Supersonic Dream

PBS Airdate: January 18, 2005
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TELEVISION ADVERTISEMENT: The world has now become a smaller place. Soon you'll be able to travel a mile every three seconds.

NARRATOR: A mile every three seconds! By 1977, the dream of supersonic commercial flight has finally become a reality.


NARRATOR: London or Paris to New York in three and a half hours.

ARCHIVAL NEWS REPORT ABOARD CONCORDE: Eleven miles high, we're traveling at 10 percent faster than a rifle bullet.

NARRATOR: Mach 2, twice the speed of sound.

RICKY BASTIN (Concorde Engineer): It is the world's most efficient jet engine.

TONY BENN (Archival) Tens of thousands of dedicated scientists, engineers...

NARRATOR: Two aerospace rivals, the British and French, unite to beat the U.S., to corner the market on a hot new commodity.

CHRIS BENJAMIN (Concorde Administrator, 1971-74): Speed sells seats.

MICHAEL HESELTINE (Former Minister of Aerospace, U.K.): I said, "Your Majesty, will you buy the Concorde?" "Yes, we'll have two."

NARRATOR: From rock stars to royalty, the Concorde was the way to travel for the jet set.

SIR DAVID FROST (Frequent Flyer): Concorde is the only way you can, in human life, be in two places at once.

HENRY KISSINGER (Secretary of State, 1973-77): I really flew nothing else.

MORIEN MORGAN (Archival, Royal Aircraft Establishment): You really feel, if God made airplanes to fly, he meant them to be this shape.

NARRATOR: And while the Concorde inspired love from some, it inflamed hatred in others.

NEW YORK PROTESTOR (Archival): And if they do land here, it's going to take them three hours to get here from London and seven and a half hours to get out of the airport.

NARRATOR: For more than twenty years, Concorde battled environmental protesters, commercial rivals, and political opposition. Concorde overcame them all with its magnificent design, faster-than-a-bullet speed, loyal fans, and reputation for comfort and safety. But all this could not keep the dream alive forever.

Supersonic Dream, up next on NOVA.

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NARRATOR: June 27th, 2003: An Air France Concorde comes in to land, back, for the last time, to its birthplace, Toulouse, France. Thousands of people turn out to welcome it home, to mark the end of its 27-year life in service. At the ceremony is André Turcat, the pilot who had ushered the world into the supersonic age.

ANDRÉ TURCAT (Concorde Test Pilot): For thirty years we have made people dream; and we dreamt ourselves.

NARRATOR: One place that dared to nurture the dream of a commercial SST, supersonic transport, was the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, England. Morien Morgan headed the design project to build a passenger plane to travel beyond the speed of sound.

MORIEN MORGAN: It's rather a lovely shape. You really feel, if God meant airplanes to fly, he meant them to be this shape.

CHRIS BENJAMIN: It was an era where the argument was "speed sells seats." So it was naturally thought that the next generation would be a supersonic airliner.

NARRATOR: But the British were not alone; the French, too, were investing heavily in their own supersonic dream. By 1962, on both sides of the Channel, cost estimates had more than doubled to over three billion in today's dollars.

ANDRÉ TURCAT: We felt it was much better to unite our effort in order to spare money and time and to promote some sort of cooperation which could be the beginning of a much wider one.

NARRATOR: Britain and France put aside their old rivalries and signed a treaty to build the plane to conquer the world. They named it Concorde.

From the start it was a high-risk venture.

ARCHIVAL NEWSREADER: If it flies, well, flying in it will be like putting granny in a missile. If it fails, we'll be left with a great big white elephant, with its feet stuck firmly on both sides of the English Channel.

NARRATOR: Serious technological problems would need to be solved. Engines would have to be twice as powerful as those on even the largest subsonic jets. The airframe would have to withstand the enormous force of shockwaves during supersonic flight. Heat buildup was another concern. At 1,400 miles per hour, wind friction quickly raises airframe temperatures beyond the boiling point of water.

Only highly trained military pilots had ever flown faster than the speed of sound, and many had died trying. Now this new jet, flying faster than a rifle bullet, would have to carry 100 ordinary passengers in complete comfort and safety. The technical complexity was unprecedented, but to some, the commercial prospects seemed promising.

Immediately the French and British partnership was rewarded; the airline giant Pan Am ordered six. But just a year later the estimated costs had doubled again, and under Great Britain's new Labor government, Concorde became a political hot potato that landed in the lap of Aviation Minister, Roy Jenkins.

