Supersonic swan song

Friday, Concorde makes its last commercial flight. Its demise - and the failure of other similar planes - suggests that despite our go-go age, we have shelved supersonic travel for now.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Steven Isilvia sits on a sea wall in Revere, Mass. Boston's Logan International Airport lies about three miles to the south, and this gray-haired son of Portuguese immigrants has planted himself beneath a frequent flight path for commercial jets inbound from Europe.

A handful of people stroll the urban beach, walking dogs or watching children play. Mr. Isilvia alone scans the sky, a tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve as he points his binoculars toward distant planes.

In 1977, Isilvia saw a Concorde - one of the sleek, supersonic airliners that numbered 14 at the fleet's peak - parked on a ramp at London's Heathrow Airport. It looked like a spaceship to him then, and though he says he'd "probably chicken out" if he were offered a free flight - "I don't like roller coasters," he explains - he would like to notch one last sighting of the needle-nosed craft.

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Today it has been nothing but widebodies and commuter planes. A hunter's moon begins to rise, and Isilvia decides to head home for dinner. No one else stands vigil. If they did it would now be wasted time.

It's about 6 p.m., and Concorde has just slipped into Logan, evading Isilvia by coming in from the south and kissing Runway 33 Left. The plane - which had visited this city only a few times before, for special events or engine trouble - will not land in Boston again. Friday, Concorde will make its last commercial flight ever.

Security concerns kept down media coverage of this Concorde visit. Far more Bostonians turned out for the Queen Elizabeth 2's final departure a few months ago than came out to see the Oct. 8 "farewell tour" arrival of Concorde.

But the low profile of this historic event also reflects a deep ambivalence about supersonic flight - whether Concorde or the United States' own aborted supersonic-transport (SST) program - that drifts across most strata of American society.

Ironically, for a society that prides itself on high-tech prowess, the nation has moved beyond the world's fastest commercial jetliner. The failures of SST, while caused by unique political and economic factors over three decades, also point out how American thinking about technology has evolved in that time.

"Probably if a space shuttle was flying over Revere Beach, people would come out here," Isiliva says with a shrug. "But I don't think anyone really cares about this."

Even for its advocates, commercial SST proved hard to love. Most critics point first to the brutal economics, made clear by the late-life travails of Concorde, a nationalized aircraft that owed its early existence to the heavy backing of the British and French governments. Only two carriers operated the plane, the subsidized Air France and British Airways, privatized in the mid-1980s.

The trouble with Concorde

The narrow airplane, which can soar at 60,000 feet and about twice the speed of sound, burns more than three times the fuel per passenger as the widebody 747. Parts are custom-made. By one estimate, engineers spent 100 man hours working on the aircraft for every hour it flew.

Concorde also lacked the range for transpacific service and didn't have "any great amount of margin," as one aerospace expert puts it, in crossing the Atlantic.

It lowered a sonic boom that meant once the plane was "feet dry" - flying over land - the plane had to be throttled back to inefficient subsonic speeds. And it was pestered by mostly minor mechanical problems that culminated with a fatal Air France crash outside Paris in 2000 that demonstrated the risk, some experts say, of storing jet fuel just above the landing gear. (British Airways spent millions of dollars adding a Kevlar barrier to the tanks after the Paris accident.)

Not even stratospheric airfares - as high as $12,000 for a round trip between New York and Paris in recent years - could keep aloft the plane many in aviation call a technological marvel and a thrill to fly.

"The problem with Concorde was that there was no market for it," says Thomas Heppenheimer, an aerospace engineer and author of the 1995 book "Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation."

After Sept. 11, 2001, when an already wobbling airline industry was dealt a blow, bookings dropped off. Even deep-pocket corporate clients, who had regularly offered Concorde flights to top executives as a perk, backed away, says Jeff Angel, a British Airways spokesman. "They began to say, 'We just can't spend that much.' "

In some ways, poor timing also tripped up America's own SST program at practically every stage of its evolution.

Just two years after sounding his bold 1961 call for America to shoot for the moon "within this decade," President Kennedy issued a similar call with regard to development of an American SST.

Aviation race

That call spurred Britain and France to start a program of their own. Overtaken by the US in early commercial aviation, the British were eager to make their mark in supersonic transport. In France, Charles de Gaulle worried about what he called "the American colonization of the air."

