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Revisiting the luxury and glamor of Concorde


In March 1969, just months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the Concorde made its maiden flight. The supersonic plane embodied a vision of the future as daring as that of Apollo 11 – but much more beautiful.

No aircraft has captured the public imagination as much as the Concorde, even though only 20 have been built and they have only been flown by two airlines. Today, almost 50 years later, it is still one of mankind’s most remarkable engineering achievements and a truly timeless piece of design.

“Many of the designs inspired by the dream and optimism of the jet era retain an air of the era they were born in,” said Lawrence Azerrad, author of the new book “Supersonic: The Design and Lifestyle”. of Concorde ”in a telephone interview.

“They were futuristic back then, but they definitely look nostalgic now.

“But one way or another, Concorde’s design still remains futuristic, even though it was created in the very early 1960s. It’s a vision of our future from our past.”

Designed by physics

In the aesthetically cohesive world of passenger planes, Concorde was a jaw-dropping distraction. It looked different from any other plane, with triangle-shaped wings and a pointed nose like a fighter jet, both of which were advantageous for supersonic travel.

“The design of the Concorde was based entirely on physics,” Azerrad said. “The end result was actually quite beautiful, but that was not the motivating intention behind the shape of the plane. So it is remarkable that, without any additional design frills, it ended up looking like a magnificent swan. . “

Concorde flew commercially for 27 years, from 1976 to 2003, and could 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, when it first flew.

A first Pan Am advertisement from 1969 featuring Concorde. Credit: © the collection of Laurent Azerrad

“Concorde was not originally intended to be this exclusive bird of the rich and famous,” Azerrad said.

“After propeller planes and the era of jets, supersonic was just the next sensible step. All airlines had orders for supersonic planes. Only once political objections were made. and eco-friendly have made it commercially untenable to become an ultra-premium experience. “

Most orders were canceled after the oil crisis of 1973. Only British Airways and Air France would operate Concordes, with only two other airlines – Singapore Airlines and the now defunct Braniff International Airways – hiring them for a handful of flights.

The final disappearance of the airliner began on July 25, 2000, when an Air France Concorde departing from Paris caught fire on take-off from debris on the runway and crashed shortly after, killing 113 people. Although a rare incident in a history of near flawless service, the crash forced British Airways and Air France to bring the fleet to a standstill and spend millions on safety improvements.
Service finally resumed in November 2001, although the Concorde did not survive the impact of September 11 on the airline industry or rising operating costs, which made the planes unprofitable. The last flight landed at Heathrow Airport on October 24, 2003.

Prized commodity

Azerrad, a Los Angeles-based graphic designer, uses his book to showcase his impressive personal collection of Concorde memorabilia. Luggage tags, toys, cutlery, bottle openers, matches, coasters, toiletry bags, wallets, and even cognac bottles – Concorde was a brand in itself, spawning merchandise that still sells for high prices on eBay.

Revisiting the luxury and glamor of Concorde

British Airways’ last Concorde flight took off from JFK Airport on October 24, 2003. Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / Getty Images

Taking a branded item home was part of the experience. Anything that could be taken off the plane would be taken away by the passengers as a souvenir. Some of these objects were 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, right down to the design of the seats, headrests, fabric and, probably more famous, stainless steel cutlery, which Andy Warhol allegedly stole. “said Azerrad. “There is a story where (Warhol) asked if the person sitting next to him took 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 barely a hundred seats and higher ticket prices than first-class flights elsewhere, the aircraft quickly established an aura of exclusivity.

“It was kind of like a social club in the sky,” Azerrad said. “You could have Paul McCartney leading a Beatles song with the whole plane, or Phil Collins flying out to play Live Aid in the UK and US on the same day. And then royalty, of course: the queen, the pope, countless heads of state.

Revisiting the luxury and glamor of Concorde

British Airways Concorde Room at JFK New York Airport in 2003. Credit: © the collection of Laurent Azerrad

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 apparently a fighter plane carrying a load of 100 passengers, the size was actually quite remarkable. It all really depended on the speed, so it looked a lot more like a small sports car than it did. a sofa in the sky, ”Azerrad said.

The thrill of reaching Mach 2, or around 1,300 mph, was clearly indicated by the large speed and altitude gauges prominently placed on the bulkhead (there were no headrest screens or control systems. entertainment). But even more tangible was the experience of flying at a higher altitude than regular jets – 60,000 feet instead of 30,000.

Revisiting the luxury and glamor of Concorde

Raymond Loewy cutlery from an Air France Concorde. Credit: © the collection of Laurent Azerrad

“At this altitude, you can see the curvature of the Earth,” Azerrad said. “You are at the edge of the troposphere, the sky is dark. The weather conditions are very visible. And the perception of the world below you is much more palpable than in an ordinary plane.”

The Concorde was not the only supersonic airliner to ever fly. The Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-144 – which looked remarkably similar but “lacked the elegance and grace of Concorde,” according to Azerrad – had a brief commercial stint in the late 1970s.

Boeing also had plans for its own supersonic aircraft, which were scrapped before the prototype stage.

Now, several plans are underway to bring back supersonic travel, some of which promise to come to fruition as early as the mid-2020s. But before they even take off, they’ll have to deal with inevitable comparisons to the beautiful swan that started it all. .
Supersonic: the Concorde’s design and lifestyle, “edited by Prestel, is available now.

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