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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.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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