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.

London's Trafalgar Square Gets a Poetry-Writing Red Lion

Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images
Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images

London’s historic Trafalgar Square just got a fifth lion, the BBC reports. The fluorescent red, AI-powered lion takes visitor-submitted words and turns them into two-line poems, which are displayed on a screen inside its mouth. The history-inspired installation is part of the ongoing festivities for the London Design Festival, which ends Sunday.

The idea comes from set designer Es Devlin, who is participating in a yearlong collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. She was inspired by another designer who remarked that Sir Edwin Landseer, who sculptured the other lions in the square in the late 19th century, "never wanted [them] to look so passive.” Landseer apparently wanted the lions to assume a more lively stance, “but Queen Victoria found it too shocking,” Devlin says.

The story of how Trafalgar Square’s lions came to be is an odd piece of history. For one, the process was painfully slow. Landseer spent four years just working up a sketch and spent hours studying the habits of lions at the London Zoo. He even waited two years for one of the zoo’s lions to die, then carted it back to his studio and kept it there until it started to decay. He was forced to throw out the animal—and his reference material—before he finished. “Which is why, if you look closely, you can see that the lions in Trafalgar Square actually have the paws of cats, rather than lions,” The Telegraph notes.

[h/t BBC]

13 Facts About Notre-Dame Cathedral

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iStock

Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, Notre-Dame de Paris has centuries of French history built into its stone. The Gothic cathedral reflects the prominent role of Paris as an economic and spiritual center in the 12th century, and its scars from the French Revolution are reminders of its long connection with the monarchy—a connection that almost resulted in its demolition. Yet although thousands of tourists enter its doors each day to photograph its rose windows and flying buttresses, this sacred destination still has its secrets. Here are 13 lesser-known facts about Notre-Dame de Paris.

1. A PAGAN CITY LIES BELOW THE CATHEDRAL.

The Île-de-la-Cité on which Notre-Dame de Paris now stands was once a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The cathedral may have been built right over remnants of a temple: Around 1710, pieces of a sculpted altar dedicated to Jupiter and other deities were discovered during an excavation under the choir (although it remains unclear if this is evidence of an ancient temple, or if the pieces were recycled there from another location). Additional architectural ruins found in the 1960s and '70s, many dating back to this ancient era, lie in the archaeological crypt located beneath the square just in front of Notre-Dame.

2. THERE'S SOME RECYCLED ARCHITECTURE ON ITS FAÇADE.

The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame
The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame

There are three portals on the western façade of Notre-Dame, each laden with sculpted saints and sacred scenes. One doesn't seem to fit, however—the Portal Sainte-Anne has a much earlier style than the rest. Its figures, such as the central Virgin and Child, look stiffer in their poses and less natural in their features compared to the other statues. That's because this tympanum, or semi-circular area of decoration, was recycled from a previous Romanesque church. A close examination in 1969 revealed that it was not originally made for this space, and had been adapted to fit the Gothic structure.

3. THERE'S A "FOREST" IN ITS ROOF.

The cathedral contains one of the oldest surviving wood-timber frames in Paris, involving around 52 acres of trees that were cut down in the 12th century. Each beam is made from an individual tree. For this reason, the lattice of historic woodwork is nicknamed "the Forest."

4. ITS FLYING BUTTRESSES WERE GOTHIC TRENDSETTERS.

Low angle view of the East end of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral at sunset with flying buttresses
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The cathedral was one of the earliest structures built with exterior flying buttresses. They were constructed around its nave in the 12th century to lend support to the thin walls, after the need for more light in the incredibly tall church required larger windows, and thus greater supports. The exposed flying buttresses became an iconic aspect of Gothic design, and although there's some debate over whether Notre-Dame was the first church to have them, they certainly set the trend in sacred architecture.

5. TWENTY-EIGHT OF ITS KINGS LOST THEIR HEADS IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

In 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings in the cathedral were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by a mob. (King Louis XVI was guillotined earlier that year, and any iconography tied to the monarchy was under attack.) The mutilated stones were eventually tossed in a trash heap, which the Minister of the Interior dealt with by ordering the material be repurposed for construction. It wasn't until 1977 that the heads of 21 of these kings were rediscovered during work on the basement of the French Bank of Foreign Trade. Now they're at the nearby Musée de Cluny.

6. THE TOWERS ARE NOT TWINS.

The two towers of Notre-Dame
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At first glance, Notre-Dame’s two towers appear like identical twins. Closer examination reveals that the north tower is in fact a bit bigger than the south. As with all the elements of the cathedral, they were built over time, and reflect how the cathedral is more of a collage of architectural trends and leadership than the culmination of one person’s vision.