CHRIS BENJAMIN: I happened to be Roy Jenkins' private secretary when he arrived, and within...I mean, he barely got through the door but we heard that the Cabinet were going to meet, and on the agenda was the possibility of canceling Concorde.

NARRATOR: Minister Jenkins was sent to break the news to the French.

ROY JENKINS (Former Aviation Minister, UK) We thought the review was necessary because of certain doubts we had about whether the plane was a good economic proposition or not. And I've explained those reasons as best as I could, and the French listened with interest, and, I think, to some extent, with sympathy.

CHRIS BENJAMIN: They sat there absolutely stony-faced; you could have heard a pin drop. And the, the French minister just said, "I'm here waiting to hear what you have to say." And Jenkins said his bit, and he said, "Thank you very much," and that was the end of the meeting.

Three or four months before, we'd been drinking riotously with exactly the same Frenchmen. Immediately the French switched off all diplomatic relations whatsoever—just a total blank wall.

We got Roy Jenkins to meet their minister in Bretigny—very secret. Even the pilot who flew the airplane didn't know where he was going until twenty minutes before he took off. We got there, and you would have thought we were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. There was an absolute sea of photographers. Everybody said, "After you, Chris." By then, the government had actually come to the position that we really can't risk running a continuous war with the French.

NARRATOR: It was a game of high stakes poker, and both players, the British and French, had already anted up more than they could afford to lose.

MICHAEL HESELTINE: The minister who'd been responsible for the contract, Julian Amery, knew these projects get cancelled. So they had drawn up with the French a contract which, if either side wanted to cancel, it gave the other party the right to claim damages. The cost of canceling was always bigger than the cost of going on. Whether it actually was, of course, no one ever knew because nobody could face either the financial cost or the ignominy of, of cancellation.

TEST ENGINEER: Five, four, three, two, one...

NARRATOR: Despite the escalating costs, the two sides decided to resolve their differences and carry on. The next challenge: to overcome the language barrier.

LANGUAGE TEACHER (Archival): Alors, où est-ce qu'il travaille en ce moment?

ENGINEER (Archival): Il travaille dans les ateliers.

EDOUARD CHEMEL (Concorde Chief Pilot): People just learned to, to work together, from the inch to the centimeter and from the red wine to the five o'clock tea.

NARRATOR: For the moment, cultural and financial problems were outweighed by the dream of flying passengers over 1,300 miles per hour, more than twice the speed of sound. A joint workforce that would eventually reach 200,000 people began to push the frontiers of design. After nearly 200 attempts, the team came up with Concorde's most distinctive feature, its shape.

ANDRÉ TURCAT: I think we are here in the best position to, to see the shape of the aircraft and to admire it. I keep admiring it for thirty years.

NARRATOR: Over 200 feet long and less than 10 feet wide, its length is nearly the same as a 747, but Concorde is twice as slender.

JEAN RECH (Concorde Chief Engineer): The beauty is a byproduct, it's not a target. You have to accept the consequence of the law of the physics.

NARRATOR: Concorde's long narrow body reduces the increased drag caused by supersonic flight. Its long nose can be tilted so pilots can see the runway while taxiing and landing, but when flying, the needle shaped nose cuts through the air. Concorde's delta, or triangular shaped, wing—wide, thin, swept back—provides greater lift for take offs and landings, and more stability and less drag while flying.

DUDLEY COLLARD (Concorde Design Team): The part which you see is the part that the air molecules go 'round, and that's aerodynamic. I designed the leading edge here. I designed the wing tip for the production aircraft. It's that shape because that was the one that came out to be best. It's not because it was beautiful.

NARRATOR: Concorde was to be the most tested plane of all time, conceived to withstand every potential hazard, even a window shot out at 60,000 feet.

JEAN RECH: The size of the window has been determined by the caliber of the Colt 45.

ARCHIVAL NEWS REPORT: And at Farnborough, in a specimen cabin built into an oven, tin men are sitting in for the businessmen of the '70s.

ARCHIVAL NEWS REPORT: The flight deck forms part of the nose fuselage structure.

CHRIS BENJAMIN: The pilot's seat...the original estimate was six million pounds. It actually cost eighty million pounds—eight, zero. That's over 140 million dollars in today's money.

RICKY BASTIN (Concorde Engineer): Of all the unique parts of the airplane, this is arguably the most unique.

