21 January 1976: Concorde’s first commercial flight

The post-war period was an exciting time in the aerospace industry. The industry and the machines that served it were developing at an extremely rapid pace.

It was also a time of post-imperial jostling. The European empires were in decline, while America was forging ahead. By the end of the 1960s, the market for airliners was dominated by American companies – Boeing, Lockheed, and McDonnell Douglas.

Europe wanted a piece of the action. They wanted prestige, and to let the world know they were still major players.

And so the governments of Britain and France agreed to jointly develop what they hoped would be the future of air travel – the world’s first supersonic passenger aircraft. A treaty was signed in 1962, and development started.

The plane first flew on 2 March 1969, and initially, there was a lot of interest from the world’s airlines. But it soon ran into problems. Governments weren’t keen on sonic booms scaring their populations, and many (including the US, which had a very large subsonic airliner manufacturing base to protect) banned it from flying at supersonic speeds over their territories.

There was also the question of costs. The project, being underwritten by the British and French governments, racked up six times the original estimate. The price of oil went through the roof and Concorde was unable to compete with the new generation of wide-bodied aircraft, led by the Boeing 747, which had its first flight just weeks before Concorde’s.

Faced with these problems, its customers evaporated. The only two left were the state airlines of Britain and France. But development continued, and 20 aircraft were built, at a total cost of some £1.3bn.

Finally, at 11:40am 21 January 1976 – seven years after the prototype first flew, and five years after the 747 entered service – two Concordes took off simultaneously from London and Paris, carrying the first commercial passengers. The British Airways flight set off for Bahrain, while the Air France flight headed for Rio de Janeiro, via Dakar.