In March 1969, just a few months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the Concorde made its first flight. The supersonic plane embodied a vision for the future as daring as that of Apollo 11 – but much more beautiful.
No plane has captured the imagination of the public like Concorde, even though only 20 were built and were flown by only two airlines. Today, almost 50 years later, it still represents one of the most remarkable engineering achievements of humanity and a truly timeless piece.
A new book titled “Supersonic” tenderly presents the design and lifestyle of Concorde, a superbly designed machine from a futuristic past. This image from the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Bedford shows a model of the supersonic airliner in 1964. Credit: © Keystone-France, courtesy Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images
“Many of the designs that were inspired by the dream and optimism of the jet age retain an air of the time they were born,” said Lawrence Azerrad, author of the new book “Supersonic: The Design and Lifestyle of Concorde “, in a telephone interview.
“They were futuristic at the time, but they definitely seem nostalgic now.
“But in one way or another, the Concorde design is still futuristic, even if it was created in the early 1960s. It is a vision of our future from our past.”
Designed by physics
In the aesthetically homogeneous world of passenger aircraft, Concorde was a breathtaking distraction. It looked different from any other plane, with triangle-shaped wings and a pointed nose like a fighter plane, both of which were beneficial for supersonic travel.
“The design of Concorde was fully informed by physics,” said Azerrad. “The end result was actually quite beautiful, but that was not the motivational intention behind the shape of the plane. So it is remarkable that, without any additional design, it ends up looking like a beautiful swan.”
The Concorde flew commercial flights for 27 years, from 1976 to 2003, and was able to travel between London and New York in less than four hours. A British and French co-production, the plane was on the shopping lists of most major airlines – including Pan Am, Continental, American Airlines, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa and Qantas – on its first flight.
A first Pan American advertisement from 1969 featuring Concorde. Credit: © Lawrence Azerrad’s collection
“Concorde was not originally intended to be this exclusive bird of the rich and famous,” said Azerrad.
“After the propeller planes and the era of the jet planes, the supersonic was only the next sensible step. All the airlines ordered supersonic planes. It was only after the political and ecological objections have made it commercially untenable that it has become an ultra-premium experience. “
Most orders were canceled after the oil crisis of 1973. Only British Airways and Air France would ever operate Concordes, with only two other airlines – Singapore Airlines and the defunct Braniff International Airways – renting them for a handful of flights.
Azerrad, a Los Angeles-based graphic designer, uses his book to present his impressive personal collection of Concorde memorabilia. Luggage tags, toys, cutlery, bottle openers, matches, coasters, vanity cases, wallets and even cognac bottles – Concorde was a brand in itself, spawning goods that always command high prices on eBay.
The last British Airways Concorde flight took off from JFK Airport on October 24, 2003. Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / Getty Images
Bringing a branded item home was part of the experience. Anything that could be removed from the plane would be taken by the passengers as a souvenir. Some of these items have been particularly sought after, such as those designed by Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design who created cabin interiors for Air France.
“He used a very avant-garde and futuristic approach for the time, to the design of seats, headrests, fabric and, probably more famous, stainless steel cutlery, that Andy Warhol would steal from famously, “said Azerrad. “There is a story where (Warhol) asked if the person sitting next to him was taking theirs, she said no and he took his set.”
A social club
The Concorde experience began in a dedicated lounge, even before passengers boarded the plane. With roughly 100 seats and ticket prices higher than first class flights elsewhere, the plane quickly established an aura of exclusivity.
“It was like a social club in the sky,” said Azerrad. “You could have Paul McCartney singing a Beatles song with the whole plane, or Phil Collins on a plane to play Live Aid in the UK and the US on the same day. And then royalty, of course: the queen, the pope, countless heads of state. “
The British Airways Concorde lounge at JFK Airport in New York in 2003. Credit: © Lawrence Azerrad’s collection
The windows were tiny, to avoid cracks in the airframe, and the narrow fuselage meant the cabin was rather small, with a single aisle and only four seats in each row.
“But since it was ostensibly a fighter plane carrying a load of 100 passengers, the size was actually quite remarkable. It all depended on the speed, so it looked a lot more like a small sports car than a sofa in the sky, “said Azerrad.
The pleasure of reaching Mach 2, about 1300 mph, was clearly indicated by the large speed and altitude indicators placed prominently 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 regular jets – 60,000 feet instead of 30,000.
The Raymond Loewy cutlery from an Air France Concorde. Credit: © Lawrence Azerrad’s collection
“At this altitude, you can see the curvature of the Earth,” said Azerrad. “You are at the edge of the troposphere, the sky is black. The weather conditions are very visible. And the perception of the world below you is much more palpable than on an ordinary plane.”
Boeing also had plans for its own supersonic aircraft, which were scrapped before the prototype stage.