The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.
—J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Christian Marty. One letter short of “Christian Martyr,” and in some way he was a martyr—to flight, to speed, to the invisible laws of nature. Jean Reno could have played him in the movies, and Serge Gainsbourg could have written his theme song. Marty was more Lord Byron than Chuck Yeager, though he was what they used to call a man of action, a lover of extreme sports such as windsurfing, hang gliding, and rally driving. He was something of a legend for becoming the first person to windsurf across the Atlantic.

He was also the captain of the Air France Concorde Paris–New York Flight 4590. To fly such a magnificent bird was the highest honor among pilots, but on July 25, 2000, the plane blew a tire on its left main gear on takeoff from Charles de Gaulle Airport. The crew lost control, and the massive aircraft, trailing flames in its jet stream, nearly collided with a taxiing Air France 747, which happened to be bringing President Jacques Chirac back from a summit in Tokyo.

The crash of Air France Concorde Flight 4590 resulted in more than 100 deaths, and proved to be the beginning of the end of supersonic air travel.

Captain Marty struggled to lift the plane 200 feet into the air. Barely two minutes after the control tower warned the crew, “You have flames! You have flames behind you!,” it suddenly went nose up, rolled over, and crashed into a hotel. All 100 passengers were killed, along with nine crew members, and four bystanders. Captain Marty’s last words were “Too late … no time.”

Le Figaro announced, “Without doubt, Concorde died yesterday at the age of 31. All that will remain is the myth of a beautiful white bird.” The Times of London lamented, “Nothing will ever be quite the same again.... This was the super plane, the symbol of progress, the icon of invention, a totem.”

Air France president Jean-Cyril Spinetta immediately grounded the company’s fleet of Concordes, though the plane’s final flight would not take place until June 2003. But what caused the crash of an aircraft that had, until then, enjoyed an excellent safety record? Was it a design flaw? Was it sabotage? Or was it just sheer bad luck?

The Race to Mach 2

The Concorde was a stunningly beautiful plane of elegant design that flew at twice the speed of sound and reached an altitude of 60,000 feet—so high that passengers could see, from their tiny windows, the curvature of the earth. At 1,350 m.p.h., it crossed the pond in three and a half hours instead of seven—closer to three hours on the New York–to–London run. Passengers flew in comfortable if somewhat cramped luxury, and the aircraft had an impeccable safety record.

Queen Elizabeth II on the Concorde after her Silver Jubilee tour of Canada and the West Indies, 1977.

For a time, it was the favorite means of travel for heads of state, Arabian princes, movie stars, supermodels, business moguls, and rock stars. Henry Kissinger, Andy Warhol, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Robert Redford, Luciano Pavarotti, and Mick Jagger all flew the Concorde, as did Christie Brinkley, Sting, Johnny Cash, Elton John, Sean Connery, Diana Ross, and Paul McCartney. Few else could afford the $12,000 price tag for a round trip between London or Paris and New York.

Developed jointly by English and French engineers, the plane was named “Concorde,” French for “unity.” After years of development and testing, it began commercial service in January 1976, offering passengers unparalleled speed, comfort, and luxury.

But a supersonic passenger plane was simultaneously being developed by Soviet aeronautical engineers, pioneered by Andrei Tupolev, the arrogant but undisputed star of the Soviet aviation industry. Stalin, at one point, had Tupolev jailed for being too outspoken, but Tupolev continued to work on aircraft plans even in the dim light of his cell. Finally released in 1941, he went on to create the designs for scores of military and civilian aircraft. Building a supersonic passenger jet—before his counterparts in the West—would be Tupolev’s greatest challenge.

The task fell to the first Soviet premier of the Cold War era, Nikita Khrushchev. In a secret meeting deep inside the Kremlin, he demanded his aviation engineers deliver the first supersonic passenger plane in the sky. But the Soviets were far behind the British and French teams; they realized they needed to “borrow” information from the West, in whatever form it could be found. They recruited Russian exchange students living in Britain and France to pore over technical journals and aviation magazines and report back. Thousands of students were lured by the promise of scholarship money.

