Forever linked with wealth, glamour and prestige (despite both the cockpit and the seating area being surprisingly cramped), Concorde was a glorious extravagance. Possibly the most beautiful airplane the world has ever seen. Conceived and built at a time when Britain and France were speaking to one another (it's a relationship that comes and goes), the story of this supersonic jet goes back farther than one might imagine. It was November 5, 1956 when Britain formed the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee (STAC) to look at the feasibility of commercial supersonic travel and launched itself into a period of frenzied research.
In September 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle made a plea for Britain to join his country in a combined effort to build a supersonic airliner. He reasoned that neither had the necessary resources to design and build its own plane successfully. Britain soon agreed to this collaboration. Concorde first took to the French skies (complete with 10 tons of test equipment) on March 2,1969, with the first British flight shortly after, on April 9. Supersonic flight occurred for the first time in October that year. On November 4 the following year, Mach Two-twice the speed of sound: 1,540 mph-was achieved.
During September 1971, the first transatlantic crossing was made and Concorde began a grueling program of promotion all around the world so order books could be filled swiftly, which they were. America responded by making something bigger. When the Boeing 747 (the Jumbo Jet) was introduced, Concorde suddenly made no commercial sense. The 1973 oil crisis had gripped the world and a plane that could carry more passengers and use less fuel seemed the logical way to go. The 747's trump card was that it could accommodate the whims of wealthy jet-setters by sealing them off from the masses in an upstairs first-class environment. Those airlines that were so quick to get out their checkbooks suddenly cancelled their Concorde orders, leaving the Brits and the French as sole keepers of the supersonic faith. Only 20 were built.
Concorde began commercial operations in January 1976. Over the following 24 years, it gained a reputation for unimpeachable safety. Something that ended in spectacular fashion, not far from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on the afternoon of July 25, 2000. All 109 passengers and crew lost their lives (as well as four people on the ground) as the plane was engulfed in a ball of fire. It was discovered that a piece of metal had fallen from a Continental Airlines DC-10 engine and lay undetected on the runway. As Air France's Concorde was taking off, this strip of titanium ripped open one of its tires, sending a 10-pound chunk of rubber crashing through a wing-enclosed fuel tank. With two engines out, the pilots struggled to gain altitude as horrified onlookers saw a trail of flames. Flight AF4590 crashed into a small hotel near the town of Gonesse-the rest is history.
News of the tragedy made headlines around the world. Many doom-mongers proclaimed this as the end of the line for an environmentally unsound, class-dividing relic. What they failed to comprehend, though, was that Concorde was a vehicle that stirred emotions and lifted the soul. It wasn't the end, but the eventual demise was, unfortunately, not far off. As a result of the Paris crash, both British Airways and Air France were forced to ground their Concorde fleets, pending safety reviews and modifications. Both countries again ploughed huge amounts of energy and money into making the plane airworthy, designing safer tires and fuel tank liners to prevent another tragedy.
It worked. Concorde was granted its wings once more, making its commercial comeback on that most fateful of days, September 11, 2001. Consumer confidence in air travel hit an all-time low and this, coupled with rising maintenance costs, forced the Entente Cordiale's hand. In April 2003, it was announced that Concorde was to retire from service, this time for good. Examples were sent around the world to serve as museum displays. On November 26, 2007, the last Concorde to be built touched down for the final time at Filton, England-the place of its birth.