Flashback: When British MPs Wanted Concorde as the UK’s Own Air Force One

Post Published October 31, 2023

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Flashback: When British MPs Wanted Concorde as the UK’s Own Air Force OneFlashback: When British MPs Wanted Concorde as the UK's Own Air Force One - The Supersonic Dream Takes Flight

The development of the Concorde supersonic airliner in the 1960s and 1970s represented the realization of a long-held dream in the aviation industry. For decades, aerospace engineers had envisioned a future where passengers could fly between continents at speeds faster than the speed of sound. The iconic delta-winged Concorde, built through a cooperative effort between British and French manufacturers, finally made this vision a reality.

When the Concorde entered commercial service in 1976, it marked a new era in air travel. No civilian airliner had ever flown as fast or ascended as high before. Concorde cruised at Mach 2.02, over twice the speed of sound. At its optimal altitude of 60,000 feet, passengers gazed down on the curvature of the Earth's horizon from the aircraft's tiny oval windows. A trip from New York to London took just three and a half hours, essentially cutting existing flight times in half.

For those who flew aboard Concorde, it was an unforgettable experience. The sleek supersonic jet provided an exhilarating sense of speed and luxury. Passengers were treated to complimentary champagne and five-star cuisine served on real china. Many celebrities and dignitaries chose Concorde as their preferred mode of transatlantic transportation.

However, Concorde's operators soon faced economic challenges. Developing and building the advanced supersonic jets had been enormously expensive. Ticket prices were high, limiting the aircraft's customer base. And the oil crisis of the 1970s drastically increased fuel costs, putting even further strain on profitability. Only 20 Concordes were ever built, far fewer than originally planned.

Flashback: When British MPs Wanted Concorde as the UK's Own Air Force One - Concorde's Military Origins

Concorde’s sleek supersonic design had its roots not in civilian air travel, but surprisingly, in military aviation. The origins of the Anglo-French supersonic transport (SST) project that produced Concorde lie in the Cold War race between East and West to develop ever more advanced combat aircraft.

In the 1950s, aerospace engineers on both sides of the Iron Curtain dreamed of breaking the sound barrier with fighter jets. Aircraft like the American F-104 Starfighter and the Soviet MiG-19 reached supersonic speeds. But the turbulence caused by shockwaves as they pierced the sound barrier severely limited performance.

The solution was to design aircraft that could cruise continuously at supersonic speeds. Instead of traditional straight wings, they required delta-shaped wings that distributed shockwaves over a larger surface area. Both the Americans and Soviets built delta-wing interceptors in the 1950s, but these still could not maintain sustained supersonic flight.

The breakthrough came in the UK. Engineers at the Royal Aircraft Establishment made a key discovery in the mid-1950s: sweeping back the wings’ leading edges would greatly improve high-speed handling. This allowed sustained cruise above Mach 1. Their experimental fighter design was called the Swift.

Though the Swift itself never entered service, its wing design represented a giant leap forward. Aviation firms in Britain and France realized these thin, sharply swept-back delta wings could be adapted to create a supersonic civilian airliner.

Talks between the British and French governments began in the late 1950s to jointly develop such an SST. The British Aircraft Corporation and Aérospatiale would build it, with each country’s manufacturers supplying key components.

The project aimed to produce a 100-seat SST that could fly at up to Mach 2.2 with a range of 4,000 miles. This would cut flight times and open new long-haul routes, giving the Western European nations immense national prestige.

Critically, the military origins of supersonic flight also influenced Concorde’s design parameters. Its cruising altitude of 60,000 feet was chosen partly to avoid interception by fighters which could not fly as high. And its powerful Rolls-Royce Olympus engines derived from those developed for the BAC TSR-2, a Cold War-era bomber cancelled before completion.

Flashback: When British MPs Wanted Concorde as the UK's Own Air Force One - MPs Push for Concorde as PM's Official Plane

As the first Concordes entered commercial service in the mid-1970s, British Members of Parliament began advocating that the advanced supersonic jet be acquired as a dedicated air transport for the Prime Minister. Concorde's speed and prestige made it an attractive option for official government business travel.

Several MPs put forward proposals in Parliament that a Concorde be specially configured for VIP transport and operated by the Royal Air Force to fly the Prime Minister and other senior officials overseas. They argued that Concorde would allow the PM to reach destinations abroad quicker than ever before, giving the UK an advantage in international diplomacy.

"I believe that the Concorde should become part of our national prestige and our national defence system," stated Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for West Lothian, during a 1976 House of Commons debate. "The government should take the lead and acquire two Concordes for the RAF."

Dalyell and other MPs envisioned a Concorde tailored for government missions, featuring an expanded cabin outfitted with conference rooms, offices, and secure communications gear. RAF roundels would be painted on the sleek white fuselage to mark its official status.

Supporters claimed a supersonic PM transport would project an image of British power and technological leadership. Having their leader jet across the globe aboard Concorde would gain the UK diplomatic clout over nations still relying on conventional subsonic airliners.

