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On 29th November, 2012, it will be fifty years since Concorde’s birth. Fifty years since the dream of civilian supersonic flight was born, and with it a dream of Anglo-French cooperation that felt entirely natural back in the day, when Britain still wanted to join the EU (then the EEC).

Concorde seen during take-off, in 1970s British Airways livery.

Of course, Concorde flies no longer, forced into early retirement by a catastrophic crash in the year 2000. And that dream of civilian supersonic flight? Well it is in abeyance now, too. There are no civilian aircraft in operation today that are capable of flying as fast as Concorde, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The last civilian to break the sound barrier was Felix Baumgartner, but he was flying solo. (Just a few weeks ago, he dropped from a balloon 24 miles up in the atmosphere and attained a speed of 834 miles an hour before hitting the ground.) His, it must be said, is not a mode of travel likely to attain mass appeal soon.

But then neither did Concorde, not really. Conceived as a popular form of air transport for the technological age, Concorde ended up as a pre-eminent symbol of the conspicuous consumption of global elites. A child of the idealistic sixties, the plane reached its prime in the glitzy, avaricious eighties, and, it seems, it ditched many of its principles along the way.

Concorde was the result of a unique collaboration between the British and French governments, their industries and their airlines. The plane’s birth came about at a time of unprecedented nationalisation in Europe. Indeed, it took an international treaty just to bring Concorde into existence.

In the run up to that treaty being signed, seemingly nothing was left to chance. Government ministers on both sides of the Channel discussed every aspect of the plane’s design and minute details of its commercial future. This included what it should be called; what it would look like; and how many units of it each government’s airlines would be made to buy. Britain was a less statist place than France in the early sixties, but it was still unrecognisably more statist than it is today.

The Cabinet archives do not generally ‘do’ excitement. But on the subject of Concorde there is an undeniable frisson. The two documents reproduced below chart the final deliberations of the British Government in the run-up to the signing ceremony for the Concorde treaty, which took place in London. We get a sense in them of the shuttle diplomacy of the British Minister of Aviation, Conservative Julian Amery, as well as of the great hopes that he and others placed in the project. The estimates the documents contain show that both governments really did expect wonderful things. At least 160 Concordes would be sold, Amery wrote. And, if no international supersonic competitors emerged, then perhaps the figure would be more like 300. By being the first to exploit supersonic flight comercially, Britain and France hoped to benefit from it more than any other countries.

One issue that features prominently in the papers is that of what the new plane should be called. The record of these discussions is downright amusing. Apparently, the French had long favoured “Super-Caravelle” as a name. But this had had to be dropped, for being, well, too French. The names that remained on the table, according to Amery’s final memorandum, were Concorde (both ‘with and without the final ‘e”), ‘Alliance’ and ‘Europa’.

‘But perhaps,’ Amery added, with surely a hint of irony, ‘the Cabinet may think of something better.’

The Cabinet could not think of anything better, and neither could the French, so Concorde duly became the aircraft’s name. But the issue of the final ‘e’ was to be more contentious than anyone could have imagined, dragging on for many years. In the Cabinet Conclusions for 20 November, 1962, Concorde is referred to as Concord. This, it was agreed, was to be the British appellation. (Some say that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan insisted on the distinction to get back at General de Gaulle for some slight, but Cabinet minutes never record such murky details.)

If we fast forward to December, 1967, and the unveiling of the Concord(e) prototype, in Toulouse, we find Tony Benn, then Minister for Technology in a Labour government, saying that he was now happy to accept the final ‘e’ as part of the plane’s British name. From this point on Concord(e) would be Concorde everywhere. Benn thought the British distinction had been stupid. But he knew well enough that the tabloids back home would enjoy the chance to paint him as unpatriotic for changing it. Consequently, he tried to steal a march on them, announcing in a speech that the additional ‘e’ stood for ‘excellence, England, Europe and the entente’.

(Given his own party’s erstwhile reservations about the costs of the Concorde project – which diverted state support away from traditional manufacturing in Labour’s heartland – some Labour MPs would have preferred him to have said that the ‘e’ stood for extravagant.)

Concordes were constructed at Toulouse in south-west France and at Filton, near Bristol, in south-west England.

The cost of Concorde really was to be outlandish, coming in at more than six times the original projection. But for all that, as many of us know, a Concorde in flight was a magical thing. I never travelled in it. But I remember stopping to look a few times as it flew over London and marvelling at its beauty (I am no plane-spotter either). BBC cameramen at Wimbledon used to do the same whenever Concorde flew over Centre Court. Without a doubt, the reputations of Air France and British Airways, in the years up to the 2000 crash, were usefully enhanced by having Concorde as their flagship.

