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31 July 2000

Concorde and the curse of Icarus

Air crashes reinforce our suspicion that man was not meant to fly

By Hugo Barnacle

Occasionally some wag tries to belittle the Wright brothers by pointing out that Orville’s first flight over the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk covered a distance of only 120 feet. They forget that neither Orville nor anyone else had ever flown a plane before, and he was still getting the hang of the controls. A nudge at the stick to steady the craft produced a dive that brought him to earth sooner than he had meant. On the same morning, Wilbur managed an 800ft hop. To go much further would have involved circling back to the prepared strip of ground so that he could land, and the brothers, no fools, intended to master the straight-and-level business before they tried such a fancy manoeuvre.

But the machine was a flyer all right. In the afternoon, a gust of wind got under its wings and flipped it over where it stood, despite all the brothers’ efforts to restrain it. If you run holding a tea tray with the front edge angled slightly up, pressure will build against the underside. That’s lift. The tray becomes a wing and tries to rise. A force of nature comes into play.

Five years on, in 1908, Orville demonstrated the principle for hour after hour in US Army trials, flying hundreds of miles in circuits over Fort Myer. On 17 September, a crowd of 2,000 people was there to watch him take Lieutenant Tom Selfridge up for a spin. A propeller cracked, warped, vibrated out of true and severed a rudder cable. Orville became the first pilot to survive a plane crash, Selfridge the first passenger to die in one.

Since the drama at Fort Myer, air crashes have never lost the power to shock us – perhaps none more so than the Concorde crash in Paris last Tuesday. The supersonic plane had been, since its unveiling in 1976, a byword for excellence; here it was, however, a fireball explosion, a bird-like machine plunging from the skies, claiming more than 100 lives in the process. Yet, somewhere deep down, air disasters also reinforce what we have suspected since the fall of Icarus: that there is something overreaching, and perhaps downright arrogant, about airborne man.

It is an infectious arrogance. W H Auden, beginning a lofty poetical overview of the Thirties scene, wrote: “Consider this and in our time/As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman . . .” But even back then, you didn’t need to don a helmet to savour the intoxicating, on-high perspective hitherto reserved for birds, supreme beings and the Ordnance Survey. You had only to be well-heeled. Imperial Airways would waft you, at a price, to Paris, the Middle East or India in Handley Page 42 biplanes: stately, chugging Queen Marys of the skies, their cabins brocaded and inlaid, their cuisine legendary.

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One HP42 was making slow headway against a desert wind when night fell. Rather than continue to the city where the hotel staff were waiting, the captain simply landed at an oasis and sent the male passengers to collect dried camel dung in their panama hats to make a bonfire while the stewards chilled the champagne and fixed some supper. Glamorous? I should say so.

Not one passenger suffered death or injury on an HP42 in all those years of commercial service. Biplane designs tended to favour lift and strength rather than speed and oomph. They were airworthy at the merest crawl. When the navy’s Swordfish biplanes returned to HMS Ark Royal after successfully torpedoing the Bismarck in the vicious spring weather of 1941, a team of 40 deckhands had to leap forward and seize each plane bodily as it landed, to make sure it stayed down. The wind was gusting at 60mph, more than enough to keep a Swordfish airborne even if it was standing still.

By then, the HP42s had also been taken into RAF service, ferrying personnel and supplies about. One way or another, they were all written off: a bad landing on a golf course here, a freak gale there. But their civilian record stood. Not one passenger lost. And it stood all the prouder in the postwar years. The new kind of plane, pressurised, high-performance, just wasn’t the same.

Britain’s white hope, the Avro Tudor, crashed at every opportunity, on one occasion even killing its own designer, Roy Chadwick. Chadwick’s great Lancaster bomber had survived flak and fighters, accidental loops and rolls, even an engine failure on take-off with a full bomb load. But the Tudor was one big snag. BOAC, Imperial’s successor and BA’s predecessor, cancelled its order for Tudors and bought De Havilland Comets instead, the world’s first commercial jets. These, however, were prone to explode: the cost of discovering what “metal fatigue” meant for super-fast high-altitude machines. By the time the structural faults were cured, and they were, Boeing had cornered the market. The global migrations of our own times are borne on American wings.

Until 25 July, one jet airliner alone could claim to have equalled the HP42’s glorious record of absolute safety. For 24 years, Concorde never lost a single soul, despite daily facing such stresses that, at Mach 2, the heat expands the plane until it is six inches longer than when standing idle on the ground. The test pilots used to say “You could fry an egg on that wing”, but you couldn’t. The egg would vaporise.

Just because of these extreme factors, Concorde had to be better than good. The last of the glamorous, adventurous air-liners, it lost out commercially to Boeing’s mass-market workhorse, the 747. The Boeing, good though it is, has come unstuck and killed people pretty regularly. But we treat it like the car, as a necessary evil. Even the poor and huddled masses don’t go by foot or boat any more, they go by 747. It is a condition of modern existence. Concorde is a luxury we can afford to question. The 747 we continue to trust, because we have to.