7. ITS BELLS WERE ONCE MELTED DOWN FOR ARTILLERY.

The kings weren’t the only part of Notre-Dame destroyed during the French Revolution. The cathedral, like other churches around France, was transformed in the late 18th century from a Christian space and rededicated to the new Cult of Reason. All 20 of its bells—except the colossal 1681 bourdon called Emmanuel—were removed and melted down to make cannons.

While the bells at Notre-Dame were replaced in the 19th century, the new instruments were not as finely made as the older versions, and made a more dissonant noise when clanging. Finally, in 2013, a new ensemble of bells restored the cathedral to its 17th-century sound, with the deeply resonant Emmanuel still joining in the toll on special occasions.

8. NAPOLÉON AND VICTOR HUGO SAVED IT.

When Napoléon Bonaparte decided to have his 1804 coronation as emperor in Notre-Dame, the building was in bad shape. Centuries of decay as the city developed and changed around it, as well as the vandalism of the French Revolution, had left it on the verge of demolition. For years it had been used as little more than a warehouse. So when Napoléon declared its return to church use, and hosted his grand ceremony within his walls—an event in which he famously crowned himself—it brought Notre-Dame to new prominence.

Nevertheless, the coronation didn’t fix its structural deterioration. Then author Victor Hugo used the building as a personification of France itself in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris. (The book’s name is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, yet the hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo is not the main character; the central figure is Notre-Dame.) And Hugo vividly evoked its decrepit 19th-century state:

“But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man, regardless alike of Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last. On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle one invariably finds a scar. 'Tempus edax, homo edacior,' which I would be inclined to translate: 'Time is blind, but man is senseless.'”

The book was a success, and the momentum led to a major restoration overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

9. ITS MONSTERS ARE MODERN, NOT MEDIEVAL.

Gargoyle and wide city view from the roof of Notre-Dame
iStock

Some of the most popular images of Notre-Dame are from the perspective of its gargoyles or chimera (the carved monsters that don’t act as waterspouts). Few visitors would guess that the fantastic creatures now on the cathedral weren't there until the 19th century; they were added between 1843 and 1864 during the radical restoration overseen by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

Hugo had described gargoyles extensively in Notre-Dame de Paris, and Viollet-le-Duc was reportedly inspired by this romantic vision of the past. A daguerreotype from before this overhaul shows a building more stark than the one we know today, with no beasts perched on its towers, its medieval gargoyles having long been removed. Unfortunately, many of the 19th-century gargoyles are now decaying; PVC pipes have taken the place of those that have been taken down for safety.

The gargoyles were far from the only fanciful addition by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. Among the 12 apostles he had installed around the new spire, he included himself as the face of Saint Thomas.

10. ITS SPIRE IS A SAINTLY LIGHTNING ROD.

Look way to the top of the spire and you'll spy a rooster. This is not a purely decorative bird. In 1935, three tiny relics—an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some bits of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city's patron saints)—were secured inside the metal bird’s body. The idea, the story goes, was to create a sort of spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within.

11. THE ORGAN IS THOUGHT TO BE THE LARGEST IN FRANCE.

The Notre-Dame organ involves almost 8000 pipes (some dating back to the 18th century) played with five keyboards, making it the biggest pipe organ in France (although some claim that Saint-Eustache has a larger one). While there are some slashes on the wood of the organ loft—damage from the French Revolution, when its fleur-de-lis symbols were carved off—it was restored in 2013 to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.

12. ALL ROADS LEAD TO NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS.

Point Zero marker outside Notre-Dame in Paris
Jean-Pierre Bazard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Mostly overlooked beneath the crowds of tourists milling around outside Notre-Dame is a diminutive circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star embedded in the cobblestones. It’s engraved with the words Point zéro des routes de France, and is the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France. It was placed there in 1924, although it had to be temporarily dislodged in the 1960s during the excavations for what was intended to be an underground parking garage. Those construction plans were thwarted when workers turned up architectural ruins—now kept in the archaeological crypt.

13. BEES LIVE ON ITS ROOF.

On the Notre-Dame sacristy, adjacent to the cathedral, is a small hive of bees. It was installed in 2013, with Buckfast bees—a strain developed by a monk named Brother Adam and known for its gentleness—living in its hives. Their honey is made from the flowering plants in nearby gardens, including the Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. According to The New York Times, the sweet stuff is given away to the poor.

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