On 2nd March 1969, an awestruck crowd watched as Concorde took to the skies above Toulouse on its maiden flight, drowning out their applause with its four Olympus 593 engines.
Built to fly in excess of 1,300mph, on that first flight the Anglo-French built Concorde was in the air for just 27 minutes and didn’t go above 300mph. “Finally the big bird flies, and I can say now that it flies pretty well,” said the pilot, Andre Turcat.
It would be another month until Concorde was tested in British skies, with Brian Trubshaw flying the plane from Filton near Bristol to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, and another six months until it was tested at supersonic speed on 1st October. The British government had already invested £155m in Concorde, predicted to be flying commercially by 1973 and estimated to cut the flying time between London and New York from seven hours 40 minutes to three hours 25 minutes. However, some people in the government were concerned it wouldn’t be commercially viable and could cost the UK £900m.
Their fears were well-founded. When it finally began to fly commercially on 21 January 1976, economically, it wasn’t a success. The 70s saw two fuel crises, sending oil prices soaring, and Concorde’s small fuel tanks and heavy consumption increased costs and limited the length of its journeys. The sonic boom it produced restricted its routes and forced it to fly at subsonic levels in some places – yet supersonic speed was its primary selling point.
In the decades that followed, Concorde’s fortunes were mixed. Companies cancelled their orders, production stopped in 1979, and only fourteen Concordes ever flew commercially: seven for Air France and seven for British Airways. However, one event that garnered positive publicity for the plane was Live Aid. During Bob Geldof’s huge charity concert event on 13th July 1985, Concorde was the celebrated means by which Phil Collins managed to play venues on both sides of the Atlantic. At Wembley Stadium, he performed with Sting and The Police before boarding Concorde, bound for New York. Once there, a helicopter flew him to Philadelphia to perform at the JFK Stadium, where he sang solo hits and played drums for Eric Clapton’s set.
But 15 years later, the press story was very different. On 25th July 2000, a Concorde aircraft went down at Gonesse near Paris, ploughing through a small hotel and killing all 109 people on board and four on the ground. The accident took the planes out of the air for over a year while £17m was spent on safety improvements. The plane didn’t return to service until November 2001, just weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had caused a drop in air travel.
The service never recovered. Just 18 months later, it was announced the plane would be retired due to falling passenger numbers and rising maintenance costs. Concorde’s final commercial flight was on 23 October 2003.
By Alison Runham