With the retirement this month of the best plane ever, mankind takes a giant step backward. Welcome to the subsonic era.
"The past," wrote L. P. Hartley in one of the finest first lines of any novel (The Go-Between), beloved of high-school essayists and seasoned magazine journalists alike, "is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
Differently and—let's be honest—a little bit stupidly. It's a rarely acknowledged fact that however much we may respect the people who have lived before us on this earth, we feel a sense of quiet superiority to all previous generations, flowing from the undeniable fact that We know things They didn't know, and can do things They never could. Sure, I admire Isaac Newton for having single-handedly figured out most of the laws that govern the physical universe—I doubt that in his shoes I could have managed it—but when I reflect on the countless hours he spent slaving in his basement over a hot cauldron, convinced it was possible to turn lead into gold, well...I pity the deluded fellow. That's a mistake I don't see myself ever making. All else being equal, I would prefer to live in the Future than the Past, less because the joy and convenience of the Future's technological advances so appeal to me than because the ignorance of the Past seems, in a quiet, irrational way, so undignified.
As of this October 24, however, that sense of superiority meets a unique and unprecedented challenge. The Concorde, the universe's first and only faster-than-sound airliner, is being retired from service, thereby plunging the world back into the pre-1969 dark ages when the minimum theoretical travel time across the Atlantic for civilians was six hours, rather than three. Next to Isaac Newton, we will still—technologically speaking—look like gods. But next to Halston, the Beatles, Princess Diana, Joan Collins,Oscar de la Renta, Naomi Campbell, and every other lucky soul who had the money and the foresight to fly the Concorde while it was still around, we are going to look a little...quaint. For the first time in history, the zenith of human progress will be behind us, winking grotesquely in the rearview mirror, and what that's going to feel like one can only imagine—though one supposes, as L. P. Hartley might have put it, it's going to feel rather foreign, and bad.
It was in this spirit of grim apprehension that I traveled in July to London's Heathrow Airport, where I had an appointment to be shown around the Concorde in its hangar. On top of my misgivings about the retirement of the plane, I was coping with a substantial degree of personal disappointment. I had been born in the year of the Concorde's first flight, grown up in leafy southwest London not far from Heathrow, and over the years come to regard the prospect of flying through the sky at twice the speed of sound, cocktail on my armrest, while contemplating the hazy blue curve of Earth, the purple-black edge of Space, and the back of Sting's head, as a birthright, a sort of droit du seigneur. I had never had any clear picture of the circumstances—whether a rich friend would charter the Concorde and fly us all to see the fashion shows in Milan, or I'd become very rich myself, or I'd find myself being extradited from somewhere in shackles at extremely high speed to beat an expiring statute of limitations. I just knew that one day It Would Happen. The announcement this past April 10 that, barring a miracle, no, It Would Not Happen, was a bitter, roughly plum-sized pill to swallow. Visiting the Concorde in its hangar, I assumed, would swell the pill to roughly the size of a grapefruit—and this I was braced for.
I was not, however, braced for a pill the size of a watermelon.
The beauty of the Concorde, I realize immediately upon entering the hangar, is visible in photographs, but what does not show up on film is how little that beauty has to do with human aesthetics, and how much it has to do with the pure math of aerodynamics. In photos the Concorde looks "designed"; you could imagine that once the engineers had finished the hard part, building whatever incredible, superpowered engines were going to take the plane through the sound barrier, they passed the project on to Philippe Starck, or someone like him, to come up with a fittingly elegant, aerodynamic fuselage. In person, though, watching it interact with actual light and actual air you realize that everything—every slow curve and taper, every needle-thin point—is the way it is for the single, simple reason that anything else would be slower. This is more than someone's great idea of a sexy-looking plane; this is what planes are supposed to look like. I had known that the Concorde was "beautiful" and "good," and that to see it go would be "sad." Standing beneath it, gawking up, I feel I'm in the presence of something "true" and "right," and that to see it go will be "wrong." As I'm given a tour of the plane's exterior by Claud Freeman, the burly South African who has been the chief engineer of British Airways' fleet of seven Concordes for the last 16 years, I begin to moan with genuine sorrow.
