Why the Concorde (And Supersonic Flight) Never Took Off

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Getty Images

It had been an ambition of British and French aviation experts since the mid-1950s: What if they could design and build a commercial aircraft that could travel at up to twice the speed of sound, ferrying passengers from one corner of the world to another in less than half the time of conventional jets? Was there enough money, know-how, and government interest to facilitate such a project? And if there was, would it ever get off the ground?

The answer came on November 4, 1970, when test pilot Andre Turcat flew the plane—dubbed the Concorde—over the Atlantic and achieved speeds of 1320 miles per hour. British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and France’s Sud-Aviation, the two companies investing heavily in the technology, were convinced passengers from all over the world would soon be streaking through the skies and making record times during air commutes. Turcat might be the passenger plane’s equivalent of Neil Armstrong, guiding mankind into an unlikely new frontier in the stratosphere.

The Concorde would eventually become a commercial plane, holding up to 100 passengers at a time and moving so quickly that people departing London’s Heathrow Airport at 9 a.m. would arrive in New York City at 7 a.m. But instead of being the next evolution of air travel, the model would become an untenable nuisance, crippled by complaints from environmentalists and burdened by seemingly incalculable expenses. By 2003, all 14 operating planes would be permanently grounded—long doomed, naysayers said, before they ever got off the ground.

The Concorde is parked
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The excitement over supersonic air travel had its roots in the 1950s, when the British aircraft industry came to a sobering conclusion about the burgeoning airline business. Having been relegated to manufacturing cargo and combat planes during World War II, the UK had no firm footing when the war’s end brought about a surging interest in air travel. It was the United States that had been experimenting with passenger planes, and it was the U.S. that had the market on subsonic travel cornered.

Rather than try to compete, British and French engineers decided to create an entirely new category. Fighter planes that had recently broken the sound barrier provided hope that passenger models could do the same. In creating the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee, or STAC, the British imagined a future where they could sell 150 to 500 supersonic planes to airlines by the 1970s.

As space exploration had already proven, that kind of ambition came with a hefty price tag. STAC was able to successfully interest France enough to enter a partnership to develop the planes in 1960, with the first prototype ready in 1968. In between, the cost to develop and refine the project reached a reported $2.3 billion (although some economists declared it might have been three times as much).

Throughout that period, the Concorde suffered from wavering support from both governments. In 1964, Prime Minister Harold Wilson nearly ceased development before being threatened with a lawsuit by supporter Charles de Gaulle. Supporters believed the U.S.’s flourishing air travel industry would demand Concordes in their fleet in order to not be left behind.

Instead, the Concorde was met with outright opposition. After the first passenger flight was completed from London to Bahrain in January 1976, the U.S. allowed for a 16-month trial at Washington’s Dulles Airport, but New York City's JFK Airport begged off entirely. (They relented in 1977.) The hesitancy stemmed from concerns over both noise pollution and environmental consequences. Producing a sonic boom at airports near residential areas annoyed residents; the 100 tons of fuel burned from New York to London was thought to exhaust dangerous emissions that could threaten the ozone layer. Some incoming flights were met with protestors with signs reading “Ban the Boom.” Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh spoke out against supersonic travel, citing these hypothetical dangers. Meanwhile, major airlines like TWA and Pan Am turned away, believing the cost-to-profit ratio would never be worth the effort. Only Air France and British Airways wound up buying the plane, purchasing seven each.

What kept the Concorde aloft despite operating at a loss for the first six years was business travelers. Often in higher income brackets and charging company accounts, they were willing to pay steep ticket prices (a round-trip ticket could cost more than $5000 in the 1980s, $1200 more than a subsonic flight) in order to cut their commuting time in half or more. A meeting in Tokyo for people departing from San Francisco could be scheduled six hours from take-off; getting to Australia from Los Angeles took just seven hours. A standard 737 traveled at 485 miles per hour; the Concorde eventually crept up to 1495 miles per hour, close to the speed of a bullet.

Strangely, the Concorde didn’t indulge these customers with an abundance of luxury. Cabins on the model were said to be cramped, with hand-sized windows and uncomfortable seats. Engineers had built the plane to travel at incredible speed and worried about how to accommodate passengers later, not the other way around. The craft took off at a steep incline, and travelers felt like they were in a rocketing dental chair.

By the 1980s, it was becoming clear that business would never climb to heights that could possibly underwrite the massive expenditure of both governments. While the Concorde began showing a profit, it was due in some part to political sleight of hand: British government employees were required to fly at supersonic speeds, underwriting their own investment.

