Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 August 2019

In 1974, Concorde's visit to the Arabian Gulf was anything but harmonious

British officials battled to save the supersonic plane nobody wanted to buy - despite high profile displays in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and across the Gulf

It is 1974 and one of the technological wonders of the age is in deep trouble.

Concorde is the world’s first supersonic passenger aircraft, capable of crossing the Atlantic in three hours and 15 minutes.

It has performed flawlessly in its maiden flight, and is the pride of the Anglo-French consortium that designed and built it.

There is only one slight problem; nobody wants to buy it.

Optimistic projections that over 1,000 Concordes would be sold worldwide have evaporated. The order book is full only of cancellations. In the past year, Pan-Am, American Airlines, TWA, Qantas and Air India are among the airlines to have dropped out.

Only BOAC and Air France still plan to fly supersonic, and as the state airlines of Britain and France they really have very little say in the matter.

Under these circumstances, what can be done to salvage what is turning into a £1.3 billion (Dh6.bn) white elephant with wings?

Some people in Bahrain were surprised at being able to hear the engine noise in the town when Concorde's engines were being tested at the airport

British diplomatic document

A series of once-confidential documents, now available to read online at the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive, reveal the desperate efforts of British officials to salvage the project, as Concorde made a series of high profile visits to the region.

It was a desperate, sometimes bad tempered affair, that would ultimately end in failure.

Indications of trouble ahead came with a confidential exchange between two UK officials marked “Concorde Trials and Tribulations.”

The manufacturers had earmarked one of the two prototype aircraft to fly to the Gulf, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, for what were called “hot weather testing” but in reality were also a sales pitch.

What the document called “the on-again off-again nature of the trials/demonstration,” was not going well.

British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) officials had then hoped to take the aircraft to Singapore, which they saw as a potential market, but were thwarted when the manufacturers extended the stay in the Gulf and then moved to India for monsoon testing.

As a result, relations were fractured, with what was politely referred to as an “exchange of telegrams” with the High Commissioner in Singapore.

He complained the cancellation had put “their and Concorde's credibility at risk".

Further documents show no sign of the rift healing. A communication, marked confidential, from 1974, noted the complaint from the Singapore High Commission about "BAC's attitude to the mission, and BAC's ineptitude in dealings with local interests".

It suggested other British diplomats in the countries on Concorde's "trials and publicity" tour agreed.

It was clear that Concorde’s problems were a toxic mix of engineering, politics and international trade.

One issue, that was occurring worldwide, was the noise generated by Concorde’s engines and its sonic boom.

The British Embassy in Beirut recorded some complaints in the towns and cities Concorde visited.

"Nobody commented too harshly, although some people in Bahrain were surprised at being able to hear the engine noise in the town when Concorde's engines were being tested at the airport," they wrote.

When it came to sonic booms, Oman was “not too disturbed,” although in northern areas “there were some complaints children were frightened.”

Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai were not disturbed by the boom, it was reported, nor was Doha or Saudi Arabia.

There was more of a noise problem over Lebanon and Syria.

“We must be prepared to deal with such points as ‘Why was there such a loud bang over Damascus?," it added.

With over £700 million a year… he has money to spend

British diplomat on targeting Qatari emir Khalifa bin Hamad

August 1974 saw Concorde visit Bahrain for tests and a demonstration flight. Among those taken for a spin were “the prime minister and his two sons, the ministers of finance and the interior, and the minister of state, with a judicious spread of ambassadors. British and Bahraini merchants.”

Bahrain’s interest in Concorde was having the aircraft stop over on long distance flights to the Far East. At the same time Britain was writing to the Civil Aviation Authority in Dubai, seeking permission to fly over the UAE during aircraft trials and assuring them there would be “no harmful effects.”

As with Bahrain, a Dubai leg was being considered for the longest routes to Singapore and Australia. In Qatar, British embassy officials were suggesting that the then Emir, Khalifa bin Hamad, might want to buy one of the aircraft for his personal use.

