When Concorde first took flight

On March 2nd, the Anglo-French supersonic Concorde took to the air for the first time. Its maiden flight lasted 27 minutes, never exceeding 300 mph. The plane was later to fly at Mach 2.2, or 1,354 mph at an altitude of over 60,000 feet, nearly twice the height of conventional passenger jets. It could carry 92 – 128 passengers.

Backed by the British and French government, the costs were estimated at £70m. With delays and cost overruns not uncommon in government-backed projects, they eventually came to £1.3bn. The plane was a technological marvel, but an economic disaster because so few were sold. British Airways and Air France each operated seven aircraft, and there were six prototype and development aircraft built, making 20 in all. British Airways and Air France both ran it profitably only when development costs were written off.

It is rather typical of big government projects. Legislators and civil servants are not as cautious with taxpayers’ money as investors tend to be with their own. If government undertakes a big commercial project, it is a good bet that real commercial interests will not touch it. A popular phrase in the 60s and 70s was ”picking winners,” in which government was supposed to back projects that would pay off. Alas, “picking losers” would have described the policy more accurately. From DeLorean cars to the Meriden Motorcycles Cooperative, government always seemed to end up writing off the loans or investments it had made.

It is conceivable that Concorde might have worked if the development costs had been spread through several later derivatives, as Boeing did with its jetliners. A stretched version that carried more passengers, and other spin-offs that used the now-developed technology might have succeeded. But it was not to be. A fatal crash at Paris was reckoned to have been the beginning of the end for Concorde, and in 2003 it was retired.

It was undoubtedly a technological marvel. I flew it five times, and never tired of the thrill when the Mach-meter on the front bulkhead clicked up 2.0 in big red numbers. Otherwise there was no sensation of speed, even though it flew faster than a rifle bullet. I did take photos of a black sky and curved Earth seen though its small windows.

Several private firms are working on supersonic passenger or business jets, with the first prototypes due to fly later this year or early next. New technology on the airframe shape is expected to reduce or eliminate the supersonic boom that limited Concorde to breaking the sound barrier only over oceans. It did establish, at vast expense to British and French taxpayers, that there is a demand for faster air transport at premium prices, and no doubt more level headed private firms will develop aircraft that can tap into that demand and make the money from it that government failed to do.