On this date in 1976, the Concorde started flying commercial passengers on London-Bahrain and Paris-Rio routes. For the next twenty-seven years, this fleet of turbojets would ferry the rich and famous betwixt glamorous world hubs with unprecedented speed and luxury. And when the Concorde ended its reign, following a 2000 crash and a global post-9/11 flying slump, it was regarded as the end of an era.
For many—particularly anyone in its flight path—this was a relief. And since its inception, critics had regarded the gas-guzzling fleet as indefensible. In perhaps the ultimate eighties quote, Linda Evangelista declared, “If they had Nautilus on the Concorde, I would work out all the time.” It’s probably this tinge of decadence that’s burnished Concorde’s image in the years since its end. The tenth anniversary in 2013 spawned tributes and slideshows, images of spa-food menus and full bars, memories of the jet-setting clientele and the monogrammed napkins and crockery that these jet-setters famously stole as souvenirs. (Well, Andy Warhol anyway.)
When I was younger, I was fascinated by the notion of the Concorde. It felt sort of mythical, or at least out of a Deco-era fantasy of the future: a special rich-person plane that seemingly defied the laws of the universe to buy them more time. And I was obsessed by the idea of rich people, who presumably could buy whatever they liked, pocketing salt shakers. Somehow Concorde always blended together in my child’s mind with a sort of blithe amorality.
I knew I’d never get to fly Concorde, and I didn’t even want to. As it was, the six-hour passage between continents felt barely sufficient to contain a shift between cultures and mind-sets; it never felt as though we had earned it. And wasn’t time just as good in the air? Well, I didn’t have a job yet. (As you might infer, I was also terrible at physics.)
If you chose to take a longer view, the end of the Concorde was exciting, in a strange way. We expect progress, now; technological backsliding is rare enough to constitute a novelty. We take our pleasures where we can find them.
Before piloting the final flight out of Heathrow, captain Mike Bannister told reporters, “From today, the world is a bigger place.” Read out of context, that sounds optimistic.
Concorde retired its last flight when I happened to be in London. The friend with whom we stayed was an older lady who lived not far from Heathrow, and was thrilled to know she’d no longer be bothered by the regular roar of what she referred to as “audibly burning money.” She had once had a chance to ride it, when someone was dying in the late seventies, but hadn’t. It’s funny how sometimes an old person will tell a story about something almost happening with the same satisfaction as if it actually had. It’s a different idea of what constitutes the point of a story.