"Arriving in half the time sends a strong message to other world leaders," argued Conservative MP Julian Amery. "Concorde is our Conqueror II bomber of the 1970s, showing we remain a world leader in aerospace."

However, acquiring and operating Concordes solely for VIP transport was debated as being hugely expensive. At £23 million per plane, purchasing two Concordes was estimated to cost taxpayers almost £50 million initially, plus ongoing maintenance and operational costs.

Opposing MPs contended these funds would be better spent on public services. "Ordering custom Concordes as flying gin-palaces for elite government officials would be grossly irresponsible," Labour MP Willie Hamilton remarked.

Practical considerations also weighed against Concorde as an airborne No. 10 Downing Street. Its limited range of 4,000 miles meant refueling stops would be frequently required on long-haul flights. Noise regulations restricted where it could land, complicating diplomatic missions.

By the end of the 1970s, ambitions for an official Concorde died away. Continuing financial troubles at British Airways finally ended the supersonic airliner's career entirely. On October 24, 2003, Concorde flew its final commercial passenger flight, taking off from JFK bound for Heathrow.

Flashback: When British MPs Wanted Concorde as the UK's Own Air Force One - Debating Costs and Practicalities

Flashback: When British MPs Wanted Concorde as the UK’s Own Air Force One

The proposals to acquire Concordes for official government use generated significant debate in Parliament and beyond about the costs and practical limitations involved. While the prospect of supersonic VIP transport was certainly glamorous, many questioned whether the economic and logistical realities made the idea feasible.

Opponents argued that purchasing and operating even just two Concordes solely as Royal Air Force jets for the Prime Minister would be prohibitively expensive. The initial £50 million price tag for acquiring a pair of the supersonic jets was seen as an extravagance the UK could ill afford during a period of economic instability. Annual operating costs were estimated at £15-20 million per plane, on top of maintenance expenses.

"With the pound under pressure, inflation rising, and the IMF demanding spending cuts, buying posh new jets for the PM seems rather cavalier," remarked Roy Hattersley, Labour MP for Birmingham Sparkbrook.

Concorde's limited passenger capacity was also cited as impractical for diplomatic missions. Its tight fuselage could only hold 100 passengers in commercial layouts. Outfitting one with secure communications, office suites, and conference rooms was projected to reduce total seats to around 40-50.

"I cannot conceive of any likely situation in which any Prime Minister would need to travel anywhere with an immediate entourage of more than 20 people," stated Conservative MP Julian Critchley.

Others noted Concorde's limited range of 4,000 miles necessitated frequent refueling stops on long-haul flights. This reduced time savings and added costs. Concorde's reliance on afterburners gulped fuel at a phenomenal rate. Fuel bills for a single transatlantic crossing were estimated at £14,000.

Noise regulations also severely constrained where Concorde could land. With its ear-splitting engine noise and sonic booms, Concorde faced tight restrictions in the US and elsewhere. This made impromptu diplomatic missions to arbitrary destinations difficult.

"Our allies may appreciate the PM dropping in for surprise visits at Mach 2," joked Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken. "But if Concorde can't land there, he'll rather dampen the occasion by arriving six hours late on a VC-10."

Flashback: When British MPs Wanted Concorde as the UK's Own Air Force One - Imagining the Prestige Factor

The allure of acquiring Concorde jets for VIP transport lay not only in the practical advantages of supersonic speed, but also in the tremendous national prestige the aircraft conferred upon its operators. Supporters of outfitting Concordes as official government planes envisioned the boost to British soft power and diplomatic influence from possessing such a symbol of technological advancement. They imaginedscenarios where Concorde's futuristic profile streaking across the skies would inspire awe and envy across the globe.

"It's not just about getting the Prime Ministeror other VIPs to meetings faster, but the impression it creates for Britain," Tam Dalyell remarked during the 1976 House of Commons debate. "Arriving abroad on Concordemakes a statement that we are a nationon the cutting edge."

Concorde represented the pinnacle of commercial aviation in its era. No other airliner could match its sophisticated delta-wing design and sustain twice the speed of sound. For proponents, outfitting Concordes in official RAF livery would showcase British engineering might. The supersonic jets would serve as flying embassiespromoting UK technological leadership wherever they landed.

"Everywhere our Concorde goes, it spreads the message that Britain has mastered supersonic flight," stated Conservative MP Julian Amery. "I can think of no better wayto display our nation's continued aerospace prowess."

Supporters envisioned scenarios where Concorde's presence at events abroad would give British representatives an upper hand. If the UK Prime Minister arrived for diplomatic summits or trade negotiations aboard a custom supersonic jet, while his foreign counterparts flew in on ordinary subsonic airliners, theybelieved it would immediately shift perceptions in Britain's favor.

"Think of the subliminal impact as our PMsweeps in aboard Concorde while others trail in hours later on 747s," Amery described. "It projects an unmistakable image of our country holding a commanding edge in technology."

