September 18, 2003

The Concorde Story - Channel 5

Patrick Crozier | Air - Concorde

Last night I sat down to watch "The Concorde Story" on Channel 5, presented by Richard Branson

Now I know there are many who think Branson is something of a shark but if he was faking an infatuation with Concorde he was doing a very job of it.

In terms of grown men pouring all of their joyful, excitable, nerdy, enthusiastic, little boy selves into a 1-hour televisual bottle it was up there with Jeremy Clarkson's biography of Brunel last year.

Right from the beginning he made it clear that almost as long as he could remember Concorde, in theory or reality, had been there. It was part of his life - something amply illustrated with film footage of Branson as a younger man. (Actually, this did rather get me thinking about how all this footage got taken in the first place and kept for such a long time. Vanity? Lui?)

He talked about the technological battle to go supersonic in the first place. He talked about the crazy risks test pilots took both in and after the war. He mentioned that it was the Americans who went supersonic first but then said they had cheated. (Because the Bell X-1 had been air-launched. Seems Brian was right). Sadly, he didn't get round to mentioning who managed to get a supersonic plane to take off for the first time.

He talked about the problems in converting military technology for civilan use. About how its one thing to make a pilot in a pressurized suit go supersonic but quite another to the same to VIP habituees of luxury. About the creation of the delta wing. And how the intakes had to be designed to slow down the speed of the air. Going supersonic began to seem very mysterious and fellow Transport Blogger, Michael Jennings, (who knows about this sort of thing) tells me that indeed, the equations do change once you break the sound barrier.

He talked about the management of the project. How the British couldn't get US support. He suggested that this was the turning point. Because it wasn't a US thing, the Americans were far less likely to look on it favourably in later years. Thus, it became susceptible to the attacks of the NIMBY and green lobbies. And so the Brits turned to the French. The two signed a treaty with a no get out clause. If one party withdrew he would still have to pay half the development costs.

The finances were a mess. Basically, as soon as the 747 was launched they collapsed. They couldn't sell them for love nor money. In the end the last batch were sold to BA for a pound and Air France for a franc. Yes, that's right we paid 10 times as much for them as the French did. Bastards.

But how much did it cost? Lord McNally, the minister at the time, was candid. With sums disappearing under all sorts of categories we'll never really know. Concorde's accounts, he said, were even worse than Enron's. Incidentally, this reminds me of the experience of reading Terry Gourvish's book on the first 25 years of British Rail. The methods of accounting and accounting definitions changed so much over the years that it was almost impossible to tell how much had been spent.

The best estimate that he could come up with was that it had cost every Briton £10 (1970s money?) to send VIPs across the Atlantic supersonically.

He talked about how under privatisation, BA turned Concorde around and made it into a highly profitable exercise as well as a wonderful flagship for the airline.

I was very impressed that despite the history (and present) between BA and Virgin (remember the Dirty Tricks scandal?) Branson managed to keep it straight. Not a snide remark in sight.

This even applied to the current shenanigans over the ending of the service and Branson's attempt to buy one. Even so we were left with the distinct impression that BA had taken the view that if they weren't going to fly Concorde then no one was. Frankly, I think BA have walked into a huge PR disaster... again. "You won't fly it yourself and you won't let anyone else have a go because you think that way you'll hang on to your First Class passengers? You fuckers!" is, I think, the likely reaction.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the garden enjoying a cold beer. I began to hear the distant rumble. Building, building, building. Until it became a roar - blotting out all other sound. And then I saw her banking away to the West. It is probably the last time I will ever see her airborne. And I've never taken the time to properly admire her or see her take off. It's tragic. For the first time in a 1000 years we are actually going backwards. Truly, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

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Comments

Virgin Atlantic sponsored this year's Bognor Birdman and Richard Branson actually competed.

He pulled a really excellent stunt.

While the other competitors had a few mates as crew go up the ramp to help out, Branson had a steel band and Rio carnival style dancers. His plane was carried up and it appeared like a copy of a concorde, complete with Virgin logo on the tail and "BA couldn't keep it up. Virgin can" written along the side. A slighty different craft to the nutter contestants who simply jump over the edge in fancy dress and the serious chaps at the other end of the scale with modified hang gliders.

Branson wore a silvery jump suit with a pair of angels wings attached. When it came time to jump he leapt and an engine noise cut in and the craft lifted up into the air.

The crowd gasped. That can't be in rules? There's not supposed to be any power assistance. Oh hang on. It's a balloon. It's getting a bit high to keep hanging on up there. Oh, it's no really him. Hey, there he is, still stood on the ramp.

Excellent ruse.

After that he simply jumped over the edge. No mean feat mind you. The pier is quite high above the water even at high tide and then the ramp added another 5 metres or so. Good for him.

Posted by Mark Holland on September 18, 2003

Basically, Air France stopped flying the Concorde because Airbus announced that they would charge so much for spare parts and the like in future that it would not be economic. This meant that BA would have to handle all the associated fixed costs rather than sharing them, and this made continuing to fly the Concorde even more expensive, so BA stopped too.

All these facts applied equally to Virgin if they started flying the Concorde, so as far as I saw it it was a publicity stunt. But now I am perhaps not so sure. Perhaps Mr Branson just found the idea of flying the Concorde to be really really cool. One presumes that sensible business considerations would have to prevail in the end, but this certainly may explain why it was discussed at such length.

Posted by Michael Jennings on September 20, 2003

I always had the impression that Branson wanted to say he was going to run Concorde & thus get all the landing slots etc at heathrow and then maybe after a few months cancel concorde and then have better slots at heathrow.

Posted by Raj on September 22, 2003

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