And yet the plane was never to make a success of it commercially. Its impressive speed (3.5 hours London to New York rather than 7.5) could not offset other conspicuous problems. The cabin was too small (only 100 seats) to make anything other than luxury travel profitable. The maintenance costs were too high. And the sonic boom was feared by many who lived in the vicinity of large airports. Disastrously, this was to lead to Concorde being banned from landing at New York’s JFK until 1977. So far from the 300 units that had originally been planned for, only 20 Concordes were ever made, and only 14 went on to fly commercial services. All of them were owned by British Airways and Air France, which were the only two companies legally obliged to buy them.

In the long term, therefore, it seems likely that Concorde will be remembered as a white elephant, albeit a very sleek and glamorous one: the product of state subsidies that cost ordinary taxpayers dear while delivering little to them in return.

Whether or not this typification is true, however, we should still pause to marvel at the mindset that gave birth to Concorde, a mindset full of hope and enthusiasm, from an age in which governments dreamt of more than just austerity.

*

DOCUMENT 1

CABINET – CONFIDENTIAL

THE SUPERSONIC AIRLINER

Memorandum by the Minister of Aviation

‘At their meeting on 6th November the Cabinet authorised me to inform the French Government that the proposal for the joint development of an Anglo-French supersonic airliner was in principle acceptable to the United Kingdom Government subject to assurances on certain points. I was invited to bring the subject before the Cabinet at a later meeting […] I now report the outcome of my meeting with M. Dusseaulx, the French Minister of Transport, in Paris on 8th November, with particular reference to the points mentioned in the Cabinet Conclusions. […]

Participation of French Airlines

M. Dusseaulx said that Air France would participate in the project from the outset as intending operators of the medium-range version and probably of the long-range version [NOTE: the long-range version of Concorde was supposed to be capable of flying from London/Paris to Sydney in 13 hours]. Because of the relationship between this nationalised Company and the French Government, a categorical assurance could be given that at the time when the programme required initial production commitments to be undertaken, Air France would do what the Government wished […] M. Dusseaulx was confident that the example of Air France would be followed in due course by other members of Air Union, who would be under strong pressure to adopt a common policy in regard to the introduction of supersonic aircraft.

French views on the market

I found that the estimates of the market made by the French authorities were very similar to our own […] They put the combined requirements of Air France and the British Overseas Airways Corporation at 30-40 aircraft and judged that sales to other airlines might amount to a further 120, on the assumption that competition from at least one other type of supersonic airliner had to be faced. (If there were no such competition, the total world market would in their opinion be about 300.) […]

Name of the aircraft

The French authorities agree that it would not be appropriate to call the Anglo-French aircraft ‘Super-Caravelle’. A name should be chosen which has the same meaning in both languages and, if possible, the same spelling. The British Aircraft Corporation and Sud have suggested ‘Concorde’ (with and without the final ‘e’). Other possibilities might be ‘Alliance’ or ‘Europa’ but perhaps the Cabinet may think of something better. […]

Approval by French Government

M. Dusseaulx informed me by telephone on 14th November that the proposals had that day been submitted by the French Prime Minister to General de Gaulle, and had been approved. M. Dusseaulx was therefore ready to come over to London to sign the agreement as soon as would be convenient to us.

Conclusion

I accordingly seek Cabinet authority to confirm that the United Kingdom Government also approve the proposed agreement and to invite M. Dusseaulx to come to London to sign it.

J. A.

*

DOCUMENT 2

CONCLUSIONS OF A MEETING OF THE CABINET, TUESDAY 20th NOVEMBER, 1962, 11AM

SECRET

[…]

2. Aircraft Industry: Supersonic Airliner

‘The Cabinet had before them a memorandum by the Minister of Aviation […]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer [Reginald Maudling] said that now that it had been established that Air France, and probably other European airlines also, would participate in the project it was right that we should proceed to sign the agreement with the French Government […] But this should be without commitment on the arrangements to be made between the United Kingdom Government and the United Kingdom firms. He was not satisfied that an arrangement under which the United Kingdom Government would finance the whole of the pre-production costs, except some £2 million on building and plant and £14 million on the learning costs […] was satisfactory either in itself or as a matter of presentation to the public. Moreover, there should be an understanding that, if the companies made a profit on the sales of the aircraft, there should be some return from the proceeds of the sales to the Exchequer.

In discussion the following points were made: […]

– Shipping and shipbuilding interests in the United Kingdom were inclined to criticise the extent to which the Government were supporting both the aircraft construction industry and the airlines. This should be borne in mind in framing the announcement of the signature of the agreement with France.

– A decision to proceed with the airliner would indirectly improve the prospects of employment in Short Brothers and Harland in Belfast, and an indication in this sense would be helpful to the Government’s handling of a debate in Parliament on the economy of Northern Ireland within the next few days.

Summing up the Prime Minister said that it was generally accepted that the agreement with the French should be signed as early as convenient. The aircraft should be called the ‘Concord’. The details of the agreement and of the public statement to be made when it was signed should be settled by the Minister of Aviation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary.’

The signing of the Concorde treaty, a model of the plane in the background, in London, 29 November, 1962. Source: heritageconcorde.com

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