NEW YORK, Oct. 23, 2003 — I remember amazing details of my first flight, though at the time, in 1968, I was just over 6 years old. The jet was a Boeing 707 operated by TWA that had taken off from Paris that morning, stopped at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and was continuing on to National Airport in Washington, D.C. (The idea that someone would name an airport for Ronald Reagan would have been unimaginable at the time).
I remember men in suits, my dad included, putting their fedoras in the overhead compartments. Very few women, besides my mom, seemed to be on the plane. Except for the stewardesses — yes, that’s what they were called, and called themselves, back then — who all wore white and red mini-dresses and kept coming over to where my parents and I were seated and pinching me.
They gave me a set of plastic wings, a package of bubble-gum cigarettes (imagine the lawsuits today!) and invited me into the cabin to sit in the pilot’s lap before we taxied out to the runway. Flying then transcended mere travel; it took a person into another dimension, and for me it provided a glimpse of the life led by the envied few known as “the jet set.”
No one knew it at the time, but the jet we flew in and the airline that flew it would be doomed, victims of the seemingly inexorable march of that thing we call “progress.” It was relatively easy reconciling the passage of the Boeing 707, the first successful jet airliner, into history. Consider its successors: the enormous, whale-like 747, which seemed, at once, to defy gravity and class distinctions, opening the skies to slobs like me; and the delta-winged spaceship known as Concorde, the jet that ensured that luxury and the traditional ethos of flying did not fall victim to the “super saver” fare.
Up we go...
Like the height of skyscrapers, the speed of the winning car at the Indy 500, the world record in the pole vault and the average weight of an American, humanity always seemed to be besting itself in the days of my youth. The Empire State Building gave way to the World Trade Center towers; the corner grocery to the supermarket; Sonny Liston to Muhammad Ali.
Yet Friday, as the Concorde roars off Kennedy’s runway for the last time, I cannot help thinking we are losing more than the last vestige of this “golden age of air travel.” What succeeds this wonderful aircraft? At one time, the Anglo-French consortium that built it had a faster, quieter, bigger, more fuel-efficient Concorde II on its drawing boards. Instead, the company changed its name to Airbus and built a flying toothpaste tube.
If such a thing as the fastest means of civilian travel can pass into dust with so little bother, can we help but wonder: Have we humans peaked as a species?
The practical human
Intellectually, of course, I understand the forces and factors behind the decision not to replace this unique symbol of human ingenuity. British Airways and Air France concluded that the cost of a replacement aircraft could never be recouped in the life of the aircraft even at the outrageous fares Concorde’s elite passengers shelled out: $10,000 a ticket.
Still, the disappearance of this entire mode of civilian transportation — supersonic flight — is unlike any other phasing out I can think of in human history. Slave galleys, paddlewheels, stagecoaches, ocean liners and trans-continental rail service all had their day. Yet in none of those cases did humanity settle for something less when their day had past. In that, Concorde’s retirement may be unique.
What is progress?
What does this say about the human race? I can almost hear my Green friends already claiming this as a moment in which “progress” is redefined: faster and bigger and higher are merely a naïve prescription for the extinction of the planet, goes the argument. Or, for the sake of the anarcho-syndicalists who like their slogans to fit on placards: “No more flying Hummers!”
Perhaps. The idea that humanity is always besting itself probably is a matter of perspective. Certainly, no Native American would ever claim such a thing. And the misanthrope in me can think of plenty of ways in which we push the envelope that are hardly worth commemorating. A few recent ones:
- Most innocent humans killed in a single terrorist incident (2,792, World Trade Center, New York, 2001).
- Most humans displaced by public works project (1.2 million, Three Gorges Dam, 2002, China).
- Most expensive Senate race in history (Hillary Clinton (D) vs. Rick Lazio (R), $68 million, New York, 2000).
- Largest conventional bomb (MOAB, 21,000 lbs., U.S. Air Force, 2003).
There are positive examples, too. The reduction of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War; the world record in the men’s mile, currently 3:43.13 but falling every few years or so; new strains of rice and wheat that may prove more resistant to Africa’s killer droughts; Viagra; and the list goes on.
But isn’t there something incomplete about that list? I’m sure I’m missing many others — breakthroughs in breast-enlargement technology, genetically engineered defecation-free dogs, low-calorie beer. Yet all of these things seem like incremental improvements — tweaks, if you will — rather than breakthroughs. We appear, as a species, to be building on past successes and afraid to break new ground. This year’s Nobel Prize for Physics, for instance, was shared by three scientists representing Russia, the United States and Britain “for pioneering contributions to the theory of superconductors and superfluids.” Contributions? No offense, but what ever happened to discoveries?
Is it wrong for us to demand more and faster progress — that cancer be cured, that someone will invent a shaving implement ideal for the male face but completely useless for the female legs (or at least equipped with a very loud alarm that warns of misuse)? Should we really stop dreaming that our cars, trains and aircraft should grow in speed proportionate to the proliferation of Internet pornography?
The death of dreams
The retirement of Concorde without any realistic hope for a successor has got to signal something more than a new concern for gas mileage or hard times in the airline industry. Anyone who has flown from New York to Tokyo, from London to New Delhi or Vladivostok to Moscow can easily imagine paying at least twice the fare for half the service.
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I would say, here, “if we can send a man to the moon, …” but we even gave that up. About the same time American aerospace industry canceled its own version of the Concorde — the stillborn “SST” — America’s space priorities shifted from manned interplanetary adventure to hauling cargo into orbit. Not coincidentally, I would argue, that’s about when we set a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour, had our last house call from a doctor or fresh milk delivered in cold glass jars at the front door.
I never did fly on the Concorde: I turned down a chance in the mid-1990s, while based in London, to fly to the North Pole and back (if I promised to write a story about it) on New Year’s Eve. I sucked up furiously to the BA press man in New York as soon as the Concorde’s retirement was announced last April, but, alas, to no avail. I’m sure my seat went to somebody like Boy George or Yoko Ono.
But I will always have my special memory. During my years in London, years I spent in a less than lucrative post at the BBC World Service, I lived in Southfields, a southwest London neighborhood best known as the tube stop people alight from if they’re going to Wimbledon. Every day at 4:30 p.m., the dishes would rumble a bit and my 2-year-old daughter would race to the front window, part the lace curtains and point into the sky.
“Concorde!” Caitie would scream. “Daddy, the Concorde!”
If only we all had such faith in our dreams.
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