Monday, October 10, 2011

Faster than a speeding Bullet

After our flight on the Air Force One, the next flight was on an aircraft which traveled faster than a speeding bullet, a British Airways Concorde No. 214 with registration number G-BOAG. This was an aircraft that had seen history at its weirdest and best and a witness to the costliest hair-cut in the world.

The Concorde aircraft was truly faster than a speeding bullet. Cricket commentators are still using the old cliche when they say "the ball went to the boundary like a bullet". In the era of T-20 Cricket they should rather say that the ball fled to the boundary like a Concorde.  May be they should use it for sixer going for over 120 meters. This is more so in case of a lofted shot from some one like Chris Gayle which takes off at a steep angle and sails over the stands, reminding us of a Concorde.  The Concorde had the distinction of taking off from the runway at a speed of over 250 miles an hour, a steep climb and then flying at a height of 60,000 feet over the ground or sea at an astounding speed of Mach-2 or 1400 miles per hour!  Mach number is the number obtained by dividing the speed of an object by the speed of sound.  The name Mach for denoting this speed comes from the name of a scientist Ernst Mach, a late 19th century Physicist who studied gas dynamics.  Speed of sound is about 760 miles per hour at ground level.  Actually at 60,000 above the ground or sea, speed of sound is about 660 miles per hour and hence the actual speed of a Concorde was 2.12 Mach.  It used to cover the distance between London or Paris to New York in three and half hours.

We always hear of a  Cycle race  or Motor Cycle race or a Car raceRecall Tour De France or Formula 1 car races.  Ever heard of an plane race?  Indeed there was one on 17th June 1974.  Concorde marketing  officials wanted to show the airline companies about the capacity of the Concorde to fly with commercial viability.  They arranged a race between the Concorde and a Boeing 747. The route chosen was a transatlantic one - between Paris and Boston. To make the comparison interesting, the two aircraft were flown in opposite directions, as against a conventional race in which both the competitors start from the same point.  The Boeing 747 took off from Orly Airport in Paris, France and the Concorde took off from the Logan airport in Boston at the same time.  The Concorde crossed the Boeing when the Boeing 747 had traveled only 600 miles by traveling 2400 miles, and at an altitude of 60000 feet about twice of the 747.  The Concorde landed in Paris, spent an hour on the ground, again took off for Boston and landed at Boston 11 minutes before the Boeing 747.  Round trip was completed by the Concorde before the competitor completed half the race!  It is a different matter that the airline companies were not interested for reason that the 747 carries 300 more passengers and consumes 20% less fuel than the Concorde.

The speed and efficiency of the Concorde was put to great use in tracking the total Solar eclipse on 30th June, 1973.  A group of scientists flew on a Concorde, which was still a prototype then, at a height of 55,000 feet above the ground level, on the same path and in the same direction as the moon's shadow. the total solar eclipse on that day was visible for a period of  a little over seven minutes from the best location on the ground.  By flying on the Concorde the scientists were able to literally chase the eclipse for a period of 74 minutes from Canary Islands in the North-west coast of Africa to Chad in Central Africa.  The ten times more visibility span provided the scientists an opportunity to conduct many tests and collect data to understand the solar phenomenon better.  The Concorde flew at 1300 miles per hour, but  the eclipse was even faster at 25000 miles per hour.

Concorde was a witness to many historic and romantic moments. It is said Posh spice Victoria Beckham flew on Concorde three times from London to New York, for checking wedding dress fittings before her marriage to Football star David Beckham.  On August 6, 1985 Queen Mother flew on the Concorde to celebrate her 85th  birthday.  Paul McCartney enjoyed the traveling on the Concorde so much that he picked up his Guitar and played for fellow passengers on board the Concorde. Phil Collins performed on the world wide televised concert in London, hopped on to the Concorde for a flight to New York, took a helicopter from New York to Philadelphia and was playing drums for Eric Clapton after four hours (plus time difference, of course) on the same day for a similar Live Aid Charity concert.  But what stole the cup was the journey of Rod Stewart's hair stylist.  The famous British singer, song-writer, composer and musician is known to be very concerned for his hair style and the blond locks and gets them groomed in a London saloon every three weeks. It is said that he spends 6000 Pounds annually on hair dressing.  One day while in New York he felt that he needed a hair dressing before a concert and ordered his London hair stylist to fly to New York on a Concorde for an emergency hair cut before the concert for the day. With fares on a round trip on the Concorde at  9,000 US Dollars, it is perhaps the costliest hair cut in the history of mankind, even assuming that the hair dresser took an ordinary flight back home due to lack of urgency on the return  journey. 

The Concorde had its shortcomings too. The fares were high at 9,000 US dollars (year 2000 prices) for a London-New York or Paris -New York round trip. The plane could carry only 100 passengers. There was no luxury seating of a first class or business class as in other planes and the seating was just like club or economy class. The windows were very small and one passenger described the windows as of the size of a slice of American Cheese!  But he had no complaints as the food was fine and wine was great and there was no turbulence worries while dining .  Above all he had lunch in New York and was at his home in London for an important dinner. We may feel the fares were high at 9,000 US Dollars for a London-New York round trip (we can make three round trips from India itself by other aircraft) but not for Super Models charging 10,000 US Dollars for an hours work or executives earning over a million dollars a month. Time is money they say, but for these people it is "Minutes is Money" and Concorde helped them save time and earn much more.

