Returning to the luxury and glamor of Concorde

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.

“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.

The final demise of the airliner began on 25 July 2000, when an Air France Concorde flying from Paris caught fire during takeoff. from debris on the runway and crashed shortly thereafter, killing 113 people. Although it was a rare incident in a nearly flawless service history, the accident forced both British Airways and Air France to land their fleets and spend millions on safety upgrades.
Service eventually resumed in November 2001, although Concorde could not weather the impact of 9/11 on the airline or rising operating costs that made the aircraft unprofitable. The last flight landed at Heathrow Airport on 24 October 2003.

Valuable goods

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 takes off from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport on its last flight to London, October 24, 2003.  This flight was Concorde's last passenger flight and the world's only supersonic airliner made history after 27 years.  transported the rich for years and raced across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound.  PHOTO AFP/Timothy A. CLARY / AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY I - (Photo should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”

social club

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.

The Concorde was not the only supersonic passenger aircraft to ever fly. The Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-144, which looked remarkably similar but, according to Azerrad, “did not have the elegance and finesse of a Concorde”, had a brief commercial run in the late 1970s.

Boeing also had plans to build its own supersonic aircraft, which were abandoned before the prototype stage.

Several projects are currently underway bring back supersonic travel, some of which promise to materialize as early as the mid-2020s. But even before they take to the skies, they are confronted with the inevitable comparison to the beautiful swan that started it all.
Supersonic: Concorde Design and Lifestyle”, published by Prestel, is already available.

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