He was “one of the very few men in the world who is likely to buy a Concorde and is able to do so very easily,” London was told. “With over £700 million a year…he has money to spend.”

As it turned out, the hope that an oil rich Arab sheikh might want his own Concorde was a mirage. But as the supersonic aircraft prepared to wow watchers in the Gulf states, things became even more complicated.

Gulf Air, in those days jointly owned by the UAE and three other Gulf countries, was expected to soon buy new modern aircraft. Britain felt it was in the mix with its VC-10, but an American sales team were known to be in the region, touting Lockheed’s much newer wide-bodied Tri-Star.

With the VC-10s prospects slipping, Britain was faced with a dilemma. Should they keep pushing their homegrown aircraft, or switch to the new Airbus consortium and the short-haul A300, of which the UK was a part? At the same time, the TriStar would be equipped with British Rolls Royce engines. Where did the country’s best interests lie? It was all very confusing.

Then in September, a diplomatic cable from Bahrain picked up reports in the UAE press that Abu Dhabi was planning to break away from Gulf Air and set up its own airline with the assistance of Pakistan International Airways.

The new airline would use Boeing aircraft, it was claimed. So without Abu Dhabi’s money, where would this leave the hoped-for order from Gulf Air for British VC-10s?

Concorde found itself caught up in the wheeling and dealing. Tensions were high, and any suggestion that the new supersonic aircraft might not represent the peak of British engineering could be fatal to the bigger picture.

When a British trade delegate was suspected of criticising Concorde in front of local officials, London went ballistic.

The delegate had told the Egyptian ambassador that Concorde was uncomfortable during take off and that passengers “would not like it.”

Similar remarks were said to have been made to the Qataris.

Worse, he had remarked loudly on a demonstration flight that “the real aeroplane to buy was the European Airbus, not Concorde.”

Dubai aviation officials watch the arrival of Pepsi's Concorde, leased from Air France and sporting the new electric-blue Pepsi colours, which stopped over in the Gulf Arab emirate April 7 while on a whirlwind marketing tour of the Middle East. The visit is part of a $500 million project called " Project Blue" to win back market shares from arch-rival Coca-Cola. While in Dubai, Pepsi took 100 VIP guests on a supersonic flight. The flight arrived from Beirut and will continue on to Jeddah and Cairo. Credit/Reuters
Concorde only returned to the UAE once, in 1996, as part of a $500 million Pepsi publicity campaign. Reuters

As a result, he was “temperamentally unsuited to selling Concorde,” Edward Henderson, the British Ambassador to the UAE wrote to the UK Foreign Office.

In the end, not a single Concorde was sold. The remaining production aircraft were divided between Air France and the new British Airways. Essentially given away at cost price, they were at least able to turn a profit on the transatlantic route. Only 20 were ever made and just 14 entered service.

Concorde only returned to the UAE once, when an Air France aircraft flew to Dubai in 1996, branded in Pepsi colours as a publicity stunt against rivals Coca-Cola. There were short leasing deals with Braniff and Singapore Airlines and a brief service offered by BA to Bahrain.

Concorde was finally taken out of service in 2003. Its economics no longer made sense when competing against the long haul giants of Airbus and Boeing. Beauty had been killed by the beast.

UAE National Archives

A treasure trove of archives went online this year. Treaties, letters, maps, images and videos shed light on more than 200 years of life in the Arabian Gulf set against the backdrop of war and the search for oil.

The portal, called the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive, is the fruit of two years of work by the UAE and UK. Most of the files are from the UK’s foreign office and provide a fascinating glimpse into the way the British tried to keep a grip on the Middle East, the poverty here following the Second World War and how oil transformed the region.

But the huge archive is also littered with vignettes, diplomatic asides and colourful flourishes that bring these yellowing and faded documents to life. It would take months to pore through them all but here is a small taste of its vast riches.

Updated: July 24, 2019 05:46 PM

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