Their covert operations were straight out of a spy film: Russian agents stole blueprints and documents, transferred them to microfilm, and smuggled them out in cigar tins and towel dispensers, sometimes working with Communist sympathizers or paid informants.

Building a supersonic passenger jet—before his counterparts in the West—would be Tupolev’s greatest challenge.

The Soviets infiltrated the Concorde factory in France, right under the nose of the D.S.T. (Directorate of Territorial Surveillance), the French intelligence service. A declassified C.I.A. report noted that the spy ring included a pair of Czechoslovakian priests who smuggled microfilm rolled into toothpaste tubes and passed them along to spies on the Ostend-Warsaw express. And at the British Aircraft Corporation Concorde factory, an English spy whose code name was “Ace” had been carefully funneling a trove of documents to the Soviets.

The Concorde made its final flight in 2003, from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris to Washington Dulles International Airport, where it is now on permanent display.

By 1964, British and French intelligence had one Soviet agent under surveillance. His name was Sergei Pavlov, chief of Aeroflot’s Paris office. The agent assigned to watch him was Pierre Levergeois, a patient and thoughtful intelligence officer, more Jules Maigret than James Bond. Levergeois and his confrères followed Pavlov through the streets of Paris, but rather than expose the Russian spy, the French decided to feed him disinformation.

When they saw Pavlov collecting tire scrapings off the runway from a Concorde test model, they cooked up in their laboratories a rubber compound with the consistency of bubble gum and passed it along to Pavlov as an industrial secret. The gooey stuff was a bewildering mess for the Soviets. Pavlov was arrested at a Paris café in 1965. When plans for the Concorde’s landing gear were found in his briefcase, he was deported.

But another Soviet spy remained undetected in France for 15 years, gathering intelligence on Concorde and sending it back to the Soviets through coded radio messages. His name was Serge Fabiew, and with the help of French Communist Party members, he would bring to the Soviets hundreds, if not thousands, of technical documents.

The French had intercepted his messages but couldn’t crack the transmission code until Fabiew was arrested in 1977 and revealed the cipher under interrogation. Even then, the sheer bulk of Russian-language messages was so overwhelming that the D.S.T. had to bring a Soviet expert back from retirement to make sense of it all. He discovered a note of congratulations from Moscow, revealing that Fabiew had sent a complete set of blueprints back to Russia.

Andrei Tupolev (third from left), the designer of the Tu-144, worked on aircraft plans even during his time in a Soviet prison.

By early 1968, the Soviet Union had finally caught up with Concorde. They named their magnificent bird the Tu-144, after Tupolev. When Concorde’s first test flight was scheduled for early in l969, the Soviets worked around the clock to launch their Tu-144 prototype ahead of that—which they did, on December 31, 1968. When photographs of their elegant plane were sent out around the world, the press dubbed it the “Concordski,” and a cry went up among Western engineers about the planes’ similarities.

They had been warned. In 1963, a delegation of British scientists and industry leaders had traveled to Moscow for a routine tour of Soviet aircraft, during which they stumbled upon a small, tabletop model of a supersonic plane. The British were staggered by its resemblance to Concorde. How did this happen?

An inquiry was ordered, but the head of the Concorde Executive Committee, Sir Archibald Russell, and his French counterpart, Louis Giusta, remained unconvinced by the well-founded allegations of espionage. Russell believed that for supersonic flight “the shape is more or less imposed on the plane for aerodynamic reasons.”

Soviet spies infiltrated the Concorde factory in France, right under the nose of the French intelligence service.

The chief curator of air transportation and special-purpose aircraft at Washington, D.C.’s National Air and Space Museum, Robert van der Linden, also believes that the similarities between the Soviet and the Anglo-French prototypes can be explained by the design requirements for supersonic flight.

I met with Van der Linden on a hot day in early July to talk about Concorde. In a conference room near the museum, he pointed out that “there was a lot of espionage going on just naturally, but to say that dismisses the fact that the Soviet engineers and designers were first-class, and one reason the Tu-144 looks like the Concorde is they found similar solutions to problems.”

