Thoughts of a supersonic aircraft for Britain had started as early as 1943 and steps were taken to develop one in 1946. However, it was not until 1959 that contracts began to be placed for a developmental aircraft.
In the first three images below you can see a 1959 letter from the Ministry of Aviation which outlines the development of a supersonic aircraft as a feasible idea which the British should pursue - though publicly appearing to question such developments.
Concorde development was led by BAC in Britain and Sud Aviation in France. A deal was signed between them in 1961. The British worked on the engines, the French on the airframe. From 1963 onwards, the name Concorde was developed, though until 1967 the British spelt it 'Concord'.
Naturally, the costs of developing such a step forward in aeronautics proved to be costly. Initially in 1959 the government had expected to put in £500,000 [c.£6.8 million at today's values] for feasibility studies. By 1964 the estimated costs of the programme had risen to £200 million [equivalent to c.£2.4 billion today]. In December 1967 the first prototype was built and in October 1969 the first supersonic flight was made. It reached Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, in November 1971. That year had also seen the first major problem - that of a power surge in the engines.
The first document below is a memorandum from 1959 which supports the development of the Concorde. The Cabinet report which follows is from 1964. It shows rising concerns about the cost and suggests the British scrap the programme completely in favour of concentrating on a Channel tunnel. The Labour government which came to power in 1964 did consider scrapping Concorde, but was dissuaded by French pressure.
This report from 1964 outlines the reasons why it was felt Britain should continue with the project. It includes economic and political explanation. The benefits for the aircraft industry are noted, as are improved relations with France, not long after the British application to join the EEC had been rejected by French President Charles De Gaulle.
The report below shows the wide range of technical problems which were encountered in preparation for Concorde's first flight in 1967. It demonstrates the complexities involved in ensuring air-worthiness of a new design - especially one which included revolutionary developments like the droop nose. There were inevitably a range of problems - from the electronic systems and fuel supply to the pilots' seats.
The following letter is a 1968 draft to M. Chamant, responsible for the French end of the programme, seeking to reassure him of the British commitment to the project, though in reality the British were still hesitant given the balance of payments and sterling problems Britain had been experiencing.
The programme continued with the the first inter-continental flights from France to Senegal in May and to South America in September 1971. In 1972, a tour was launched in stages through the Middle and Far East to Australia and back, in order to promote sales of the aircraft. However, it was not until 1976 that trans-Atlantic flights to New York began, which were to be the core of the service. Ultimately only 20 Concordes were built between 1966-80, and they were only sold to the two state-run airlines, British Airways and Air France. The 7 belonging to what is now BA, have flown over 150,000 hours, whilst the 5 of Air France have covered 100,000 hours. A problem in the late 1980s and early 1990s where parts of the upper rudder on a number of Concordes broke off, was corrected. The July 2000 crash was the first time in Concorde's 30 year history there had been any fatal accident.
The actual impact Concorde has had on aviation contrasts with the dreams that were held out for it in the 1960s and 1970s. Below is a letter detailing the Save the Concorde Fund launched in 1968 when it appeared that the government may scrap the aircraft. Following that is a 1968 speech by the Minister of State for Technology, John Stonehouse, at the launch of an exhibition about Concorde at Charing Cross Station. Even then he envisaged sales of 200 Concordes, earning £1 billion for Britain.
Concorde first flew in 1969, but at that time the project for a regular supersonic airline service was still a long way from taking off. Edward Heath's government inherited the scheme and in 1971 there were serious debates about whether to cancel it altogether. The files show us the development of the Concorde story, as the fate of the Great White Bird hung in the balance.
In Cabinet on March 18th Vernon Corfield, the Minister of Aviation Supply, was confident about Concorde's technological performance in current tests, but was clear that 'there remains no case for proceeding with Concorde on purely economic grounds the continuation of the project will on the most favourable assumptions result in substantial losses':
The accompanying Cabinet Memorandum spells out the consequences of cancellation, in particular for Britain's relationship with France:
The question of Concorde did not exist in isolation, and it was not simply a matter for the British government. Concorde had been developed in tandem with the French, with the two sides each sharing the half the work and the costs.
In France, Concorde had powerful backing in the person of the French President,
Georges Pompidou. The British Ambassador in Paris, Sir Christopher Soames,
wrote on 2nd April 1971 of Pompidou's personal commitment to the plane - and
how he planned to fly in it as soon as he could:
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And indeed Pompidou did fly in the prototype Concorde on 7th May 1971.
This was very different from the British attitude, epitomised by the advice
from Downing Street to Prince Philip that the Duke of Edinburgh should not
fly in Concorde because this would over-emphasise British commitment to the
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The shared involvement with the French meant that the decision whether or not to cancel Concorde was influenced by political, as well as commercial and technological, issues. Relations with France were absolutely crucial to Britain's attempt to negotiate entry into Europe. Before Heath went to Paris in May 1971 to discuss EEC entry with Pompidou, he received a briefing from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Anglo-French relations - and point number nine was Concorde:
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The negotiations were successful and the British path to Europe was secure, but the question of Concorde was still undecided. The Government Think Tank - the Central Policy Review Staff - assessed all the issues surrounding the project in a Cabinet Memorandum dated 29th November 1971. Note the opening sentences 'Concorde is a commercial disaster. It should never have been started ' - and yet, six pages later, the concluding recommendation is that ' The Government should commit itself whole-heartedly and publicly to Concorde'.
The Cabinet considered the CPRS review when they met on 2nd December 1971. They still hoped that the French might decide to withdraw from the project - but at the same time recognised that 'it is no longer realistic for us to contemplate unilateral withdrawal':
By the end of 1971, it was clear the Concorde project was going to come to fruition after all. Five years later commercial service started.
If you look at the Cabinet Minutes from previous years - all available in the Public Record Office reading rooms - you can see that the debates about Concorde in 1971 were by no means new:
In 1962 the files said it was a 'poor showing' commercially:
DOCUMENT REFERENCE: CAB 128/36 (6th November 1962)
In 1964 it would 'cost nearly as much as two Channel Tunnels' and was 'demonstrably
DOCUMENT REFERECE: CAB128/38 (25th June 1964)
In 1966 the case for withdrawing was 'stronger than ever':
DOCUMENT REFERENCE: CAB 128/41 (30th June 1966)