JOCK LOWE (Concorde Chief Pilot): The air intakes take the air, going at twice the speed of sound, 1,350 miles an hour, and over the space of 10 or 15 feet, slow it down by 1,000 miles an hour. Concorde air intakes are still leading edge technology.

RICKY BASTIN: It is the world's most efficient jet engine. Technology-wise it is still the envy of designers all over the world, even now.

NARRATOR: Another innovation was fly-by-wire, the first computer-based flight controls in a commercial aircraft.

MICK SMITH (Concorde Engineer): This airplane had fly-by-wire and digital systems years before most of it ever came out.

STEVE LINCOLN (Concorde Engineer): Fly-by-wire engine control.

RICKY BASTIN: Everything's electronic. There's very little on the plane that isn't electronic. Even the brakes are electronically controlled.

JOCK LOWE: Modern airplanes are just starting to use the brakes that Concorde has used for thirty years.

NARRATOR: The final cost of the finished plane eventually reached a staggering 1.1 billion pounds, over 16 billion in today's dollars, more than ten times the original estimate.

ARCHIVAL NEWS REPORT: The world's first sight of a supersonic airliner: 001, the first prototype of the Anglo-French Concorde being rolled out at Toulouse.

NARRATOR: Finally, in 1968, three years behind schedule, and despite all the technical, political, and financial problems, Britain's Concorde was unveiled to the public.

TONY BENN (Archival): Behind this great achievement lies the work of tens of thousands of dedicated scientists, engineers, designers.

BRIAN CALVERT (Concorde Chief Pilot): It was a very, very cold day, very clear. We were parked on a grandstand, and there was a French military band out in front, and it tootled away for a bit. And then the doors started to open, and revealed this absolutely unbelievably beautiful shape.

The taxi tug driver came out and pulled on a special pair of white gloves, climbed up into the cab, and towed this thing out in a magnificent great arc. The nose came right over our heads. There was no doubting at that stage that any pilot would have wanted to fly Concorde.

ANDRÉ TURCAT: We loved her because we had so many flights with her.

NARRATOR: One year later, on March 2nd, 1969, the French Concorde made its first historic flight.

ANDRÉ TURCAT: On the ceiling of this very building here, there were 600 people, with televisions, radios and so on.

NARRATOR: Years of precise planning and simulated flights had led up to this single moment. Nothing was left to chance.

FIRST FLIGHT ANNOUNCER: And the fog is now burning quite quickly off the airfield here in Toulouse, just seconds to go.

FRENCH FIRST FLIGHT ANNOUNCER: Et maintenant, enfin, le premier.

ANDRÉ TURCAT: The simulator we had for two years before the first flight was very accurate. I could say, with some smile, that on the March 2, we flew the simulator.

CONTROL TOWER: She's airborne, she flies.

NARRATOR: A month later, Britain's Concorde was ready for its maiden flight, its pilots in oxygen masks, just in case. And from its first flight from London's Heathrow Airport to its last, the crowds gathered to watch Concorde make its daily departure to New York.

OFF SCREEN VOICE: How long have you been coming?

FAN 1: Years.

FAN 2: Years.

FAN 1: Many years.

FAN 2: About eight years.

RICKY BASTIN: I've got three children who are in their mid-to-late twenties now. When they were tiny they'd hear a roar in the sky and they'd look up and say: "Oh, no, Dad, it's not Concorde; it's just a plane."

NARRATOR: Despite its noisy takeoffs, Concorde inspired devotion on the ground and in the air from the public and pilots alike.

EDUOARD CHEMEL: When you fly and you are right there in the cockpit, the stars are, are just at your knees. This you cannot forget.

BRIAN CALVERT: And it's a lovely thing to fly, it's very easy to fly at high speeds—the most impressive—because at Mach 2, when you're feeling as if it's completely still, as if you're frozen in ice, with the curvature of the earth clearly visible, you can, if you look down on the clouds below, see them turning. If you disengage the autopilot, you can actually fly the airplane with two fingers, and it's as easy as that. And when you think that you're traveling at 1,300 miles an hour and doing it all with two fingers, it's pretty extraordinary. It's beautiful. It expands, it contracts, it flexes like a fly fishing rod. It's extraordinary.

NARRATOR: But an adoring public, superior technology and supersonic speed would not be enough. Concorde had to find buyers to recover its massive development costs.