The production of Concorde itself is a piece to ponder.  History is replete with the legendary rivalry between the British and the French.  They fought each other for acquisition and controls of colonies almost everywhere in the world.  The Russians and Americans were trying to build supersonic jets in the 1960s. Boeing's 707 along with the short haul 720 and 727 coupled with Douglas DC-8 had stolen the lead in the skies. In 1962 Charles De Gaulle called the American superiority of building aircraft as "American colonization of the skies".  The old veterans of colonies, British and the French had lost most of the colonies on the earth, but joined together in a rare example of Anglo-French co-operation to try the skies and curtail American leadership in the skies.  On 29th November, 1962 the two Governments announced the signing of a treaty to jointly build a Supersonic Transporter paving the way for the birth of the Concorde. there are claims that there was espionage as well and the Russians tried get hold of the blue prints of the Concorde.  The expensive project was funded by the two governments as well and the Concorde was extremely elegant and incredibly expensive.  Its drooping nose and wide wing spans attracted criticism. It has a long duel with environmentalists and economic crisis due to OPEC oil embargo in 1973.  PanAm,  TWA, Quantas and Japan Airlines cancelled their orders. Ultimately only 20 Concorde were produced and 16 were used for commercial flights. Inaugural flight was from Paris to Rio de Janeiro on January 21, 1976. Though both British Airways and Air France claim that the operations were profitable, no official figures are available. The Americans blocked landing of the Concorde in USA by administrative and judicial intervention. On 18th December 1975, US House of Representative voted 199-198 against allowing landing of Concorde in the USA.  Concorde lost by one vote.  With New York not being one of the destinations, Concorde was severely handicapped. Concorde had to wait till 19th July, 1977 when the United States Supreme Court overruled the objection of New York Port Authority, paving for its flights to New York from London and Paris.  But it was late for Concorde as a viable commercial venture.

The French called the plane Le Concorde (meaning "the"Concorde) and the British called it Concord. The difference was the e at the end of the word.  Both wanted to keep it that way to show it as their own. The controversy was resolved when the British Technology Minister, Tony Benn, stated that it will be called Concorde, the e in the end of the word standing for "Excellence, Europe and Entente".  Dictionary meaning of entente is "an arrangement or understanding between two or more nations agreeing to follow a particular policy with regard to affairs of international concern".  Though there were no buyers for the content of the statement, that is how probably Anglo-French co-operation evolved further, with construction of Channel Tunnel (50 KM long railway tunnel between England and France under the sea at Strait of Dover) and formation of EADS, present parent company of Airbus Industries.

Despite all its success and fame, Concorde was destined for disaster from an unexpected source. On 25th July a Continental Airlines DC-10 took off from Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris to Newark, USA. While taking off a piece of titanium strip,  barely one and a half feet long and one feet wide fell down on the runway. Ten minutes later a Concorde  operated by Air France with Flight number 4590 took off with 100 passengers and 9 crew members on the way to New York JFK air port. The flight was chartered by a German company Peter Deilmann Cruises and all the passengers were traveling to New York for boarding cruise ship MS Duetschland there for a 16 day cruise of South America.  The titanium sheet lying on the runway hit the tyres of the Concorde taking off the runway at 250 miles an hour speed and the tyres burst and the pieces were hurled by centrifugal force.  The debris did not hit the fuel tanks directly, but the pressure shock waves ruptured one of the fuel tanks located just above the under carriage.  The plane burst into flames as the aviation fuel caught fire. All the 100 passengers and 9 crew members died and the tragedy also claimed four other persons on the ground. The tragedy received wide coverage and was all the more gruesome due to the passengers being those proceeding a holiday cruise. This was a classic example of an accident due to an extraneous factor and the impeccable safety record of the Concorde got a big hit. The already growing criticism of the plane increased and the planes were grounded. Though flights resumed later, the Concord was retired from active operations with the last flight on 24th October 2003 from New York to London. A glorious chapter in Aviation history came to an end.

We were here in Museum of Flight in Seattle, looking at the Concorde, parked at the air park of the museum. This was the aircraft that held the record for a transatlantic haul, crossing the Atlantic and travelling from New York to London in 2 Hours 52 minutes and 59 seconds on 7th February 1996, counting take off to touch down time. We were allowed entry through the rear entrance and passed through the aisle of the plane looking at the interior and  display of its history and flights. After looking at the cockpit and controls we exited from the front door.  An aircraft that carried many dignitaries and legends and witnessed many rare moments of history had itself become history.  We could not take a flight in Concorde and I would have loved to be on a flight, at least one way, though it would cost several months earning. One can only hope that a time will come when a similar aircraft would fly again to give us an opportunity.  During our life time, that is.


  1. There are many examples of protectionism of US big businesses. This is one such. Concorde was never going to be econolically viable without flights to USA and Boeing made sure of that. Another one that comes to mind is Betamax -Vs - VHS.
    I have spoken to a couple of people who flew in Concorde ( Business Expense, of Course) Their honest opinion was - too noisy, bone shattering and far too expensive.
    On a lighter note: Posters of the time for Concorde had on them " Breakfast in London, Lunch in New York" Underneath one of the posters someone had scribbled " Luggage in Bombay"

  2. I had made a reference to Perry Mason books in "It is a pleasure to work with those....". The piece on "Faster than a speeding bullet"was about the Concorde plane. Yesterday I saw an episode of Perry Mason series on TV titled "The Case of the Desperate Deception". This is not a story of Erle Stanley Gardner, but created later on based on the characters created by him. The story unfolds in Paris. Perry Mason arranges for flying in a witness from USA and some persons are waiting to kidnap her at Heathrow air port. The plane arrives but she is not on the flight. The two persons waiting to kidnap are arrested by the French police. Perry Mason says that he was apprehending the kidnap and hence arranged for getting witness by Concord and she had arrived two hours earlier and safely. What a coincidence!

  3. I followed the The Concord saga in Indian press very closely, even though I have no seen one in physical world. A very nice narrative. National Geographic magazine also covered the story.