Why the Concorde (And Supersonic Flight) Never Took Off

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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.

8 Giant Historical Objects That Have Crossed the World

The giant sphinx at the Penn Museum
The giant sphinx at the Penn Museum
Peter Miller, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite the incredible labor that goes into their relocation, a number of colossal artifacts have made very long trips after being purchased—or, occasionally, stolen. Here are a few journeys of such enormous objects, from a whole 19th-century bridge to the ancient god of a lost city.

1. AN EGYPTIAN SPHINX

In October 1913, a nearly 15-ton, 3000-year-old sphinx arrived with great fanfare in Philadelphia. From Memphis, Egypt, it had traveled up the Suez Canal, then boarded a German freighter, packed alongside goat skins that were destined for a local leather tannery. Once docked in the United States, a crane hoisted the red granite statue onto a train car. Finally, with the help of an iron-wheeled truck, 10 horses, and 50 workers, it was installed outside the Penn Museum. It was moved inside the galleries in 1926, and it's guarded the collections ever since (although it's currently off-view for conservation work).

2. A STATUE OF JUNO

For a nearly 13-foot-tall, 13,000-pound Roman goddess, Juno has gotten around. With a head sculpted in the 1st or 2nd century CE and a body made a century or two later, the statue's first recorded whereabouts are in the gardens of Rome's Villa Ludovisi. She was sold to Americans Charles and Mary Sprague in 1897, then transported in 1904 to their home in Brookline, Massachusetts. There the marble woman, decked out in flowing robes and with a diadem on her giant head, presided over the driveway of their Brandegee Estate. It reportedly took 12 oxen to haul her into place.

After a century in the open air, Juno was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2011. Getting the statue inside the museum required lifting it by crane and lowering it 80 feet through a skylight. Unfortunately, all those years of exposure in the outdoors had deteriorated her porous marble, with cracks and vandalism further marring the stone, so extensive conservation was carried out right in the gallery (including a nose and lip replacement). Now she’s standing proudly on a steel-reinforced pedestal as the largest classical marble statue in an American museum.

3. LONDON BRIDGE

Robert McCaulloch standing in front of London Bridge as it is dismantled in 1968
Robert McCaulloch standing in front of London Bridge as it is dismantled in 1968.
Jim Gray/Keystone/Getty Images

Block by block, this 19th-century bridge was relocated to a brand new 20th-century American development. Industrialist Robert P. McCulloch bought the 1830s London Bridge from the Corporation of London on April 18, 1968 for close to $2.5 million. The arch bridge—a project of Scottish civil engineer John Rennie completed by his sons, John Rennie the Younger and George—had spanned the River Thames, but was unable to support modern traffic and needed to be replaced. McCulloch had its carefully numbered granite blocks reconstructed over a reinforced concrete structure in Lake Havasu City, a planned community he established in the Arizona desert. (He thought the historic structure would drive tourism and encourage home buyers to invest.) It opened in 1971, connecting a Colorado River island with Lake Havasu City. His plan seems to have worked: Today the town is thriving, and the bridge still draws plenty of tourists.

4. AN IMPERIAL COFFIN

In 2010, an imperial coffin dating to the Tang Dynasty was repatriated to China from the United States. It had gone missing in 2006, stolen right from the tomb of empress Wu Huifei—a staggering feat, since it weighs 27 tons and stretches 13 feet long by 6.5 feet high. After two years of investigations, the local police discovered that the tomb—carved with animals, flowers, and human figures—had been sold to a businessman for $1 million and had traveled all the way to the United States. Once confronted by police via mediators, the businessman agreed to return the item, which then went on display at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an. The incident is a reminder of the ongoing looting of Chinese antiquities from archaeological sites, which experts say is growing increasingly bold.

5. GOD OF A LOST CITY

For 1000 years, Hapy, the god of fertility, was submerged off the Egyptian coast. Then, in the early 2000s, a team of divers discovered a fragment of the colossal 4th-century BCE red granite statue. Weighing 6 tons and standing over 17 feet tall, Hapy is now one of more than 200 objects touring in "Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds." From small coins and lamps to an over-12,000-pound sculpture of a king, each is a relic of the drowned city of Thonis-Heracleion. The major Egyptian port was founded around the 7th century BCE, and likely abandoned due to rising sea levels and earthquakes. Hapy is among the most massive of the exhibition’s artifacts, which have toured London, Paris, Zurich, and Saint Louis—with a visit to Minneapolis on the horizon this fall.

6. PIECES OF THE BERLIN WALL

A piece of the Berlin wall in the Vatican gardens in 2014
A piece of the Berlin wall in the Vatican gardens in 2014
VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, remnants of the monumental barrier scattered throughout the world. Concrete pieces of the structure stand at almost 100 sites, ranging from a men's bathroom in a Las Vegas casino to the Vatican Gardens in Vatican City. A 12-foot-tall section, gifted to Olympian Usain Bolt, is at Up-Park Camp in Kingston, Jamaica, while a dentist in Sosnovka, Poland, acquired 40 segments and arranged them as an art installation. However, the longest stretch is still in Berlin—the East Side Gallery—adorned with nearly a mile of street art, a shadow of the wall’s former 96-mile path.

7. IRAQ TRAUMA BAY FLOOR

A 3000-pound, 7-by-7-foot section of concrete floor is considered the site where the most American lives were both lost and saved during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2008, the floor of Trauma Bay II was delicately relocated from Balad Air Base in Iraq to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Springs, Maryland. The scuffed floor, stained with antiseptics, was salvaged when the temporary medical facilities were torn down. Now part of an exhibition on medical personnel in Iraq, the concrete slab recalls the trauma care for the many wounded who were treated on it between 2003 and 2007.

8. CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLES

Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park
Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

The oldest human-made outdoor object in New York City was carved when Manhattan was still wilderness. The 69-foot, 220-ton obelisk, nicknamed Cleopatra’s Needle (though it has no connection to Cleopatra), is located in Central Park just behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its companion obelisk is by the River Thames in London; both were commissioned around 1450 BCE by Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III for the Heliopolis sun temple. In 12 BCE, they were moved over 100 miles to Alexandria by order of Augustus Caesar, and erected at the Caesareum.

When one was gifted to England, and the other to the United States, in the 19th century, they were lugged aboard ships for sea voyages. The London obelisk was almost lost in a storm that claimed six lives, but the New York obelisk was less disastrous, if no less arduous: It took 32 horses, several months, and a special rail track to get it into place. Following an October 2, 1880 Masonic ceremony, during which a cornerstone was placed in the obelisk, it was officially dedicated on February 22, 1881.

Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

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