CONCORDE TELEVISION ADVERTISEMENT: In today's high pressure world, speed is comfort, speed is time saved, speed means business and Concorde delivers speed. Concorde fulfills the worldwide demand for faster travel.

NARRATOR: By 1972, 16 airlines already had options to buy 94 Concordes. The British government launched a massive international sales tour. The man at the helm was the newly appointed Aerospace Minister, Michael Heseltine.

MICHAEL HESELTINE: You get a phone call from the Prime Minister saying, "I want you to be Minister of Aerospace," and before you know where you are, you are responsible for Concorde.

NARRATOR: One of their first sales prospects was the newly oil-rich Iran.

MICHAEL HESELTINE: We were going to take the Shah on a flight, and during the flight my job was to clinch the deal. Anyway the Shah turned up, went off to the plane, took his place on the plane, with me, and I thought, "Well this is fine. I've got 40 minutes to sort of do the deal, do the business." We hadn't got, you know, a few hundred feet off the ground before he said, "I'd like to go on the flight deck," and he was gone. I don't blame him, it was a very fascinating place to be, but I was left without the ability to talk to the Shah.

We landed and I had about 200 yards between the bottom of the steps and the royal pavilion, with this great red carpet. And the Shah was no slouch, he marched, went fast. So I was walking alongside him, and I said "Your Majesty, will you buy the Concorde?" And he said, "Yes, we'll have two." I thought, "This is fantastic."

I said, "Your Majesty, can we have over-flying rights?" He said, "Yes, of course."

NARRATOR: The right to fly supersonically over land was crucial if Concorde was to be a global success. But by the time the sales tour reached Australia, the Concorde faced protests from the emerging environmental movement. Unfortunately, Concorde's greatest attribute, speed, also caused its biggest problem, the sonic boom.

SIR JAMES HAMILTON (Former Director-General, Concorde): The sonic boom is associated with supersonic flight, and, in essence, what it means is that whereas in subsonic flight, you get some warning of the airplane coming—you can hear it in the distance, you can hear it as it comes abreast of you, you can hear it as it goes away—in supersonic flight, all the noise is contained within shockwaves which surround the airplane, so that when a supersonic airplane comes toward you, you hear nothing until you get all the noise collected together, as it were. And when that happens, instead of getting a continuous rumble of noise, you get a very sharp boom.

NARRATOR: In Britain, Concorde's nemesis came in the guise of a retired schoolteacher, Richard Wiggs. Working from his family home, his aim was simple: to stop Concorde from flying.

JOSEPHINE WIGGS (Anti-Concorde Project): "Concorde: The questions answered. No one connected with the Concorde has ever proposed that Concorde should be free to fly around inflicting sonic booms over the populous areas of land," which is just a downright lie, because that's precisely what they were suggesting.

NARRATOR: At first, the government ignored the Wiggs family's homegrown protests.

JOSEPHINE WIGGS: So the very early material that he made on this duplicating was electric, but often we were doing the hand cranking just because we enjoyed it, 'cause it is kind of fun.

NARRATOR: Wiggs pioneered the buying of newspaper space to publicize his campaign and attract media attention.

SARAH WIGGS (Anti-Concorde Project): We each had one of these, in different colors.

JOSEPHINE WIGGS: That, of course, was when it was referred to as the sonic bang, and then all of a sudden it was the sonic boom.

OFF SCREEN VOICE: Did your father like them?


JOSEPHINE WIGGS: As you can see by the fact that this is so well-worn.


NARRATOR: When the Concorde sales team reached India, they found the "ban the bang" message had gotten there first. The success of the Concorde depended on sales of 250 planes. To reach that goal, Concorde needed to secure supersonic flyover rights around the globe.

KEN BINNING (Former Director-General, Concorde): I had a very uncomfortable morning in Delhi, in front of the Secretary for Transportation, attempting to explain why it was perfectly sensible to over-fly six million Indians supersonically and wake them up in the middle of the night, but we didn't do the same thing to Europeans. "Interesting," he said, "is this because there is some biological difference, in your view, between Indians and Europeans, or what?"

NARRATOR: By 1973, the dream of Concorde was turning into a nightmare and was about to suffer another setback.

ARCHIVAL NEWS REPORT: Chris Drake, I think, in fact, is in the Pan Am building in New York. Chris, what have Pan Am announced?

CHRIS DRAKE (Reporter): Well I'm afraid it's very bad news. A few minutes ago, they gave me a brief statement which reads as follows: "Pan Am will not exercise its options to purchase seven Concordes."

