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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 October, 2003, 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK
Tony Benn's Concorde memories
As Harold Wilson's technology minister in the 1960s and as a cabinet member during the 1970s Tony Benn was heavily involved in the Concorde project.

To mark the final commercial flight of the supersonic aircraft, he discusses his role in the project and his memories of some unusual flights.

Tony Benn
Tony Benn takes a close up view of Concorde in 1969
I wasn't at the first flight in France but Concorde's UK debut was a hilarious day.

George Edwards [Executive director of the British Aircraft Corporation] was walking around, with a pork pie hat, a bit like a vicar, saying he hoped it wouldn't rain.

Trubby [British test pilot Brian Trubshaw] was saying 'it's the paperwork holding us back' - the whole thing was quite extraordinary.

It was typically British and extraordinarily exciting and I must say that when it took off the vibration made me feel I was being filleted, my skin falling off my skeleton!

It was really like Biggles or Just William. The whole thing was immensely British and quite unlike the French - the French do it with much more panache.

At the time Concorde was no noisier than the ordinary subsonic aircraft when it was below the speed of sound.

I did arrange for a supersonic bang to take place over [the] Cabinet and I told the prime minister and no-one else.

Special hatred?

The bang occurred at midday and people said 'what was that' and I said 'well it was Concorde'.

But what I found so interesting in relation to the criticism of Concorde was you never heard any criticism of supersonic military aircraft and we were building them all the time and so there was something special about hating Concorde.

Concorde flying in 1969
Britain couldn't have handled Concorde alone but it was a political decision [by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan] to try to get us into Europe that was what it was about, and then he didn't trust the French.

'Concorde' originally had an 'e' on the end and then when Harold Macmillan was snubbed by de Gaulle he took the 'e' off and when I [became involved] without consulting the cabinet I said 'I am putting it back!'.

E for entente cordiale, e for excellence!

Then I had a furious letter from a Scotsman saying 'didn't I know that part of it was built in Scotland?' Well I said 'e is for Ecosse!'.

Cost of cancellation

When you are building it and a quarter of a million jobs depend on it you don't cancel it - it was ludicrous to [temporarily] cancel it in 1974 before it went into service.

You can argue whether it should ever have started - that's an entirely different argument and governments do do things for prestige.

Cancellation becomes a big factor in deciding whether or not to continue the project when it was already in progress.

The thing is that that Concorde was half made in feet and half made in metres and it fitted. It was an incredible operation.

Bad timing

It came at a very, very bad time not only because of the oil prices but the economy was in a fairly shaky state as a result of the oil price increases.

Whether the British Treasury would've been pleased if the US had stopped it landing is an open question as the Treasury always wanted to stop it.

Tony Benn
Mr Benn as he is today
The two flights I took that spring to mind were totally unglamorous. One was a supersonic test flight and I sat just behind [the pilots] wearing a parachute and I took a video.

They said I should wear a parachute - I was an RAF pilot - and I thought 'it's nice to have a parachute' but what you could have done with it I never knew.

The second flight was in 1976 just after it was cleared [to fly commercially]. I took the people who built Concorde, and do you know some of the people had worked on the aircraft for 20 or 30 years and some had never ever flown and it was like a charabanc trip.

Last communion

It was lovely. We went around the Bay of Biscay and we had sandwiches.

What organisation asks people to build aircraft but never lets them fly?

One man said to me rather discouragingly that he had taken last communion and I thought as he'd built the plane that was a bit pessimistic.

It was supremely beautiful and the guys who had made it were so talented and skilled.

I think Concorde will always be an icon. It will always be remembered, it will always be in museums and so on for people to see.

Tony Benn was talking on BBC Radio 4's The Reunion, hosted by Sue MacGregor.



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