24 October 2003

No doubt everyone's sick to death of hearing about the "end of the supersonic age" but I don't care.

I grew up in the '70s in an area of Bristol that's very near to Filton airport, and so had several opportunities at that young age to witness Concorde test flights. I still remember clear as day the time it came low over our house, seeming to fill my bedroom window as it turned gracefully in front of my awestruck eyes before thundering off into the distance.

In adulthood I soon forgot about all that . Having no real interest in aviation or any likelihood of being able to actually fly on one, I soon took for granted what is essentially a miracle of mankind's engineering skills. It wasn't until August last year, when I took my son to Legoland in Windsor, that I began to realise just what Concorde means to me and everybody else.

Windsor is a stone's throw from Heathrow and so, during our day at Legoland, there was almost constant airplane activity above us, as an endless procession of jumbo jets made their way to and from the landing strip. After an hour or so you stopped noticing them. Then, at around 11.00am, Legoland was suddenly reduced to a standstill as Concorde roared over our heads, ascending into the clear blue sky beyond. Everyone in the theme park just stopped what they were doing and stared in awe, just as I had done all those years earlier. Then, as it hurtled off into the distance, the crowd suddenly broke into a spontaneous round of applause. People were clapping, cheering, whistling and whooping with excitement; their lives momentarily touched by something extraordinary. The feeling of exhilaration hit me too, and I was clapping along with everyone else, a huge grin of childlike delight all over my face. Was that due simply to a surge of hitherto unrecognised national pride? Coming out in support of Britain's recently beleaguered technological flagship? Or was it the display of sheer power, speed, grace and volume that was making us all jump for joy? From my own warped point of view, I think a lot of Concorde's appeal is to do with that sound, the one which it's namesake, Pete Kember, can dream of but never truly replicate. That Sonic Boom which has been Concorde's curse is also it's greatest asset (other than the speed of course). It's the reason why mere TV footage can never thrill you in the way that genuine near-proximity can. It's the sound of mankind tearing the heavens a new arsehole, an audio representation of our might and ingenuity. And as that thunderous tremor splits the air and vibrates through the body, it invigorates and makes you feel alive. I'm sure people used to go to Celtic Frost gigs specifically to get that kind of buzz, but frankly Concorde leaves even the loudest metal band for dead on the thrill-o-meter.

So now Concorde is retired. As my son and I watched it fly over Bristol this afternoon (a mere speck of white in the sky this time) heading for Heathrow on it's final commercial flight, I couldn't help but reflect that never more will we hear that sound in a 'live' situation. Mankind's greatest noise-generator has been turned off permanently. The Americans are already talking about designing a new supersonic jet with dramatically reduced noise-levels. But where's the fun in that? Concorde was conceived in a different era, when Man's technological achievements were given far more importance than any notions of 'conservation' or 'noise pollution'. Nowadays we need to be more energy-conscious, more considerate to the environment, more sensible and grown-up about everything. We have to be if this planet's gonna support us into the 22nd Century. That's one reason why the Concorde story had to end now, but I can't help mourning it's passing.

Concorde: Majestic. Futuristic. Awe-inspiring. Beautiful. Loud as Fuck.