NARRATOR: Pan Am's decision did not come as a total surprise. Concorde's three-year delay in reaching the market gave a rival airplane manufacturer an opportunity. Although half the speed of Concorde, the Boeing 747, the plane about to revolutionize the travel industry, could fly further and carry hundreds more passengers. The bigger, cheaper 747 forced Concorde to lower its sales projections.

JOSEPHINE WIGGS: From talking about 400 planes, they then started talking about 200. Then maybe there will be 50, and then, in reality, what? There were nine or ten.

NARRATOR: Without a single sale, there remained one last hope: Britain's newly formed national airline.

MICHAEL HESELTINE: I actually was responsible for selling the aircraft to British Airways. And, the, the negotiating team were led by a, a very distinguished and, and very tough merchant banker called Kenneth Keith, and, I mean basically, cutting the long story short, we gave it to them.

If the British airline was not going to buy Concorde, nobody would buy it, so they had me over a barrel. And just to rub the whole thing in, I was a Minister of State, which is a second-tier minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, and the Secretary of State was John Davis, and having screwed me to the floorboards, Kenneth said, "Oh, I'm not signing a deal with you. I'll only sign a deal with the Secretary of State." So they brought John Davis in to actually, to solemnize this deal, which was, I mean, a most appalling deal from the British government's point of view, but it was the only deal that we could get, and we had to get a deal.

TELEVISION ADVERTISEMENT: The world has now become a smaller place. Soon you'll be able to travel a mile every three seconds.

NARRATOR: By the end of 1976, British Airways and Air France each took delivery of four Concordes.

TELEVISION ADVERTISEMENT: The phenomenal Concorde, from British Airways.

NARRATOR: And they set their sights on New York—this was the route for which the plane was built—but New Yorkers greeted the news of Concorde's plans with protests and car blockades of J.F.K. airport.

NEW YORK PROTESTOR: And if they do land here, it's going to take them three hours to get here from London and seven and half hours to get out of the airport.

J.J. BURNEL (The Stranglers) The U.S. government, just in order to nobble Concorde, they refused it landing rights in the States for, well, at least two years. I just wrote the song about that really.

NARRATOR: The decision on whether to grant Concorde landing rights went to the highest levels of government. President Gerald Ford's Transportation Secretary held Concorde's future in his hands.

WILLIAM T. COLEMAN (Former Secretary of Transportation): People that lived around airports were writing me. I'd get a lot of telephone calls. And for a long time I felt that this was a serious problem and probably you should deny the right to, for the landing.

NARRATOR: Secretary Coleman decided that the only way to settle the issue was to hold a public hearing.

KEN BINNING: This hearing took place in Washington on the 5th of January, 1976, which I remember very well as it happened to be my birthday. The proponents of the program had an hour and half, all told, to present all aspects of the case. Since time was at a premium, it was important to craft the presentation. It took us five working days and nights to write.

WILLIAM COLEMAN: People felt that I was being slightly arrogant by telling public officials of a foreign government they better appear before me. I don't think it had ever been done before.

KEN BINNING: It was terribly important to have a positive response.

BRIAN CALVERT: If we'd not been able to get into New York that would have been it.

NARRATOR: And so, a week before the hearing, an extraordinary rehearsal was held at the British Embassy.

KEN BINNING: The rehearsal was intended to be a severe cross examination.

NARRATOR: The British hired tough lawyers to grill the Concorde teams.

KEN BINNING: Gerald Kauffman was then the Minister responsible for the aircraft industry. He said that he suffered, in that rehearsal, a more severe cross examination than, certainly, he experienced on the day of the presentation and on any other occasion he'd experienced in the House of Commons.

GERALD KAUFMANN: I can demonstrate the importance which Her Majesty's government attaches to the Concorde program and in particular, to the speedy and equitable resolution of services to the airports of Dulles and New York.

NARRATOR: A month later Secretary Coleman delivered his verdict.

WILLIAM COLEMAN: I have decided, for the reasons set forth in detail in the opinion, to permit British Airways and Air France to conduct limited scheduled commercial flights to the United States for a trial period.

WILLIAM COLEMAN:The 707 Air Force One that the President was using was making more noise than this would make. So, it turned out to be okay.

ARCHIVAL NEWS REPORT ABOARD CONCORDE: Eleven miles high, we're traveling at 10 percent faster than a rifle bullet, and we're two-thirds of the way into what must be one of the most important flights that Concorde's ever made.

