Failed Promise

Illustration by John Ueland

As airline accidents go, the dramatic July 25 flameout of an Air France Aerospatiale BAe Concorde 101 wasn’t all that bad. Really. The death tally of 114 (109 onboard, five on the ground) doesn’t even rank the crash among the Top 100 air disasters of all time. In fact, it’s not even the worst accident so far this year. Or the second-worst.

Now, any plane crash that takes human lives by the bakers’ dozens is horrifying. But this is the price we’ve agreed to pay in our social contract with the technology of expedient travel — i.e., runaway tragedy inflation. Yet if the number of fatalities in the Concorde crash was not startling, the reaction to the accident was. In the European press in particular, you’d think it was the JFK assassination. The French newspaper Le Figaro declared a “day of mourning” — for the airplane itself. London Times columnist Rachel Campbell-.Johnston wrote that the Concorde crash “shook the certainties under our feet . . . nothing will ever be quite the same again.” She went on to call the Concorde crash society’s loss of “an icon,” comparable to the death of Princess Diana.

The reason for all this superwailing? The Concorde was one of the most visible artifacts left over from an era of unprecedented technological optimism — the JFK era, as a matter of fact (though he was long gone by the time the Concorde got off the ground). Its crash symbolized the death of that particular brand of idealism — the end of possibility.

Those rarefied days have receded so deeply into the fog of history that anyone under 30 can be forgiven for not even knowing what the Concorde is: the only commercial supersonic airliner. Ever. Until July 25, when was the last time anyone so much as mentioned supersonic transport? But through the late ’60s and early ’70s, SST was all over the place.

The Concorde screams through the air at 1,336 mph (about twice the speed of sound), 55,000 feet high, an altitude more than 10 miles up in the sky (most commercial jets fly at around 35,000 feet). At this height, above all weather, the sky appears “to be that deep blue reported by the Apollo astronauts on their way to the moon.” At least, according to Baltimore Sun columnist Julius Westheimer, who took the 1976 maiden flight of the Concorde from Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris (the same airport where the Concorde crashed 24 years later) to Washington, D.C. He recalled his experience in a piece published after the recent accident. I have to quote his article because I have never flown the Concorde. A single London–New York roundtrip fare will set you back more than $10,000.

That, in fact, was one of the reasons supersonic travel faded from public consciousness. Once a hope for all mankind, it became, in short order, a perk of the ultrawealthy.

The Concorde flies from London to New York in three hours and 50 minutes. With the time-zone shift, the plane touches down about an hour before it takes off. By any account, the supersonic jet is one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements. When it was conceived, it was supposed to do something more than allow transatlantic businessmen a few extra hours to cut deals.

The Concorde arose in the era of 2001: A Space Odyssey and, for that matter, The Jetsons. Moon landings, space stations, nuclear power — they all promised to free humans from the workaday world to pursue higher callings. And if we ruined the planet’s environment in the process — no problem. We’d just move off-world to a space colony. This cheery vision of a technological utopia seems harmlessly charming, if rather silly, today, but it was widespread through the early ’60s and the decade after.

Against this backdrop, the French-British Concorde project looked to be the Next Big Thing. By New Year’s of 1967, 15 airlines had placed orders for 70 transports. But that was nothing compared to the projected American SST program. Reportedly, 26 airlines in 14 different countries had placed 114 orders for the Boeing or Lockheed version of a supersonic passenger jet. While the Concorde was supposed to carry 136 passengers (it ended up seating just 100), the projected Lockheed 2000 would carry 300 passengers at 1,800 mph. The Boeing 2707 was supposed to hold 350 and zoom along at the same speed, more than 400 mph faster than the poky Concorde. Manufacturers were projecting that about 900 supersonic planes would be crisscrossing skies by 1985.

But the Concorde didn’t debut until 1976. By that time, the Apollo moon-landing program — the most tangible, compelling symbol of technology’s promise — was long dead, a victim of recession- driven budget cuts, and the endless energy crisis made the previous decade’s fixation on “progress” seem obtuse. Only 20 Concordes were constructed, none of them since 1980. Twelve remain in use. Only two airlines adopted the plane, the same two that fly the Concorde today: Air France (which suffered July’s crash), with five transports, and British Airways, with seven.

The only other country to build and fly a supersonic jet was the Soviet Union, whose TU-144 became known in the West as the “Konkordski.” It was a Cold War thing — the SST Gap. The TU-144, unfortunately, disintegrated in midair at the 1973 Paris Air Show. Score one for the Free World.

(Years later, it came out that the French had sent a Mirage fighter into the air over the TU-144’s flight path without telling the Soviet pilot. Imagine his surprise when, during his ascent, he spotted an airplane right over his head. He took drastic evasive action, placing too much stress on the aircraft, which forced it to break apart. The Free World cheated. Shocking, no?)

As for the American SST project, the steep rise in fuel prices killed it before it ever got off the ground. Environmental problems, particularly sonic booms — the thunderclaps that result when speeding objects bust the sound barrier — were a deal killer. The Concorde doesn’t fly land routes.

Until July 25, the Concorde had never crashed. In reality, the accident had no more significance than any other plane crash. But it appeared to place a gory exclamation point on the end of an era. The irony is, that era never really came to pass. The only reason the crash seemed like “the death of an icon” is that the thing the icon represents, supersonic transport, had proved already to be a complete flop.

Most Concordes in the air today are projected for decommission by 2007. The entire British Airways fleet has cracks in the wings; one plane had to be grounded when the cracks were found to be expanding. After the July 25 crash, Air France temporarily grounded its five remaining Concordes. The Japanese have developed a new “hypersonic” engine, which theoretically could propel a plane at not two but five times the speed of sound, nearly 4,000 mph, closing the New York–to–Tokyo gap in about three hours. But are there plans to build such an aircraft? No. And no other supersonic-transport projects are under way anywhere in the world.

The Concorde flies so few flights compared to other commercial aircraft — only about 80,000 takeoffs in its entire 24-year career — that its safety record can’t be judged accurately. A million takeoffs is usually considered the point where safety stats begin to mean something. If the Concorde and supersonic travel had been the ubiquitous marvels that their early supporters envisioned, there would have been, in all probability, several crashes by now.

That’s the paradox not only of the Concorde, but of all technology. The better it succeeds, the more often it is used; the more it is used, the more often it fails. The faster and farther we speed into the future, the more violently we collide with our limitations. The lesson to take away from the Concorde crash is not that our future dreams are dead, but that we must accommodate the precarious balance between the possibility of progress and the likelihood of disaster.