Forty-five years ago today, on October 1, 1969, the first prototype of an amazing new airliner called the Concorde took a test flight and broke the sound barrier. This marked the first time the “supersonic transport” (SST) actually flew supersonic, and supposedly ushered in a bold new era for aviation and air travel. The 1969 test, however, falls not at the beginning of the Concorde’s story, but somewhere toward the middle. In a career studded with high-profile stunts like this one, the Concorde had a very interesting history. But, as we now know, that history had a rather surprising end. The last Concorde was retired from service more than a decade ago, and a plane that was thought to be the wave of the future is now a bizarrely retro antique. The true irony is that today the only place you can see a Concorde, a plane conceived with futurism in mind, is a museum, while DC-3s manufactured in the 1930s are still flying in some places in the world.

The story of the world’s only supersonic airliner begins in Great Britain in the years shortly after World War II. With the war over, commercial aviation was moving rapidly, as air travel became safe and economical enough–and European and American consumers became affluent enough–to make airplanes a viable transport alternative to passenger ships and trains. American aviation engineers broke the sound barrier in 1947. It wasn’t science fiction to imagine that eventually super-fast airliners could be built to travel at beyond Mach 1, and the British wanted to be in on the ground floor. In the early 1950s a group called the Royal Aircraft Establishment began sketching out plans for an SST.

This is a preview for a documentary about the development of the Concorde, and it contains a lot of vintage footage of the plane being built (and in service).

This proved to be a huge engineering challenge. The aerodynamics of super-fast planes are very different than slower ones, involving lift, engine thrust and stresses on the airframe. A German engineer named Dietrich Küchemann made the breakthrough in 1953, designing a plane with delta-shaped wings that could harness the peculiar thrust and lift requirements of the problem. The “slender delta” shape that Küchemann developed became the instantly recognizable triangular silhouette of the Concorde years later.

By the late 1950s the British government committee in charge of the SST realized that the cost of developing this dream plane was going to be staggering: about £150 million. Quietly the committee began searching for overseas partners to share the costs. American companies like Lockheed and Boeing weren’t interested in partnering with a European government, so they were out. As it turned out, France was trying to develop its own SST program, though it was at a much earlier stage. When the committee took the potential Anglo-French partnership to the British cabinet, initially they balked. Economic studies showed that the British government would probably not make any money from the plane and they weren’t certain there was even going to be a market for SSTs–to say nothing of working with the French. Nevertheless, the decision was made reluctantly to go ahead, mainly because there was still the expectation that all air travel would be moving supersonic sooner or later. Political considerations also played a role: the Concorde deal was a bone thrown to French dictator Charles DeGaulle in exchange for not blocking the UK’s entry into a pan-European economic partnership. In November 1962, the governments of France and the UK signed a treaty providing for the joint development of the Concorde.

Now officially green-lighted, the BAC-Aerospatiale consortium developing the plane was off and running. Even before a plane was anywhere near completion they began taking orders from the world’s airlines. A Brazilian airline, Panair do Brasil, placed the first order for a Concorde. By 1967, sixty-five of the planes were ordered. Pan Am, Air France and United Airlines each wanted six, American, Air Canada and TWA wanted four, and even Braniff tried to get in on the act. Had all these orders been filled, Concordes would have been flying in countries from India to Japan, from Canada to Germany. Gangbusters, right? I mean, who wouldn’t want a super-fast, super-futuristic airliner that could cross the Atlantic in three hours?

pan am stewardess 1970s

The cultural peak of air travel, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, featured a “glamorous” image of the industry–a vision that the Concorde seemed poised to exploit.

Well, not so much. As development continued, the Concorde continued to present very challenging problems. One of them was that the plane flew so fast and generated so much friction, even at super-high altitudes, that its surfaces grew hot. The cockpit itself could become like an oven. Engineers worked on an ingenious cooling system, and also recommended painting all planes white to reflect maximum heat. The aircraft also required special procedures for its takeoff, landing and cruise altitudes, which were designed to be much higher than most planes (also posing a greater risk to passengers in the case of cabin depressurization). Concorde also guzzled fuel at a frightening rate. Because it took off at higher speeds, the Concorde’s wheels, tires and brakes became extremely crucial, making a failure of any of these systems more serious than a normal airliner. In the year 2000 this fact would prove tragic. Solving all of these problems made manufacturing, purchasing, operating and maintaining these planes far more expensive than projected. After a while airlines started to wonder if maybe it wasn’t worth it.

In the late 1960s, though, the Concorde was still riding the same wave of futuristic optimism that had brought it into existence in the first place. This era was the apotheosis of commercial air travel, which at the time was exciting, glamorous and alluring. Sleek planes glided through the air and sexy stewardesses, often chosen for their attractiveness, attended to the every need of the (mostly affluent, mostly male) passengers. Concorde looked like the next logical step. After the successful tests and triumphant unveilings at air shows on both sides of the Atlantic, the first regularly scheduled Concorde flight, a British Airways flight from London to Bahrain, roared and boomed into the sky in January 1976. More than 20 years of development had finally come to fruition. A new day dawned for commercial aviation…or had it?

In Part II of this series, the Concorde flies, wows, horrifies, crashes, and ultimately zooms into anachronism at supersonic speed. Stay tuned!

The photo of the Pan-Am flight attendant from the 1970s is by Flickr user John Atherton and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.