Passengers inside the Concorde circa the 1970s
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Despite being called a failure as early as 1986, the Concorde’s 14-plane fleet hung on until 2000. That year, a Concorde crash that killed 113 passengers led to all of the planes being grounded for a year until the cause was determined. (It was eventually determined that an errant piece of metal punctured the fuel tank, and ignited a fire.) Once flights resumed, the pall cast by 9/11 over the entire airline industry proved to be a crippling blow. The Concorde was retired permanently in 2003. Many of the aircraft ended up in museums.

For the most part, consumers invite technological advances, and it’s bizarre to think the airline industry failed to capitalize on a plane that could cut travel times in half. But the consumer has to sense a perceived benefit, and it didn’t seem as though enough travelers considered the additional cost to be worth the time saved.

Currently, companies like the Denver-based Boom are experimenting with supersonic planes that can be built more affordably with reduced noise levels; Boom expects their model to be airborne in 2018, with commercial service opening up by 2023. Whether it can improve on the Concorde’s track record remains to be seen. Despite radical innovations across the spectrum of technology, supersonic flight couldn't be moving slower.

7 Ships That Disappeared Without a Trace

iStock/stock_colors
iStock/stock_colors

There’s something ghoulishly fascinating about a mysterious disappearance, and our vast oceans offer seemingly endless space in which to vanish. The true fate of many of these ships will never be known, but speculation suggests that storms, piracy, mutiny, accidental bombing, and even the attack of a giant squid could be responsible for their vanishings. Below are seven ships that have disappeared without leaving a trace.

1. The Patriot // The disappearance of Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia Burr Alston (1783–1813) was the daughter of American politician and third vice president of the United States Aaron Burr. Theodosia had a privileged upbringing and a good education, and in 1801 she married wealthy landowner Joseph Alston, who went on to become governor of South Carolina. Sadly, in 1812, Theodosia lost her only son to a fever and she became sick with grief. Desperate for a change of scene, on New Year’s Eve 1812 she boarded the schooner Patriot in South Carolina to visit her father in New York. It is known that the ship left dock and sailed north, but what happened after that is a mystery. It never arrived in New York, and no trace of the ship or crew was ever found. A number of theories and legends have sprung up around the fate of Theodosia—some claim the ship was attacked by pirates and that she was forced to walk the plank, while others suggest that the Patriot got caught up in the War of 1812 and was sunk accidentally by an enemy ship. Perhaps most fanciful of all is the story put forward by a Karankawa Indian chief, who claimed that he rescued a woman who had washed up on shore after a shipwreck, and that before she died she gifted him her locket—with the name Theodosia inscribed upon it. Whatever the story, it is likely that after more than 200 years we shall never know the real fate of the Patriot and Theodosia Burr Alston.

2. The Merchant Royal // One of the richest shipwrecks never found

The Merchant Royal was tasked with taking treasures from the New World to Spain under the command of one Captain John Limbrey. In 1641 the ship was loaded with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver and a huge amount of precious jewels. As the ship entered the English waters, the weather turned bad, but unfortunately the pumps on board the ship broke and it began to take on water. Its sister ship, the Dover Merchant, with whom it had been sailing in tandem, came to the rescue of the captain and crew but were unable to take any of the cargo. The ship disappeared beneath the waves, somewhere off the coast of Land’s End.

Of course, with such valuable cargo, countless people have attempted to find the wreck, which has become known as the “Eldorado of the seas.” In 2007, it was thought that Odyssey Marine Exploration may have found the wreck after it salvaged 500,000 pieces of gold and silver from a site off the southwestern tip of Great Britain. This was later identified as treasure from a Spanish vessel—meaning that the unimagined riches of the Merchant Royal still await discovery.

3. USS Cyclops // Victim of the Bermuda Triangle?

The USS Cyclops was a huge steel-hulled fuel ship, tasked with carrying coal and other useful supplies for the U.S. Navy in the 1910s. On her final journey, the Cyclops set sail from Rio de Janeiro, with a full load of 10,800 tons of manganese ore and over 300 people on board. On March 4, 1918 the ship was spotted for the last time as it left Barbados and sailed into what we now sometimes call the Bermuda Triangle. The ship seemingly disappeared without a trace, and the case has been seen as especially mysterious since no distress call was made and no bad weather was reported in the region. Theories began to surface (some more imaginative than others) that the ship had been sunk by the Germans, attacked by a giant squid or octopus, or been victim of a violent mutiny. A huge search for the Cyclops was launched with a number of boats and planes scouring the area for debris or survivors, but nothing of the enormous ship was ever seen again.

