Faster Than The Sun

Posted on May 09, 2014 by Gary Carruthers

Mong Kok, Hong Kong SAR, 9th May 2014

Once there was a bird that flew faster than the sun.  You took off in London or Paris, and you landed in New York before you took off.  It was Concorde.

For a few years before it ended service, I was in the lucky position to travel on it quite a bit.  (And even luckier, I wasn't paying for the tickets!)  It was surprisingly small - an aluminium pipe of thirty rows of four seats, somehow delicately packing in beautiful actresses, models and snow-haired, suited men, "doing quite nicely, thank you".  And a pioneeringly rough ride - no space, no time for an inflight movie; no proper galley to prepare a decent meal. 

Nothing, except good company and going faster than a bullet.  The boom as the afterburners kicked in!  The deceleration on landing as the braking tossed you out of your seat and into your belt!  How hot the tiny windows got when you kissed Mach 2.0!  I remember once phoning my mother from Central Park and dining with her less than 5 hours later in London.  You can't do that today.  Stunning technology, thrust aside by management consultants and quarterly results.  Fools.  People knew how to dream then.

Once Concorde ended service, I bought some of the flight instruments at auction in Paris.  I remember how my hand trembled as I held up my paddle to bid, never having been in an auction before.  I particularly like the airspeed indicator, pictured below.  It's the sister of the one in the bird at the Smithsonian museum - they interchanged, one in flight while the other was serviced.  From 0 to 250 knots, it's just like a normal airspeed indicator, but after that, it switches to Mach.  You can see 0.4 to 1.0 in the photo, but in-flight, the scale would slide round, driven by air pressure, reflecting the fact that the speed of sound varies with the density of air.  Such a beautiful, elegant design - no electronics, all mechanical, powered purely by velocity and a pitot-static probe. 

You can't have it; I'll never part with it, even if that means starving to death.

I particularly remember my last flight, a few weeks after the Gonesse incident.  I'd bought along a sketch pad and was starting to design watch dials.  I was really shy about it - I didn't want other people to see because it was such a silly passion.  I was drawing watches that were too complicated ever to exist, so what was the point?  It's taken 15 years, but we've made it possible.  You can't understand how satisfying that is, how happy it makes me feel, to see a wild, impossible vision come true.  I think I know how the designers of Concorde must have felt.

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