Concordes – one flying down from here in Edinburgh – came in to land in Heathrow. Design work starting in the 1960s and carrying passengers by the 1970s (just in time for the oil crisis to throttle the programme’s success, amongst other factors). Four decades later and she still looks like the most futuristic aircraft on the planet. And before anyone thinks I’m being sexist, there is no argument here – Concordes, like the great ships, are always ‘she’. Way back in the old dawn-days of the internet – early 90s, before the graphic-based Web) – a gender issues chat room I subscribed to debated calling ships and planes ‘she’. Some feminist academics were outraged and thought this was yet another piece of proof that all men were pigs who objectified women. I tried to explain that it is a tradition stretching back to antiquity where new ships once had maidens sacrificed as an offering to the gods to bless the ship. Later it would be a ewe, leading to the tendency to name a ship ‘she’. The argument raged for a few days until some subscribers who were women who were also serving officers in the US Navy said they thought of their ships as a she and they were proud of them, so they academics could just shut the hell up.

I digress, as I usually do. Forty years and there is nothing even in development that comes close to Concorde. In true British fashion we – along with the French (and isn’t it amazing we built this great accomplishment with a nation we fought with for centuries beforehand?) – we created something amazing and ground-breaking. Then let it all trickle away. We spent billions to develop this leading edge technology. She should have been the first generation, with other, newer, bigger, faster craft to follow, building on all of that effort and investment. Instead of which we pissed it all away on the orders of bloody accountants. I know there are pressing matters we need to spend our money on, but we also need, as a nation and as individuals, to dream on a bigger scale. Now the people who built her are retired or dead and anyone who wants to build a new supersonic craft will have to do without all of that expensively-acquired expertise. There is simply nothing else like her. The best fighter jets can only sprint a short distance at mach 2 while Concorde effortlessly cruises for hours at this speed – and even faster.

Her Rolls Royce Olympus engines are still the most efficient jet engines in the world, as one proud engineer pointed out. The materials and shapes that sculpt her are astounding – Concorde flexes as she goes through huge temperature variations from the high altitude – 60,000 ft, the edge of space – and her enormous velocity, to say nothing of the stress of moving through air turbulence at 1,350 MPH.

Like Concorde I was born of the Space Age when the future was so bright we had to wear shades. Doctor Who on the TV, Carl Sagan talking us through images from the Viking landers on Mars and taking us through the Cosmos, the first test-tube baby. By the colder 80s the Information Age was replacing the dying embers of the dream of the Space Age. Cost-effective was the mantra. No place for dreams. The boy who watched Cosmos in his astronaut playsuit grew up and realised with a sinking heart he would probably never ever grow up to be an astronaut, or even have holidays on the moon. But still there was Concorde. I still have an early 2000 AD annual with a feature on her sandwiched between Dan Dare and Judge Dredd strips. “Is this the closest you’ll come to space travel?” was the headline. That stuck with me. If day-trips to space that we were promised in the 60s and 70s never happened then there would still be Concorde. Making the comic book dream come true – flying faster than a speeding bullet. Arcing across the Atlantic at a height so great the curve of the Earth was visible, the clouds thousands of feet below you, the stars visible through the clear canopy above you as you grazed the edge of space. The X series of rocket craft that many 50s astronauts earned their wings in had to struggle to get to these heights only 20 years before – now people were drinking champagne and relaxing on a comfortable flight.

But I never got to fly in her and now I never will. Another little piece of the once-so-bright future disappears into the cold, uncaring embrace of crushing reality and takes with it one of my lifelong dreams, unfulfilled. A gleaming symbol of technological modernity in the cynical post-modern age. But it’s not a time to be bitter or regretful. Instead we should simply marvel at this astonishing machine. Why did so many thousands turn out to see her yesterday? Because we are proud of her. The Russian spent billions on their attempts but their version was badly flawed. American companies like Boeing and McDonnell Douglas spent millions on research but never got further than the drawing board. They never built her. They tried and couldn’t build her. We did. With 1960s technology we took on the biggest aero spatial innovation and development after the Apollo programme and we made it work. And we made her beautiful, shaped by the forces of nature to an elegant swan-shape embodying power with grace. This year marks 100 years since Orville and Wilbur first took to the air – could they have dreamed that a mere 6 decades after that 12 second flight that people would fly in this manner? A century of powered flight, both a sad and somehow appropriate point for Concorde to take her final bow. We should be proud of what our classic-age boffins built. We should also wonder why we have allowed our dreams to become so small.

There is a chapter on Concorde in the excellent The Back Room Boys – the Secret Return of the British Boffin, which is due to be published in November – expect a review in the next few weeks on the Alien.