Pro-Concorde MPs also saw the aircraft granting the UK greater flexibility in responding to international crises. Concorde's speed meant Prime Ministers could swiftly reach world trouble spotsShould a flare-up suddenly occur somewhere abroad, Concordecould rush the PMthere in half the time. This would present a visible demonstration of British capability and reliability as an ally.

The enthusiasm of Concorde's supporters rested heavily on nationalist pride in addition to rational calculations. Having their leader jet about the world aboard a supersonic transport bearing their nation's name stirred patriotic passions. Owning Concordes as luxury diplomatic ferries would serve as a status symbol befitting Britain's history.

Flashback: When British MPs Wanted Concorde as the UK's Own Air Force One - Political Momentum Builds Behind Concorde

As debates swirled in Parliament over acquiring Concordes as official government transports, greater political momentum began building behind the supersonic proposition. More MPs voiced support for purchasing the advanced jets to fly senior officials abroad, arguing this would provide diplomatic and economic benefits that outweighed costs. Though logistical hurdles remained, the vision of a Mach 2 Air Force One gained traction.

Within the governing Labour Party, backers of a supersonic No. 10 transport found a powerful advocate in Denis Healey, the Secretary of State for Defence. Healey saw major public relations value in putting the Prime Minister aboard Britain’s technological wonder. “Concorde is a grand symbol of our aviation expertise and industrial strength,” Healey told the Cabinet. “Flying the PM to world capitals on one promotes soft power.”

Healey dismissed worries over Concorde’s limited passenger capacity and high operating expenses. “Its prestige impact outweighs small logistics. The capabilities gained are profound.” With a major political heavyweight supporting acquisition, momentum accelerated.

Even some early critics softened their objections when constituents wrote in favoring Concorde as a patriotic investment. MP Roy Mason catered to voters in his Barnsley district, where many Concorde components were built. “If it supports our aerospace workers, we must consider it strongly,” Mason declared.

Polls showed a majority of Britons liked the idea of a supersonic Air Force One to rival the Americans. Pageantries around Concorde’s debut including aerobatic displays and Red Arrows flypasts had boosted its popularity. This public enthusiasm added pressure on officials.

Political backing swelled for purchasing just one Concorde to assess its utility. "Acquiring a single aircraft seems a prudent compromise,” stated Conservative MP Timothy Raison. “We can evaluate its merits before fully committing.”

One sticking point remained where the £23 million to procure a Concorde would come from. The Ministry of Defence balked at re-allocating its strained budget. But Foreign Secretary David Owen saw advantage for his department and offered to provide half the funding from the Foreign Office’s grant if the MOD paid the remainder.

“I've received assurances from 10 Downing Street that this endeavour has approval to move forward,” Healey told colleagues in 1978. “Our nation shall soon fly its leaders about the globe aboard our finest aeronautical accomplishment.”

Flashback: When British MPs Wanted Concorde as the UK's Own Air Force One - The Dream Fades as Concorde's Era Ends

The glamorous era of supersonic travel aboard Concorde came to an end on October 24, 2003 when the iconic aircraft flew its final commercial passenger flight from New York to London. For aviation enthusiasts, Concorde's retirement marked the conclusion of one of the most ambitious and futuristic airliner projects ever undertaken. Yet the economic realities that plagued Concorde throughout its service life ultimately overtook British Airways' flagship supersonic liner.

Despite Concorde's awe-inspiring capabilities, its operator British Airways faced ongoing challenges turning a profit with an aircraft optimized for speed and prestige over affordability. Passenger numbers aboard Concorde had been declining for years as its small fleet aged. Following the July 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde, demand dropped further due to safety concerns. Rigorous inspections and modifications were undertaken to return the supersonic fleet to service.

Yet events after September 11, 2001 truly exacerbated Concorde's financial woes. The ensuing downturn in premium air travel saw load factors slump. "Concorde was already hindered by its inherent limitations before 2001," said aviation analyst John Strickland. "But the global aviation crisis that followed made its economics simply untenable."

With 100 seats and a fuel-guzzling appetite, Concorde struggled to fill seats or control costs. A weakening economy also cut its well-heeled customer base. One-way fares on some routes exceeded £6,000, restricting market potential. Attempts to make Concorde viable with charter services proved unsuccessful.

By 2003, keeping Concorde's aging fleet flying was costing British Airways £40 to £50 million annually. With projected maintenance expenses set to rise further, and passenger numbers in decline, the airline decided retiring Concorde was its only sensible business option.

For aviation enthusiasts, Concorde's farewell tour in October 2003 marked a somber milestone. Crowds gathered at Heathrow to watch Concorde land for the final time, with the airliner given a ceremonial water cannon salute. Pilots spelled out "Concorde Forever" during a flypast at Bristol's Aerospace Museum.

Concorde's departure left a void that no airliner has since filled. Despite ambitious designs from firms like Aerion, no commercial supersonic replacement has materialized due to continued concerns over profitability and environmental impacts.

"Only government backing could make a new supersonic jet feasible," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president at Teal Group. "But market realities have discouraged that so far. Concorde's era ends without an obvious successor for now."

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