4. The Witchcraft // The “unsinkable” luxury yacht

On December 22, 1967, experienced yachtsman Dan Burack and his friend, Father Patrick Horgan, set sail in the 23-foot luxury yacht Witchcraft to see the holiday lights off the coast of Miami. Unfortunately after just one mile the pair experienced difficulty when it seemed as if the yacht had hit something. Burack calmly called the Miami Coast Guard to report the trouble and request assistance. The official who took the call later commented that Burack seemed unconcerned—perhaps because the yacht was fitted with a special flotation device that was supposed to make the vessel unsinkable. The Coast Guard arrived at the scene just 19 minutes after the call, and were surprised to find no trace of the large yacht, no debris, and no sign of Burack or Horgan. Over the next six days, hundreds of square miles of ocean were searched, but nothing was ever found, and the Witchcraft has been chalked up as another vessel mysteriously lost to the Bermuda Triangle.

5. Andrea Gail // Lost in the “perfect storm”

The Andrea Gail was a 72-foot-long-liner boat that fished in the North Atlantic for swordfish. In September 1991 the ship, along with several other fishing vessels, set sail from Gloucester, Massachusetts for the last fishing session of the season. By October, the Andrea Gail and its six-man crew was out off the coast of Newfoundland when the confluence of terrible weather fronts conspired to create what has been dubbed “the perfect storm.” The massively powerful winds were whipping waves as high as 100 feet, and any ship caught in their path faced being sucked into the wave and flipped over repeatedly. The devastating storm battered the coast of New England and Canada, and after the worst of it had passed and the Andrea Gail had failed to return to port, a number of rescue missions set out to find the ship—but nothing was ever found. The story of the storm and the imagined fate of the Andrea Gail and her crew was later told in the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, as well as a Hollywood movie of the same name.

6. The USS Porpoise // Caught in a typhoon

USS Porpoise was a brig involved in 19th century exploration and surveying missions, taking part in a voyage in 1838 that confirmed the existence of Antarctica and later circumnavigating the globe. In 1854 the ship set sail from Hong Kong carrying 69 men in order to carry out a survey of the South Sea Islands. Somewhere between China and Taiwan, the ship sailed into dense fog and was separated from its partner ship, the USS Vincennes, and never seen again. Many ships searched for the ill-fated brig for over a year, but no sign was ever found, and it's thought to have been wrecked in a typhoon with all hands lost.

7. HMS Sappho // Presumed Wrecked Off Australian Coast

Over the course of a 20-year career, the British Navy ship HMS Sappho worked to suppress the slave trade off the coast of West Africa, intercepting a number of ships loaded with slaves and freeing hundreds of people. In 1857, after wrongly chasing down and boarding an American ship—an event that caused something of a diplomatic crisis between America and Great Britain—the ship was ordered to set sail to Australia. The Sappho reached Cape Town without incident, and from there headed toward the Bass Strait, where it was last spotted by a passing brig on February 18, 1878. Bad weather was reported in the area, and it has been assumed that high winds caused the ship to founder and sink. No sign of the 147 crewmembers was ever found, but rumors abounded that the captain, Fairfax Moresby, had somehow escaped the wreck and made it to an island off Australia, where he was said to have lost his mind.

Bonus: Baychimo // Arctic ghost ship

The SS Baychimo somewhere in Canada
The SS Baychimo somewhere in Canada
Mysterious Disappearances, Wikimedia // Public Domain

The SS Baychimo started life as a German trading vessel before being given to Great Britain after World War I as part of reparations. The Baychimo came under the ownership of the Hudson Bay Company, and made many voyages across the Atlantic from Scotland to Canada to trade with local Inuit tribes. In 1931, while journeying to Vancouver with a cargo of furs, the Baychimo fell victim to an early winter, as ice floes surrounded the ship and locked it in an icy embrace. The crew escaped the stricken vessel and fled across the ice floes to safety, but some returned a few days later to try to rescue the ship and its valuable cargo.

After over a month of braving the treacherous weather in a flimsy camp, a huge blizzard hit and the remaining crew lost sight of the ship. Once the storm had cleared, the watching crew were surprised to find the Baychimo had disappeared. They assumed it had sunk without trace. A week later the ship was spotted by an Inuit hunter and the crew raced back on board to gather as much of the cargo as possible. The captain decided the ship was too badly damaged to be seaworthy and so abandoned it, thinking it would soon break apart. How wrong he was. Over the years, the Baychimo was sighted a number of times, sometimes caught fast in ice, other times floating ghost-like through the Arctic waters. The last confirmed sighting was in 1969—an astonishing 37 years after it had been abandoned to its fate.

This list was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

The Time the Soviets Gave the U.S. a Hidden Spy Device—And It Took Seven Years to Discover It

A replica of the Great Seal bug at the National Cryptologic Museum
A replica of the Great Seal bug at the National Cryptologic Museum
Daderot, Wikimedia // CC0 1.0

In the summer of 1945, at the tail end of World War II, a group of Russian schoolchildren arrived at the residence of the United States ambassador in Moscow—and they came bearing a gift. The Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization 1, a kind of Soviet version of the Boy Scouts, presented a large carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States to U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman, calling it a gesture of friendship to their wartime allies, the United States.