"It was not just technological imperative that drove Concorde," says Mr. Heppenheimer. "On both sides of the Channel, you had people who were very eager to try to leap ahead of the Yankees."

By 1962, Whitehall and the Quai d'Orsay had cemented a partnership and pooled their efforts. By 1969, Concorde, named by de Gaulle, was being test-flown. (A Russian SST flew in late 1968, but never carried passengers.)

The United States had a mock-up ready by 1971 - Boeing had beaten out Lockheed with its design around 1966 - one that seemed poised to trump the European superplane, as well.

"It was bigger, it was faster," says Heppenheimer. "However, there was this little problem in the halls of Congress, which was that people weren't exactly eager to turn the FAA into NASA."

Under Kennedy, the role of NASA - an agency that grew out of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics - had been expanded to include the actual development of rockets. Kennedy and later, President Johnson, had the idea that the same was to happen for the Federal Aviation Administration, says Heppenheimer.

Other observers cite a heated rivalry in the mid-1960s between the FAA's pro-SST chief, Najeeb Halaby, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara as the main reason Washington seized up over supersonic flight. Another problem: Boeing was meant to pick up 90 percent of the tab for the SST. But even government's limited involvement carried a cost. "SST [became] a government program, with all the problems of cost overruns that attend government programs," Heppenheimer says.

In 1971, Boeing added $1 billion to the anticipated cost of developing the plane. Congress, which had come to terms with the $1.3 billion already anticipated, bailed out.

Meanwhile, the environmental movement found itself in ascendancy - more bad news for SST, which was pilloried as an ozone-eater and a harbinger of the woes that adopting too much technology, too fast, might bring.

"For all our great willingness to adopt technology in this country, there was an undercurrent of hostility toward technology," says Irene Thomson, a sociologist at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J.

"The image was that the SST would produce this deafening noise over American cities, that if it flew across the country, not just across the ocean, it would produce the worst of technological damage on our psyches," Ms. Thomson says.

Another factor: Supersonic planes seemed to defy "massification." The space program could offer some social trickledown, as well as a major point of pride. But here, too, SST came up short.

"There was this sense that the SST was basically a frill for rich men," says Heppenheimer. "It differed from Apollo. Nobody expected to fly to the moon, but those few people who did could stand in for all of us.

"At the time that the SST was under way as a program, only about half of the population of the United States had flown in anything," he adds. "The idea of spending a lot of government bucks just so that people could get to Paris a little bit faster didn't exactly turn on John Q. Public."

Future supersonic 'niche'?

Some experts see Concorde's failure as a kind of vindication. "In a sense, the demise of the Concorde shows that the US system for developing commercial technology with federal funding from the bottom up - when you allow a debate to take place - works," says Mel Horwitch, director of the Institute for Technology and Enterprise and professor of management at Polytechnic University in New York. "In a sense, we dodged a bullet."

He notes an upside of the Concorde program for Europe: It showed at least two nations that they could work cooperatively, paving the way for Airbus, the European aircraft consortium. Horwitch also sees potential in new markets - even as he notes a declining need for speed.

"If you can develop an SST that can go, say, from L.A. to Tokyo, that might be different," he says. "But people are now accommodating themselves to [even] this long flight. I think it's been factored into the way people do business.

People are also substituting technology for travel, Horwitch adds. "We're getting better at using videoconferencing, and that's only going to improve."

The main drawback of "niche" airplanes is that they need to fly full loads, constantly, when what's needed are new, more economical airliners - or else some great breakthough in SST technology, says Peter Field, who runs an aviation consultancy in Chesterfield, Mo.

One positive sign: Tests were performed in late summer by NASA, with industry partners, in which modifications of aircraft shapes indicated that the shape of sonic boom could also be altered - and its loudness reduced. The tests were performed on the same California range where Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947.

Still, looking at SST may, for the near future, mean looking back. Late overtures by the iconoclastic - and very capable - Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson to keep Concorde flying are widely viewed as unrealistic.

"[Concorde] represents in some ways an era that's passed us by," adds Horwitch. "It certainly represents a kind of vision. But ... we now evaluate and invest in technology with other kinds of concerns. We view big-government, macro projects with greater suspicion. The criteria are not just environmental, they're also economic, from the very beginning."

Sara B. Miller contributed to this report from Revere, Mass.

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