Love that Bird

Francis Spufford

August 1974. Compared to the Cortinas and Maxis in the carpark, the prototype Concorde taxiing onto the runway at RAF Fairford looked astonishingly modern: but then, it always would. For the next quarter of a century, it would always be an object that stood out from its context, stylistically disconnected from the machines people build for more everyday tasks. Even now, when the carparks at Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle are filled with sleek creations, art-directed to the max by Mercedes and Renault to convey futurity, Concorde still looks as if a crack has opened in the fabric of the Universe and a message from tomorrow has been poked through. Age has, however, made it clear that the tomorrow in question is yesterday’s tomorrow; and age has shown too, of course, in the gradual revelation of the design’s practical flaws, such as the unsolved question of how to protect the wings from the wheels, which in July 2000 brought down Air France Flight AF4590 in a scrawl of flame.

Brian Trubshaw, the chief test pilot for Concorde at the British Aircraft Corporation, was at the controls that day in 1974, dressed in his orange flight suit. He swung the plane round and pointed it west up the tarmac. Concorde cornered smartly on its spindly undercarriage. It was quicker on the ground than other airliners, just as it took off and landed faster than them. In all its movements, Trubshaw and his colleagues and their French counterparts had learned to expect an element of hurtle, exhilarating to master. Events came at a Concorde pilot at a more adrenalised tempo. Trubshaw liked this: it was stretching. In the 1990s, having retired to a Cotswold village, he sometimes nipped next door to have a go on a neighbour’s flight simulator software, which had a Concorde module. It wasn’t the same, of course, ‘but it gives you a taste,’ he said.

Clearance from the tower came in over the co-pilot’s headset. On the centre panel in the cockpit, all four of the indicator lights that summarised the dataflow from the Olympus engines glowed green. With the wheel-brakes locked, Trubshaw gently throttled up the turbines, and engaged ‘re-heat’, the afterburning system which generated extra thrust by spraying fuel into the main engines’ exhaust. Then he let go the brakes and the plane gave him its almost shocking acceleration. There were well over a hundred people in the flight-test team – pilots, ground crew, technicians, engineers, administrators – but more often than not he was the fortunate one who got to ride up the runway in the right-hand seat of the conical cockpit, with the bigness of the plane just a sensed presence behind him, and the nose dropped so that there was nothing ahead but the blurring ribbon of concrete. He felt the sharp edges of the delta wing slicing the air into two flows, and the flow beneath the wing beginning to build in pressure, and building, and building, till there was enough lift for him to pull back the stick, and send the Concorde 002 skyward with a grinding roar; a man at the controls of the only airliner in the world that handled like a fighter plane.

Behind him there was jubilation. This was not a significant test flight – those were long concluded. Trubshaw was just going to fly one more standard supersonic circuit of the Bay of Biscay, where BAC and Aerospatiale had been allotted a piece of sky in which they could boom to their heart’s content. But today wasn’t an ordinary occasion either. Two days before, while Trubshaw was working out the logistics of a flight to Bahrain, to ‘prove the route’ for British Airways, his phone rang. It was Tony Benn, Secretary of State for Industry. Mr Trubshaw, Benn said, I understand you’re off to Bahrain next week; is there a chance you could organise a flight for me and some of the chaps before you go? Certainly Minister, Trubshaw replied. No problem at all. But which chaps are these? Oh, Benn said, the aerospace shop stewards from the plants at Filton and Weybridge. I thought I’d bring about fifty, if you have the seats.

Trubshaw would have said yes to any political request for a joyride. Concorde existed on sufferance. It needed constant backers to help it survive its constant crises. The latest one had almost killed the project. The multiplying cost of aviation fuel, in that year of the oil shock, had been the last straw for the airlines holding an option to buy Concorde; they had all dropped out. Benn had been instrumental in making sure that when Labour came back into office in spring 1974, the Government had nonetheless authorised a small production run of planes for the British and French national carriers. He had another claim to consideration, too. He was the MP for the Bristol constituency that contained the Filton plant, and he had been a steady friend to Concorde ever since it was first mooted. So he was owed a favour. But, as it happened, Trubshaw liked this Secretary of State. ‘He had an outstanding brain,’ the test pilot remembered 26 years later, when I interviewed him a few months before his death in the spring of 2001. ‘Of all the ministers, the great thing about this chap is he understood what he was talking about.’ Benn returned the feeling. Having learned to fly himself in the RAF towards the end of the war, he had glimpsed the great pyramid of repute which mounted from humble students like himself towards the shadowy apex where the mighty test pilots belonged, men like Trubshaw and his military counterparts Roly Beamont and Eric Brown, men who were stuffed with as much unostentatious grandeur as Chuck Yeager in the US. Benn had come along on many of Concorde’s earlier proving flights, including one in 1970 when a hydraulic system failed and the plane went into ‘an uncontrollable gentle roll’. He always brought a camera so he could take his own pictures of the plane. On one occasion, he asked for Trubshaw’s autograph.

Benn was a technocrat, the nearest thing there has ever been in British politics to the bright young men the Grands Ecoles turn out to administer the French state corporations. As Wilson’s Minister of Technology between 1966 and 1970, he had stood for a Britain that could be at home in the modern world. Whenever, during his time in office, British Rail announced the development of a new high-speed train, or the Atomic Energy Authority opened a new reactor, another steel and glass panel was added to the Britain he wanted to see built. The monument that symbolised his outlook was the Post Office Tower. He always got on well with engineers. In fact, to begin with, he thought of socialism as a way of engineering society, so that it was better, and more rational, and more efficient.