Harriman hung the wooden plaque in his study at the Spaso House, which served as his residence. But what he didn't know was that the plaque contained a cutting-edge listening device, used by the Soviets to eavesdrop on his conversations whenever they wanted. The plaque hung undetected in the ambassador’s study until 1952—a staggering seven years. It would come to be known colloquially as "The Thing."

The Walls Have Ears

A black-and-white photo of Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin in 1927
Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin in 1927
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The device was the brainchild of the Russian inventor Léon Theremin. In the U.S., Theremin is best known for his eponymous musical instrument, the theremin, which he invented while working for the Soviet military in 1920. But almost two decades after creating the instrument, Theremin found himself in a Siberian gulag. Once in the prison system, he was conscripted to create high-tech radio listening devices in a secret laboratory.

With his second-greatest creation, The Thing, Theremin nearly upstaged himself. Unbeknownst to casual viewers, the wooden Great Seal of the United States he created was like a sandwich cookie, with a tiny capacitive membrane connected to a small quarter-wavelength antenna—which together acted as a microphone—standing in for the cream filling. Theremin's hidden bug wasn't connected to a battery or power supply; the device only worked when a radio signal of the correct frequency was sent to the device from an external transmitter. This signal came via a van parked nearby that could broadcast a strong radio signal, activating the Thing and allowing the Soviets to eavesdrop, via a radio receiver, on unwittingly broadcasted conversations from within the Spaso House study.

Suspicious Voices

Exterior of Spaso House, residence of U.S. Ambassador in Moscow
Exterior of Spaso House, the residence of U.S. Ambassador in Moscow
U.S. Embassy Moscow, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It was the British who first noticed something was amiss. In 1951, a British radio operator was monitoring Soviet air force radio traffic, in their own bit of espionage, when he recognized the voice of the British Air Attaché. It's not exactly clear what happened next, but the following year, an American listening to military radio traffic picked up a conversation featuring American-accented voices that clearly seemed to come from the Spaso House. A few bug-searching sweeps of the embassy, coordinated with the move-in of incoming U.S. ambassador George F. Kennan in May 1952, turned up nothing. But on September 12, 1952, with suspicions still raised, the State Department's security technicians Joseph "the Rug Merchant" Bezjian and John Ford conducted another search for good measure, knowing that the Soviets sometimes removed bugs and later replanted them.

At Bezjian's directive, Kennan sat at his desk and dictated an important-sounding message to his secretary while Bezjian searched the room with his radio instruments. When he switched on his receiver, he picked up a signal almost immediately. Something was broadcasting Kennan's voice from down in the study, and it was something very close by. Minutes later, the team found just what they were looking for—hanging right on the wall.

That night, Bezjian slept with the device under his pillow so that it couldn't be stolen back by the Soviets. It was shipped to Washington, D.C., the next day to be studied.

Kennan published his memoirs of the period in 1967. In the book, he wrote chillingly about the moment he realized that the Soviets had a microphone in his own private study: "It is difficult to make plausible the weirdness of the atmosphere in that room, while this strange scene was in progress … At this particular moment, one was acutely conscious of the unseen presence in the room of a third person: our attentive monitor. It seemed that one could almost hear his breathing. All were aware that a strange and sinister drama was in progress."

Turnabout Is Fair Play

The U.S. didn't initially confront the Soviets about their discovery, and the device was kept secret from the media for several years. But the word got out in 1960: On May 1 of that year, the Soviets shot down an American U2 spy plane and then called a meeting with the United Nations Security Council, calling the U.S.'s espionage an act of aggression. The Thing was subsequently trotted out to prove that spying went both ways between the countries—and had for years.

By then, however, the device was well-known to British and American espionage agencies. After examining the bug's technology, the Brits were able to improve upon it and develop a listening device codenamed SATYR, which was utilized by the British, American, Canadian, and Australian militaries throughout the '50s.

It's not entirely certain where the Thing is located today. It was handed over to the FBI for analysis soon after its discovery, and at some point its membrane was damaged and had to be replaced. It was then sent to the National Security Agency, but it's not clear what happened after that. (The NSA likes their secrets.) However, there's a very faithful copy on display at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, along with a detailed exhibit showing exactly how Theremin and his lab built the device.

Unlike the original, handling the replica is encouraged; visitors can open up the wooden cabinet to view the recreated microphone and the resonant cavity inside. It's a way to engage with a particularly bizarre chapter in U.S.-Soviet relations—a time when even though the nations pretended to be friends, it was wise to beware schoolchildren bearing gifts.

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