The swept-back, delta-shaped wings were a necessity, as was the down-sloped nose cone (“nose droop”), which enabled the pilot to see the runway on takeoff and landing. As Van der Linden explained, “They all use the delta wing—the gorgeous compound curves on it! The Russian ones were straighter, but that shape has the best compromise for low speeds, which you need for landing and takeoff, and high speeds for cruising.”

“Sometimes there’s copying going on,” Van der Linden concedes, “but a lot of it’s just a shortcut to save development costs. Don’t think for a minute that Soviet engineers weren’t capable of building something without copying. Remember—they put a satellite in orbit first and a human in orbit first!”

As it happened, the Concorde Executive Committee members were more concerned that the Americans would develop their own supersonic jet that could achieve Mach 3, making their Concorde obsolete, just as the jet airplane had put the turboprop out of business.

They need not have worried. Boeing was working on its own alternative to the Concorde, the Boeing 2707 Super Sonic Transport—President Kennedy had been a keen enthusiast—but Congress voted to stop funding the project amid a recession and a spike in the price of oil. There were other issues as well, related to design, the cost of materials, and opposition from environmental activists. There would be no supersonic commercial aircraft built in America.

Swan Song

Air France’s Concorde was readied for its first public flight at the 1973 Paris Air Show, as was the Soviets’ Tu-144. The annual event is a showcase for new aviation designs, and the world was watching. On the third day of the air show, 200,000 spectators witnessed Concorde’s debut. With French test pilot André Turcat in the cockpit, the plane performed flawlessly.

Then it was the Tu-144’s turn to take to the skies, with its Russian pilot, Mikhail Kozlov. “Just wait until you see us fly,” he bragged, “then you’ll see something.” It, too, performed brilliantly at first, executing a 360-degree turn above the runway before making its steep climb into the cloudless sky. Suddenly, the plane abruptly leveled off. At 1,000 feet above the ground, it began to break apart. It crashed spectacularly, killing its six Soviet crew members as well as eight French citizens on the ground, including three children. (One was decapitated by flying debris.)

The Tu-144’s first public flight, at the 1973 Paris Air Show, ended with a crash that killed all six crew members as well as eight people on the ground.

The French and Soviet governments released a terse statement to the effect that it was impossible to determine the true cause of the crash. What was even more puzzling was the disappearance of the Tu-144’s black box, which the authorities claimed had been destroyed in the accident. In 1998—more than 25 years after the event—the world finally discovered what likely caused the plane to break up in the sky over Goussainville, Val-d’Oise, France. The Tu-144 had sighted a French Army Mirage jet that had been secretly launched by the French, possibly for espionage reasons. The Concorde pilot had been forewarned, but not Kozlov, who maneuvered to avoid colliding with the Mirage, causing the plane to stall.

Both the French and the Russians are rumored to have agreed to cover up the presence of the French Army Mirage, to save face on both sides.

But there were other problems facing supersonic transports. One was the window-shattering sonic boom as Concorde broke the sound barrier, which forced the industry to limit its acceleration until flights were over the ocean to cut down on complaints about the noise. The reduction of commercial routes to transatlantic flights between Paris, New York, and London cut into profitability.

And that was the second problem, as Van der Linden has written: “Such speed didn’t come cheap.... A transatlantic flight required the high-maintenance aircraft to gulp jet fuel at the rate of one ton per seat, and the average round-trip price was $12,000. And even on most of these flights, Concordes flew half full, with many of the passengers flying as nonpaying guests of the airlines or as upgrades.”

The price of a round-trip ticket across the Atlantic on the Concorde was $12,000.

On June 12, 2003, “one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built” left Charles de Gaulle Airport, in Paris, headed for Washington Dulles International Airport, where it would go on permanent display. That particular plane was “the pride of the Air France fleet, the first in service with the airline, with the most flight time at 17,824 hours,” Van der Linden wrote in the February/March 2004 issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian. As he was then in France on business, Van der Linden was invited to fly on Concorde’s final flight as a representative of the Smithsonian.