NARRATOR: In November, 1977, 21 years after development began, Concorde finally made a commercial flight to New York. Within minutes of each other, French and British Concordes landed at Kennedy International Airport. The rich and famous fell in love with Concorde and lined up to get on board.

ARCHIVAL NEWS REPORT: Mrs. Thatcher went supersonic for the first time as she chartered Concorde to Vancouver.

NARRATOR: And it soon became synonymous with glamour and the high life.

DUDLEY COLLARD: I think there are four kinds of service. You've got the one which used to on ships be known as steerage—I think it's economy on aircraft—then you've got business, and then you have first class. And then you have class, and that's what you had on a Concorde.

ANDREA (Concorde Flight Attendant): If you were asked for a drink, you wouldn't say, "I'll be with you in five minutes." You'd literally stop whatever you were doing at the time and disappear and bring the drink immediately.

LEE (Concorde Flight Attendant): I remember practicing at home—with a pile of napkins at home—to pick it up with your little finger and thumb and then place it down in one swoop.

FLIGHT ANNOUNCER: British Airways Concorde supersonic service from London.

SIR DAVID FROST: You could now get out to the airport in New York and be back in time for dinner in London, so you organized your life that way. Concorde was very easy to get used to.

MICHAEL WINNER (Frequent Flyer): Well, you meet a wonderful mixture. You meet very heavyweight businessmen, you meet a lot of movie stars and rock stars and, cup of tea at the airport with Mick Jagger, or whatever, you know?

HENRY KISSINGER: After I started flying it, I really flew nothing else.

SIR DAVID FROST: And it does have a sort of club atmosphere which is unusual.

HENRY KISSINGER: That has its disadvantages too, because I like to work on the plane, and, given the proximity to other passengers, and if you are somewhat familiar as a, as a face to them, they feel that they'll never have a similar opportunity to talk to you. And so it is not as...was...did not prove as easy to get privacy on the Concorde.

J.J. BURNEL: I have actually flown New York to London in, on Concorde, yeah. But I have to admit that I can't remember too much about it. It was nonstop champagne, and I was, I was elsewhere, so to speak.

LEE (Concorde Flight Attendant): It was always the moment of excitement to see, we would have a list, obviously—a passenger list—and who's going to be with us today? Is it going to be Richard Gere?

ANDREA (Concorde Flight Attendant): We had Richard Gere though, didn't we?

LEE (Concorde Flight Attendant): Yes!

ANDREA (Concorde Flight Attendant): Were you on that?

LEE (Concorde Flight Attendant): I think I was with you then.

NARRATOR: Despite its cachet, Concorde could not make money. In the late '70s, Britain approached the U.S. government to invest, but the idea wouldn't fly, the result of an earlier misadventure with supersonic transport.

ROBERT MCNAMARA (Former U.S. Secretary of Defense): The British-French Concorde was never able to fly non-stop further than London and Paris to New York. And it couldn't even be certain of doing it from Paris to New York if the winds were, were, very unfavorable. I just took a blank sheet of paper and proved to myself there was absolutely no commercial prospect for that.

NARRATOR: In 1963, President John F. Kennedy decided to launch an American competitor to Concorde and put a skeptical Robert McNamara in charge.

JOHN F. KENNEDY (U.S. President, 1961-1963): We are talking about a plane in the end of the'60s, that will move ahead, at a speed faster than Mach 2, to all corners of the globe.

ROBERT MCNAMARA: By God, I didn't think that the low-income taxpayers of the U.S. should subsidize the jet set.

ARCHIVAL ANNOUNCER: Good afternoon, gentlemen. The Boeing company takes great pride in presenting to you the United States' supersonic transport.

NARRATOR: In fact, the SST never got past giant wooden models, as costs spiraled out of control.

ROBERT MCNAMARA: I figured out a way to kill the project on what I would consider a rational, responsible basis.

We have just been informed that the U.S. Senate has voted 51 to 46 to halt additional funding.

BOB MCKINLAY (Concorde Chief Engineer): We used to say they spent four hundred million dollars getting a wooden mockup; we spent a little bit more than that, but we got a real aircraft.

NARRATOR: But having persevered where the U.S. abandoned supersonic flight, the Anglo/French Concorde had to start making money. Up until 1982, the government had subsidized British Airways for operating Concorde. But now, Mrs. Thatcher's government cut it loose to fend for itself.

