In a festive and sentimental moment, French and British aerospace leaders Thursday celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first test flight of the Concorde, the world's only supersonic airliner.
The lavish birthday party for the jet, held in a hangar owned by the French national aerospace company, Aerospatiale, attracted the cream of European engineers and aviators.
On March 2, 1969, pilot Andre Turcat drove the slant-nosed craft down the Toulouse runway for its first flight, and in interviews at Thursday's ceremony he said the Concorde was still "my jewel." And the British ambassador to France, Ewin Fergusson, praised the French-British venture as "the flower of the aerospace industry."
But the gaiety of the occasion was dampened by uncertainty over the future of commercial supersonic air transport.
Although the Concorde recently has been profitable on its transatlantic routes for Air France and British Airways, a decision on whether to build a successor to the sleek aircraft is at least 10 years away, key executives said. The 13 Concordes still in operation are expected to last another 20 years.
A $10-Billion Estimate
The conflict stems in part from the different visions held by French, British and American aviation officials for aircraft that are supersonic or hypersonic (those that travel at many times the speed of sound).
Aerospace executives said no other type of supersonic jet will be built unless all three countries, and possibly Japan, collaborate on a massive government-funded project.
"We must find a way to bring everyone together," British Aerospace President Raymond Lygo said. "But I have to tell you, it is highly unlikely that will happen."
Aerospatiale President Henri Martre, although more optimistic than his British counterpart, estimated that development of a bigger, longer-distance version of the Concorde would cost $10 billion and take 10 years.
Because of the cost and technical difficulties of the project, Martre said, "it is essential that the United States be involved." But he said the Americans would not necessarily be allowed to assume the lead in any project, and he criticized what he termed a preoccupation among U.S. aerospace officials with hypersonics.
"Hypersonic travel is at least 30, 40 years away for the commercial transport industry," Martre said.
The French have suggested an aircraft, the SST-Future, that would fly at Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), which is about the same speed attained by the Concorde. But the SST-Future would carry twice as many passengers--200 instead of 100--and would have twice the range--6,000 miles instead of 3,000. Martre said a French study based on projected growth in air travel has shown a market potential for 300 such aircraft by the year 2005.
However, the proposed French craft would present intimidating technical challenges, according to engineers for British and French teams studying the idea. It would require, for example, a "mixed-cycle" engine that would function as a traditional subsonic jet during takeoff and landing but would contract into a smaller, sleeker shape in mid-flight to perform a supersonic role.
British efforts, meanwhile, have centered on a reusable space vehicle that would fly outside the Earth's atmosphere. This project, known as HOTOL (Horizontal Takeoff and Landing), originally was intended as a satellite launch vehicle but has also been promoted as a possible passenger craft.
In recent years, the United States has begun research into a hypersonic aircraft, known as the Aero-Space Plane or the X-30, that is much closer to the British project than the French.
A total of 5,000 U.S. aerospace workers are involved in the project, according to the trade magazine Aviation Week. It reported that NASA, the Defense Department and private defense contractors will spend $570 million in this fiscal year for research.
During the festivities Thursday, which included a sumptuous dinner in a 14th-Century hall for Christian pilgrims, British and French public relations representatives circulated among journalists and distributed copies of their rival projects.
"Why reinvent the wheel?" Lygo said of the French proposal for a bigger version of the Concorde. "We thought if we could crash the sound barrier, the world would be our oyster. But that was not true. What we have now is not the sound barrier, but a mental barrier."
He described the U.S. research on the X-30 as "crazy."
Nonetheless, a key result of the Concorde anniversary gathering in this city, capital of the French aerospace industry, was a swelling of nostalgia for the early days of SST development.
Basic research on the Concorde project began in France and Britain in 1956, while the American effort to produce a supersonic jet was abandoned as too costly. A Soviet attempt ended in a dramatic crash of their Tupolev-144 at the Paris Air Show on June 3, 1973.
And there were not many dry eyes among the veterans of the Concorde project when a film of the first flight was shown on giant screens in the hangar, with a gaily painted retired Concorde as a backdrop.
"It was one of those projects where you couldn't stop people working on it. It made a lot of young men very old," British design engineer Ted Talbot recalled. "But we are ready to try again, as soon as someone tells us."