It was a gloomy, windswept day when he arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport. There were 60 other passengers, including France’s transport minister, former Air France presidents and Concorde pilots, and the renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who always flew with his cello in the seat next to him. After being whisked through customs, Van der Linden arrived in Air France’s beautiful waiting area, where he felt he had “walked into a party” amid the sound of popping champagne corks. He boarded Air France Flight 4386 at noon, the doors were closed, and the plane taxied across the runway while hundreds of airport workers waved and cheered.

Russian agents stole blueprints and documents, transferred them to microfilm, and smuggled them out in cigar tins and towel dispensers.

The plane “accelerat[ed] down the runway to 225 m.p.h.; after rolling less than 5,000 feet, we were airborne. As we climbed, the Concorde continued to accelerate, and after 19 minutes, we reached the French coast. We were at 25,500 feet, traveling at Mach .75.... We continued to accelerate, leaving the English Channel behind.” Van der Linden watched the Mach meter, mounted on the forward-cabin bulkhead, which monitored the plane’s speed increase. He expected some kind of bump once they reached Mach 1, but the ride continued as smooth as glass.

Thirty-five minutes after takeoff, already 272 miles from Paris, the seven flight attendants began cabin service. First, caviar and champagne were served, followed by an hors d’oeuvre: medallions of rock lobster with crab sauce, or foie gras with chutney and carrot jelly, served with white wine. By then the plane had reached Mach 2—about 1,350 m.p.h., twice the speed of sound and faster than the Earth’s rotation. At an altitude of 52,000 to 59,000 feet, the Concorde soared high above all other air traffic. “The sky above us was a stunning dark purple,” recalled Van der Linden. “I tried to see the curvature of Earth, but to my dismay the entire Atlantic was clouded over.”

Next, pan-seared veal medallions with Maxim Potatoes were served on fine china, along with a hearty Bordeaux poured into engraved glassware. By the time dessert arrived (“seasonal fruit timbale, petits fours, and a selection of fine cheeses”), Flight 4386 had begun its descent. In just under four hours, while its passengers dined lavishly, the plane had crossed the Atlantic and arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport. By the time Van der Linden finished dessert, he could “see Maryland.”

A transatlantic lobster dinner on the Concorde, 1978.

“The Concorde was clearly superior to conventional airliners,” Van der Linden concluded, “if only you could afford the ticket. And few could, which is why we’re unlikely ever to see its like again.” The Concorde F-BVFA is now on permanent display at Dulles Airport’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

It’s true that the high price of a round-trip ticket, the limited routes, and the tremendous cost of fuel had all made Concorde unsustainable. But it was the spectacular, fiery crash of Air France Flight 4590 that ended it all.

What had caused it? Certainly not pilot error, with Captain Marty flying the plane. Given the Concorde’s early history of industrial espionage, it’s tempting to look for answers there. But the reason is much simpler. A piece of metal had been left on the runway at Charles de Gaulle, and when the plane struck it, it caused a hole in the fuel tanks that, by design, were placed on the underside of the wings. Gallons of fuel ignited in a fiery burst. Because there were so few Concordes flying—14—that one spectacular accident suddenly gave them an unsustainable safety record.

The reality is over, but the dream continues. There are still those who want to go higher and faster, who consider quaint our current fleet of jet aircraft. Several companies are now trying to re-introduce supersonic air travel with new, ultra-high-speed jet concepts, hoping to connect major cities in as little as one hour and fly up to nine times faster than the speed of sound. There are even wild rumors that China’s Space Transportation company is developing a 12-passenger jet that can fly 2,600 m.p.h., connecting New York and Beijing in little more than an hour.

A Colorado-based company, Boom Supersonic, founded by Blake Scholl, an Internet entrepreneur, promises speeds of up to Mach 1.7—not technically supersonic, but still twice the speed of the next-fastest passenger plane—with the first prototype planned for an initial test flight in 2025 and commercial service to begin in 2029. The Boom Supersonic plane will be assembled in Greensboro, North Carolina, not far from Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers made their first successful flight, beginning our age of Icarus.

Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL.Previously a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends