In March 1969, just months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the Concorde made its first flight. The supersonic plane embodied a vision of the future as bold as that of Apollo 11, but far more compelling.
No aircraft has captured the public’s imagination as much as the Concorde, although only 20 aircraft were built and flown by just two airlines. Today, nearly 50 years later, it is still regarded as one of mankind’s most outstanding engineering achievements and a truly timeless piece of design.
A new book titled Supersonic is a loving account of the design and lifestyle of the Concorde, a superbly engineered machine from a futuristic past. This image from the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Bedford shows a scale model of a supersonic airliner in 1964. Credit: © Keystone-France, courtesy of Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
“Many designs, inspired by the dream and optimism of the jet age, retain the spirit of the era in which they were born,” said Lawrence Azerrad, author of the new book Supersonic: Concorde Design and Lifestyle. in a telephone interview.
“They were futuristic at the time, but they definitely feel nostalgic now.
“But somehow the design of the Concorde is still futuristic even though it was created in the very early 1960s. It is a vision of our future from our past.”
Designed by physics
In the aesthetically uniform world of passenger aircraft, the Concorde was breathtaking entertainment. It was different from any other aircraft, with delta wings and a pointed nose like a fighter, both of which were advantageous for supersonic flight.
“The design of the Concorde was based on physics,” Azerrad said. “The end result was actually quite beautiful, but that wasn’t the motive for the plane’s shape. Therefore, it is noteworthy that without any additional design frills, he ended up looking like a beautiful swan.”
The Concorde flew commercially for 27 years, from 1976 to 2003, and could travel between London and New York in under four hours. A British-French joint production, the aircraft was on the shopping lists of most major airlines, including Pan Am, Continental, American Airlines, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa and Qantas, on its first flight.
An early 1969 Pan Am advertisement featuring Concorde. Credit: © Lawrence Azerrad collection
“The Concorde was not originally conceived as the exclusive bird of the rich and famous,” Azerrad said.
“After propeller-driven aircraft and the jet age, supersonic was just the next smart thing to do. All airlines had orders for supersonic aircraft. It wasn’t until political and environmental objections made it commercially unacceptable that it became an ultra-premium experience.”
Most orders were canceled after the 1973 oil crisis. Only British Airways and Air France have ever operated the Concorde, and only two other airlines – Singapore Airlines and the now-defunct Braniff International Airways – have chartered them for multiple flights.
Azerrad, a graphic designer based in Los Angeles, uses his book to showcase his impressive personal collection of Concorde memorabilia. Luggage tags, toys, cutlery, bottle openers, matches, coasters, makeup bags, wallets, and even cognac flasks—Concorde was a brand in its own right, producing items that still fetch high prices on eBay.
The last British Airways Concorde flight departed from JFK Airport on 24 October 2003. Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Taking home a branded item was part of the experience. Everything that could be taken off the plane was taken by the passengers as a souvenir. Some of these pieces were in high demand, such as the design of Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design, who designed the cabin interiors for Air France.
“He took a very forward-thinking, futuristic approach for the time, right down to the design of the seats, headrests, fabric and, more famously, the stainless steel cutlery that Andy Warhol was known to have stolen,” Azerrad said. “There is a story where (Warhol) asked if the person sitting next to him took their set, she said no, and he took her set.”
Acquaintance with Concorde began in a special cabin even before the passengers boarded the plane. With only about 100 seats and ticket prices higher than other first class aircraft, the aircraft quickly acquired an aura of exclusivity.
“It was like a social club in the sky,” Azerrad said. “You could have Paul McCartney sing along to the Beatles songs with the whole plane, or Phil Collins famously boarded a plane to perform at Live Aid in the UK and the US on the same day. And then, of course, members of the royal family: the Queen, the Pope, countless heads of state.”
The British Airways Concorde at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, 2003. Credit: © Lawrence Azerrad collection
The windows were tiny to avoid cracks in the airframe, and the narrow fuselage meant that the cockpit was quite small, with only one aisle and only four seats per row.
“But since it was supposedly a 100-passenger fighter jet, the size was actually just wonderful. In fact, it was all about speed, so it looked more like a small sports car than a sofa in the sky. Azerrad said.
The excitement of reaching Mach 2, or about 1,300 mph, was clearly indicated by large speed and altitude sensors prominently placed on the bulkhead (there were no headrest screens or entertainment systems). But even more tangible was the experience of flying at a higher altitude than conventional jets—60,000 feet instead of 30,000.
Raymond Loewy cutlery from the Air France Concorde. Credit: © Lawrence Azerrad collection
“At this height, you can see the curvature of the Earth,” Azerrad said. “You are at the edge of the troposphere, the sky is black. The weather conditions are very visible. And the perception of the world under you is much more tangible than on a conventional plane.
Boeing also had plans to build its own supersonic aircraft, which were abandoned before the prototype stage.