And Claud really isn't helping. He keeps using the phrase "unlike on a normal, subsonic aircraft" and gesturing through the hangar door at a group of fat, slow, ugly seven-something-sevens squatting on the tarmac like warthogs guarding a fragment of a Snickers bar. If anything should be retired it is surely them, the "blunties," as they are pityingly known in the Concorde hangar. We should be turning on the news this month and watching retro-enthusiasts tearfully boarding the last 747, everyone dressed to the nines in thrombosis stockings and clutching copies of War and Peace to their chests. Not the last flight of the Concorde. It just isn't right.
Worse, Claud insists on stopping every 18 inches or so, as we tour the plane's underside from nose to tail, to point out yet another impossibly elegant design feature that in 34 years even military aviation hasn't replicated. For example, because its engines can accept only air traveling at less than the speed of sound, even when the plane itself is at Mach 2, the Concorde has revolutionary computerized air-intakes mounted beneath its wings to decelerate the air. When the Concordes are retired to museums, the computers are to be removed. Why?For fear that a gang of teenagers might hot-wire the plane and fly off?No. For fear that someone might steal the design. If the fact that we're worried our enemies might steal our secrets by visiting a museum isn't evidence of something going badly wrong in the natural sequence of events, then I don't know what would be.
Claud takes me on board and lets me sit in one of the seats—and suddenly it's too much to bear. Here I am. I have finally made it onto the Concorde. I'm actually sitting in one of the seats, but rather than rocketing off into the stratosphere as is my destiny, I am now expected to get up and leave the plane. This is the end of a dream. For the Concorde and me, this is it.
Not far from tears, I start bargaining pathetically with Claud. Can this really be the end?The Concordes aren't being dismantled, actually, they're only being sent to museums, so surely in a few years' time...when the economy picks up again...there's nothing to stop some Larry Ellison-type billionaire from blowing a few hundred million on putting them back in service?Maybe Richard Branson will relaunch his failed campaign to acquire a Concorde for Virgin?
No, apparently. Now that Airbus is withdrawing its technical support—trashing all the molds it uses to make spare parts, et cetera—Concorde could never get "recertified."
Well...but eventually there'd be another supersonic airliner, would there not?Some cash-rich government somewhere looking to put itself on the map?
Extremely doubtful. The Concorde was flying before every hundred-millionaire had his own private jet, and even then it found barely enough market share to scrape by. Anyone who tried to start the whole program again from scratch would need his head examined.
But surely, one can never say never. One can famously never say never.
One can never say never, Claud concedes, but in a way that, coming from a man who has given so much of his life to the Concorde and would presumably like nothing more than a shred of hope to cling to, sounds an awful lot like "never."
But you know what?I'm okay now. It was many moons ago—or at least many suns—that emotional day in the hangar at Heathrow, and though I know now as a cold hard fact that I will go to my grave having never flown on the Concorde, I have discovered—to my joy—that I can live like this. It actually isn't so bad. I look in my rearview mirror, I see the Concorde, and, frankly, it fits in just fine with all the other relics of the past. There's the penny-farthing bicycle with its comically mismatched wheels...there's the Concorde, pointy-nosed icon of late-20th-century glamour...there's the Normandie.... No problem at all. I have adjusted.
Part of it is that, on the train back from Heathrow that day, scribbling on a legal pad, I came up with a theory. "Glamour is the first casualty of Progress" is the theory's tagline. While the end of the Concorde might look like a backward step for Homo sapiens, that's just an optical illusion. The fact is that we have e-mail now, and broadband videoconferencing. The fatal problem for the Concorde—deeper than the grubby, prosaic issues of revenue streams and the bursting of the dot-com bubble—is surely that no one really needs to fly that fast anymore. The days of a CEO having to streak through the sky at twice the speed of sound, exploding through conference-room doors on far-flung continents to pant "No. No. My vote is No," are behind us. We aren't slowing down at all. In fact, we've accelerated to such a ridiculous speed that, just as we once broke the sound barrier, we have now broken the geography barrier. We aren't only faster than sound these days, we're faster than travel.
It actually feels rather pleasant to have the Concorde there in the rearview mirror. It's a comfort. The 34 years that will now presumably come to be known as the Concorde Era will be remembered for their unbridled exuberance and optimism. In our anxious present, that spare-no-expense decadence feels an awful lot like innocence, lost but not forgotten.
BRUNO MADDOX is the author of a novel, My Little Blue Dress.