Concorde at forty

Apr 15th, 2009 | By | Category: Cross Channel

There was an optimism in being British in the late 1960s.  The Empire might have gone; the pound might have dropped to an all time low; but there were still good things happening.

In popular culture: The Beatles ruled the world; Carnaby Street shaped fashion; and the football World Cup was still in English hands.  Union flags would be seen everywhere, from being painted onto the roof of very cool Mini cars, to providing skirts for trendy girls. The grimness of the 1970s was still to come.

On the Wednesday after Easter in 1969 came a moment that was a high point for Britain and perhaps the beginning of the end.

We stood alongside the road outside of Filton aerodrome at Bristol to watch the event.  The first British Concorde, 002, made its maiden flight.  The blast from the engines was expected to be such that plastic sheeting was attached to the fencing at the end of the runway and policemen kept the crowds away from the area.  We had seen television coverage of the first flight of the French Concorde (it was galling that it was 001!), but now we were going to see this technological wonder for ourselves.

Little remains in the memory of 9th April 1969, except a deafening noise and the sight of the plastic sheeting hanging in shreds from the perimeter fencing.

Concorde remained a matter of pride for a generation of schoolboys.  In 1976, when Concorde began commercial service in the colours of British Airways, a busload of boy were taken from our school in Devon to watch the take off of a scheduled Concorde flight.  We were told that this was the future, that time was money, and that this machine that could carry people across the Atlantic Ocean in three hours meant that we were at the very forefront of things.

Of course, we were not at the forefront of anything – we were bankrupt.  The pound had fallen and fallen and, by September 1976, Britain was forced to seek a $3.9 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund in order to keep going.  Britain had been overtaken by history; its industries old and inefficient and its pretence at being a world power looking silly.

Concorde reflected the decline of the nation to which it meant so much.  Elegant and sophisticated, it was simply overtaken in a world where satellite communications, the Internet and mobile phones meant there was no requirement for a businessman to even leave the comfort of his own armchair in order to do international business.

Cramped, noisy and horrendously expensive, it was ill equipped to compete in a market where those at the top end wanted spacious luxury and those at the bottom end were delighted with the arrival of the budget airlines.  There was to be no niche for supersonic travel.  The plane that came in with a boom went out with a whimper; a monument to something that might have been.

Standing on the roadside at Filton, forty years ago, there would have been a belief that Britain could still do great things.

Forty years on, watching Britain still trying to fight wars in far away places, while its own public services are crumbling; watching politics descend to the point where aides at Number Ten are reduced to attempting slur campaigns against Opposition politicians; watching an obsession with political correctness that affirms the identity of everyone, except the English;  watching working people pay the price of high level financial and political ineptitude; there is a temptation to believe that nothing has been learned in forty years.  Of all there might have been, little has been achieved.

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  1. Lucky you Ian to watch the maiden flight, Concorde was a fantastic bird, not very practical and hugely expensive I agree, I would have liked to have a flight if I could have afforded it. It did last longer than the TU144…..I agree not much seems to have been learnt in the last 40 years….. From a non-politically correct Englishman born in the 60’s….

    P.S. Do you remember watching the launching of The QE2 at Ham school on the big B&W tele on wheels?

  2. I remember the terrible end of the TU 144 being reported on the news.

    Political correctness is, of course, a prejudice in itself. It is the arrogant assumption that your own worldview is the only one acceptable, except it is so burdened down with a sense of guilt that it fails to see its own inconsistencies.

    I don’t remember the QE 2 – though should do. We could build things in those days!

  3. I remember as a child the laughter after Matins, the day the plane was named: ‘O God, who art the author of peace and lover of Concorde …’!

  4. He was probably the only person who could afford a ticket! It always seemed an odd name; did it arise from the fact that it was a joint project between Britain and France?

  5. It came here a couple of times and flew right over my house, the noise was astounding! Ah sadly, history always repeats.

  6. It used to fly over at about 5.30 pm when I was a student in London; it could be heard for miles. I would look up to see it every time.

  7. A white elephant indeed. but a masterpieceof engineering. I also saw 002’s final landing at RNAS Yeovilton, where it now holds pride of place in the Fleet Air Arm museum, the largest covered aircraft museum in Europe.

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