Concorde's first flight was 45 years ago: what have we learnt from that journey?

Even though supersonic intercontinental travel seems a little far fetched at the moment

When the Hope probe sent back its first image from space earlier this week, it didn't just deliver a jaw-dropping close-up view of Mars, it provided a reminder that the UAE and the Gulf countries in general, have long reached for the skies.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of another such occasion, when Bahrain became one of two destination points across the world for scheduled supersonic passenger flights, although the anniversary of Concorde’s first flight slipped by almost unnoticed late last month.

Given the complexities of the coronavirus pandemic and the world today, that's hardly surprising. The idea of supersonic intercontinental travel seems a little far fetched at the moment, especially so when even the King Fahd Causeway, Bahrain's road link to Saudi Arabia, will remain closed to private vehicles until May, mirroring a global picture of border closures and movement restrictions.

It was on January 21, 1976, that Concorde, the supersonic jet, entered service with simultaneous flights taking off from Paris and London. An Air France plane set off from Charles de Gaulle for Dakar, and then onwards to Rio de Janeiro. A British Airways Concorde, meanwhile, took off from London Heathrow headed for Manama.

BA5J4W King Fahd Causeway linking Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in Persian Gulf view towards Bahrain from approx "mid point" services area

The flight to Dakar took less than three hours, while the trip to the Gulf was completed in not much more than three and half hours, according to Heritage Concorde, one of the online resources intent on preserving the history of one of the most recognisable passenger planes in aviation history.

The Anglo-French consortium that brought the plane to life had, by then, conducted a years-long sales pitch to the Gulf countries in an unsuccessful effort to drum up sales for the project.

Documents held by the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive, which has collated online hundreds of communications to and from the UK's foreign office, show that a demonstration warm weather flight took off from Bahrain in August 1974 with several Bahraini officials on board.

A memo notes the 78-minute flight routed over the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, reached an altitude of 57,000 feet and a maximum speed of more than twice the speed of sound, or mach 2.06 (2,500kph).

Quote
Ultimately though, the lesson from the Concorde years is a tough one

While the numbers were impressive, the hopes of turning polite expressions of interest into firm orders were undone by a variety of factors, as this newspaper has previously documented, and Concorde's sales trajectory never took off, either in the Gulf countries or elsewhere. Only 16 production Concordes ever entered service, and most would eventually be deployed on the transatlantic route when US authorities finally granted permission for Concorde to fly there.

Heritage Concorde notes the London-Bahrain service operated for just shy of five years. ending in November 1980. Tickets cost 356 GBP, which amounts to 2318 GBP (Dh11,840) in today's money. The idea of an eastwards Concorde route, imagined as a London to Bahrain, then Singapore and Sydney, would never properly come to fruition.

Concorde’s period of service ended in 2003, curtailed by the twin disasters of the loss of Air France Flight 4590 in July 2000 and, the following year, by the September 11 attacks in the US.

The Air France accident, which claimed more than 100 lives, resulted in the plane being grounded while significant safety modifications were made. British Airways began a return-to-service programme on the same day of the attacks in the US, but the sudden damping in demand for global travel in the aftermath of 9/11 led to the plane being retired in late 2003. Several examples are still on display in the UK and elsewhere and most will still look on in awe and appreciation at its futuristic shape.

Viewed from the distance of 45 years after that first Bahrain flight, Concorde left behind a curious legacy. It was adored by passengers, rejected by many airlines and eventually fell victim to catastrophe and circumstance.

Cynics might say major Anglo-French engineering works have a history of not quite working out the way they were intended: the Channel Tunnel, a project of similar transformational ambition, ended up being delivered late, massively over-budget and, like Concorde, passenger numbers have never come close to matching the rosy forecasts that were made in the development years, even if most travellers have appreciated its convenience and efficiency.

Etihad Airways Airbus A380 with registration A6-APG landing in London Heathrow International Airport in England during a nice day. Etihad or EY is based at Abu Dhabi International Airport in United Arab Emirates and is the flag carrier of UAE. The airline connects daily Abu Dhabi Airport AUH / OMAA to London Heathrow LHR / EGLL. Airbus A380-800 double decker airplane is currently the largest airplane in the world. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In modern day aviation, the equally distinctive and much loved Airbus A380 ceased production last September. The final Boeing 747, another instantly recognisable commercial plane, is due to roll off production lines next year, but airlines have been busy putting the remaining members of their fleet out to pasture for a good few months.

In the case of the 747, age caught up with it well before changing fashion. The story is a little different for the A380. Like Concorde, it is adored by those who use it and many passengers will feel a pang of regret that it may become a diminishing force in the skies over the next few years.

There are plans to pick up from where Concorde left off. US manufacturer Aerion promises a supersonic business jet by 2027. Boom Supersonic, also based in America, says it will deliver its Overture project a year earlier than that and Virgin Galactic Holdings has partnered with Rolls-Royce Holdings, which created Concorde's engines, on another supersonic joint venture.

Ultimately though, the lesson from the Concorde years is a tough one. Sometimes, not even faster, higher, stronger is enough to win over the world and dominate the skies.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Nick March

Nick March

Nick is one of The National’s assistant editors-in-chief. He was previously Comment Editor and editor of The Review section, the paper’s weekly politics and culture supplement. He has been on staff since 2008 and is a regular columnist. He is also the author of a book chronicling the history of one of Abu Dhabi’s older schools.