JOCK LOWE: We did some research which showed that the Concorde passengers actually didn't know how much the fare was. When we asked them to guess how much it was, they guessed that it was higher than it actually was, so we just started to charge them what they thought they were paying anyway. Then we started the charter flights, which gained us all sorts of publicity and re-established the reputation of the airplane because it's everybody's achievable dream, or it's many people's achievable dream. They could just get their fingers on a Concorde charter.


NARRATOR: Concorde reached out beyond the elite to make supersonic flight accessible to a broader public.

JOCK LOWE: We coined a phrase that we'd taken it "from being the white elephant to the golden eagle." And in financial terms that was correct.

ANDREA (Concorde Flight Attendant): We were very much used to very serious, regular business travelers beforehand, so it's much more of a party atmosphere, and it's really quite magical, it's lovely.

PERRY CROFT (Concorde Charter Passenger): We went out and got three loans together between us and got the money together, booked it, went three weeks afterwards.

STEVE CROFT (Concorde Charter Passenger): Still paying the loans!

SHAWN GUNNING (Concorde Charter Passenger): I couldn't sleep the night before, I was just so excited. Once Concorde had arrived, the buzz in the room was, was amazing.

FEMALE PASSENGER: Today, we're celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary, and to celebrate we are taking this fabulous flight on the Concorde.

MALE PASSENGER: It's history and so is the twentieth anniversary.

STEVE CROFT: Just waiting for it to take off your heart was thumping. You think it can't come any sooner.

NEIL LOMAX (Concorde Charter Passenger): The captain came over the tannoy and said, "Okay, ladies and gentlemen, it's white knuckle time," and then we back in the seat and off we went.

SHAWN GUNNING: I chose to sit in the back row because I wanted to hear the noise of the engines.

NEIL LOMAX: Made all the back of your hair stand up, the power and, you know, noise.

ONBOARD ANNOUNCER: You'll be able to watch the acceleration on the Mach meters at the front of the cabin, Mach 1, of course, being the speed of sound.

DAWN (Concorde Flight Attendant): I always wait until we hit Mach 2, and then you can almost pull the curtain aside and see if anybody has proposed. That's the point that it normally happens.

MALE PASSENGER 2: You're probably the fastest and highest human beings in the world.

MALE PASSENGER 3: We're only part of a few people in the world that ever flew this high.

MALE PASSENGER 4: It's the first time I've ever been on a flight and just about everybody on the plane has been smiling the whole time.

ELDERLY MALE PASSENGER 5: We got a flight on the 3rd of September, which just happens to be my wife's 81st birthday, so that's a good birthday present. We cleaned out ours savings accounts to pay for it, but I think it's worth it.

SHAWN GUNNING: I just felt great. No one can ever take that away from me, it's something I've always wanted to do and I've done it, so.

NARRATOR: But even as Concorde was celebrated, some were questioning its future value to Britain.

CHRIS BENJAMIN: It's really a matter of great regret that an enormous amount of creativity, effort and resources were used to produce this airplane which has actually no sustainable benefits at all. Today Britain is not an independent manufacturer of civil aircraft anymore. Now that would have been inconceivable to the ministers when they started this program out.

NARRATOR: But in France it was a different story. Experience with Concorde helped France become home to Airbus, the European aircraft consortium.

JEAN RECH: We have now a European aircraft industry which is equal to the American because we almost share 50/50 the market today. It's a big achievement in which Concorde has been an essential step.

ROBERT MCNAMARA: I admire immensely the technological achievement. For them to have taken as giant a step forward technologically as they did, and do it with safety and reliability up to the last, was an extraordinary technical achievement. I give both the British and the French great credit for that, but they paid a hell of a price.

NARRATOR: Over almost three decades of service, Concorde flew some 2,000,000 passengers, from casual vacationers to presidents. Its safety record was perfect until July 25th, 2000.

NEWS REPORT: Air France Concorde has crashed near Paris killing everybody on board; 113 are dead. Four more were killed on the ground.

PETER HOLDING (Flight Test Engineer): My wife said, "You'd better come in and look at this," 'cause the French television were showing it going down a runway, flaming.

MIKE ADDLEY (Flight Test Observer): I saw it on the television, and the first thing I did was phone Peter, and Peter said, "Well, yes, I've...I'm watching it as well."

PETER HOLDING: I thought, you know, "My goodness me, he's got to get rid of his fuel quick and re-land." But, unfortunately, they didn't have the time to do anything.