But times had changed since the Wilson Government made its grand attempt to put this vision into practice, with an integrated, co-ordinated blueprint for the entire British economy. The result, the National Plan of 1965, had lasted one year. Back in power now after four years of Heath, the Labour Cabinet was frantically reacting to events. The stock market was crashing, inflation was 20 per cent, the oil price had quadrupled, there were strikes everywhere. Like his colleagues, Benn spent his days rushing from emergency to emergency, arranging a cash injection here, calming an outbreak of militancy there. But unlike his colleagues, Benn had started to see a silver lining to the crisis, a promise glimmering amid the confusion: he thought he was witnessing a social revolution.

And this was probably why he was sitting in the cabin of Concorde on 3 August 1974 with his wife, two aides, a reporter from BBC Radio Bristol and fifty shop stewards from the AUEW and TASS. It was the stewards’ first ride in the plane they had helped to build. Despite spending most of the last 15 years welding Concorde’s airframe, and applying its aluminium skin, and turning the parts for its control linkages, none of them had ever left the ground aboard it; indeed, some of them had never flown at all before, or not since their war service. One had gone to confession, just in case. By arranging this jaunt, Benn was performing an act of restitution. He was dispensing social justice like a fairy godmother: yes, Mr Shop Steward, you shall go to the stratosphere. And, probably, he was doing so because he believed that the stewards represented the future. In its 1974 Manifesto, Labour had promised ‘an irreversible shift of power in favour of working people and their families’. To Benn, that meant power being transferred to grassroots union officials like these. When he looked around the chaotic industrial landscape of Britain, he saw a new, direct form of democracy based on union muscle. Yet other ministers refused to see it. Instead, they let their civil servants lecture them on the need for industries to make profits – ‘the Tory philosophy in a nutshell,’ he would expostulate a couple of months later. He felt closer to the shop stewards. Today’s event – he would write in his diary that evening, with a happy sense of inclusion – felt ‘like a coach outing to Margate or Weston-super-Mare’.

As Concorde 002 crossed the Cornish coast, Trubshaw relit the afterburners, and started to climb again, from the ordinary airline cruising height of 30,000 feet to Concorde’s altitude for supersonic cruising at 60,000 feet. As he accelerated past Mach 1, the bow wave of air the plane threw to each side of it became too energetic to slide into the atmosphere, and slammed against it instead, colliding with the air molecules in its path at a pressure of about 2lb per square foot. The assaulted air shook, and gave up the dose of extra energy as sound. Concorde climbed on, dragging its sack of reverberating noise behind. There is, of course, no such thing as the sound barrier. What there is, is the aerodynamic challenge of the turbulent passage through Mach 1; and then the different challenge as the speed continues to rise and the airflow over the aeroplane’s wings changes in character again, smoothing out, yet condensing into new standing waves, new vortices, new invisible knots and whorls of intense pressure. Both of these are easier in the thin air at 60,000 feet. Even so, up there where the sky darkens to a deep purple and a few stars show at the zenith, the rarefied molecules of the stratosphere still hit the fuselage hard enough to make it blisteringly hot. The skin of an ordinary airliner chills to –35 °C, causing the cold you feel when you touch the inner pane of the double windows. As Trubshaw levelled out at last, a sixth of the way into space as Nasa defines it, with the machmeter reading 2.2, Concorde 002’s skin temperature had risen to 90 °C from the friction, with hotter spots still on the wing edges and the nose tip. Tiny pumps moved thousands of gallons of fuel from tank to tank to trim the plane. In the engine intakes under the wings, a sequence of curved baffles, on which tens of thousands of hours of calculation had been expended, slowed the onrushing air so it wouldn’t stall Rolls-Royce’s turbines. Air-conditioning fans sucked heat from the cabin into the fuel tanks. The plane flew at more than twice the speed of its own boom: from Trubshaw and his passengers’ point of view, Concorde 002 soared in exquisite silence. Far below, the Atlantic was a sheet of wrinkled silver.

Concorde was a marvel, a genuine exercise in the technological sublime. It was the European equivalent of the Apollo Programme, a gasp-inducing, consciously grand undertaking that changed the sense, in those who contemplated it, of what human beings were capable of. When Britain and France agreed to build Concorde in 1962, no one knew how to design a supersonic passenger plane. There were proven military jets that flew at Mach 2, but those were one-seat aerial hotrods in which a fit young man could hurl himself around the sky for a couple of hours, followed by days if not weeks of maintenance work on his aircraft. A smooth ride, a commercial level of fuel economy, an aircraft reliable day after day: these were all mysteries to be solved, which helps to explain how the cost of the project kept multiplying, aided by some poor management and by some foolish late changes in the spec, until the price-tag, too, was worthy of a gasp. By some reckonings, Concorde ended up being designed not once, or even twice, but two and a half times, because of a decision to make the production model twenty feet longer than the prototype, and the constant jostling of redesigned components against neighbouring components which then also had to be redesigned. At the witness seminar on Concorde held at the Institute of Contemporary British History in 2000, one civil servant remembered the example of the plane’s ever-expanding wheels.

They discovered that the weight had gone up to the point where the wheel had to be larger to meet the runway requirements, but the wheel was a tight fit in the wing. So a bulge had to be produced in the wing. The result of that was that the air resistance was greater than it had been, more fuel was required, and to carry that fuel a heavier structure was required. Because a heavier structure was required, an even bigger wheel was needed.[*]

And at every revision, the designers were aiming at an extraordinarily narrow window of technical viability. As eventually completed, Concorde has a pay-load capacity of only 7 per cent of its take-off mass, a ratio more reminiscent of a satellite launcher than a normal airliner. It can cross the Atlantic, but only just. London-New York and Paris-New York are possible; Frankfurt-New York is not.

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[*] The complete transcripts can be found at www.icbh.ac.uk/icbh/concorde.html