EDOUARD CHEMEL: I was home. Somebody called me and told me. I cut the telephone line and for...I stay like this for two days.

MIKE ADDLEY: It's the sort of thing we thought couldn't po..., well, I thought couldn't possibly happen, not to Concorde.

NARRATOR: The Air France Concorde ran over a piece of metal on the runway. A tire burst, hitting the wing and causing a fuel leak which caught fire. Ninety seconds after takeoff, it crashed, with no survivors. The entire Concorde fleet was grounded. For nearly a year, both airlines worked to strengthen the plane at enormous cost. They added Kevlar linings to the inside of the fuel tanks and fitted new burst-resistant tires.

To announce Concorde's return to service in 2001, British Airways flew from London half way across the Atlantic and back with 100 of its own staff. The rehearsal took place on the morning of September 11th, 2001. While Concorde was in the air, the World Trade Center tragedy was unfolding. It would be two months after 9/11 before Concorde could return to New York.

NEWS REPORT: Concorde roared back into regular operation this morning, lifting up from Heathrow bound for New York.

GAYLEEN BIRD: I know the first night she flew overhead after they'd been grounded all that time. I think the whole of our street was outside saying "Concorde, Concorde, quick, quick!"

SIR DAVID FROST: I felt very strongly that Concorde deserved another go, and I quite deliberately went on the first flight after the tragedy. It was an amazing occasion because it shows the power of Concorde that Rudy Giuliani was out there to welcome each and every passenger.

NARRATOR: More than 20 years after New Yorkers fought to keep Concorde out, now Mayor Giuliani welcomed her with open arms.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI (Former Mayor of New York): Do one very special favor for me while you're here, spend a lot of money.

NARRATOR: Unlike New York, Concorde never recovered.

JOCK LOWE: Nine eleven had a tremendous effect. In particular, Concorde was affected because many of the regular travelers were very sadly and tragically killed in 9/11. Some...about 40 of our most regular passengers were in the World Trade Center. Not only that, they were the boss, they were the president, the chairman of the companies who sent their other executives on Concorde as well. So the authority to travel Concorde was also hit.

NEWS REPORT: It's the end for Concorde. After 30 years of supersonic flying, British Airways and Air France will retire the plane in six months time. Our transport correspondent, Simon Montague, is at Heathrow.

NARRATOR: Half-empty planes and the rising cost of maintenance had forced the British and French to withdraw them from service.

Concorde was born of a marriage of political ambition and scientific dreams. When it was started, the makers had hoped to sell hundreds of Concordes. They could imagine the world tied together by a fleet of supersonic luxury airliners, but in the end, only 16 Concordes were built. And now, their retirement homes will be museums around the world.

PETER HOLDING: Can I show you something very interesting? You see, on the doors, there's the traces left of the British Airways Speedbird, the one down the bottom is Iran Air. Do you recognize it? Sabena was one of them, and Air France. Pan Am was on there as well. We were very hopeful in those days 'cause we, we had tentative orders for about 40 or 50 airplanes in total. And then it all fell apart.

MONTAGE OF VOICES: The longest memory I'll have is watching it go over every day.

...always wanted to fly on it, always.

It makes me feel like standing to attention and saluting.


NARRATOR: From its first flight in 1969, to its last in 2003, Concorde was an object of fascination and desire. Although Concorde's flying days may be over, the love affair goes on. And many dream that, just over the horizon, a new generation of supersonic luxury airliners may fulfill the vanished promise of Concorde.


Supersonic Dream

Produced and Directed by
Amir Amirani

Produced for NOVA by
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Allen Charlton
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Special Thanks
British Airways
Jack De Coninck
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Production Manager
Philippa Lacey

Executive Producer, Principal Films
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Senior Researcher
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Associate Producer, Post Production
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Supervising Producer
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Producer, Special Projects
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A Principal Films Production for the BBC

Additional Production for NOVA by Providence Pictures, Inc. for WGBH/Boston

BBC Timewatch: Concorde: A Love Story © BBC MMIII

Additional Program Material © 2005 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

Supersonic Dream

Shock Treatment

Shock Treatment
Can engineers silence the sonic boom?

Flying High

Flying High
Brian Calvert reminisces about piloting Concorde.

Anatomy of Concorde

Anatomy of Concorde
Examine a detailed cross section of the plane.

Innovative Aircraft

Innovative Aircraft
See planes, including Concorde, that broke the mold.


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