Friday, 6 August 2010

The pressure of life at the top.

The headline 'Does Concorde cause skin cancer?' didn't worry me unduly, because we can treat most skin cancers, but I was slightly worried that I might have played a part in extinguishing all mammalian life by encouraging the Americans to allow Concorde to overfly their air-space (see yesterday's blog).

In the end though Boeing had their way and kept Concorde out, and it later transpired that it was freons (used in refrigerators) that were depleting the ozone layer, rather than aircraft exhaust fumes. It is often said that science is too important to be left to the scientists, but that episode and many others like it (smoking and health, global warming, home births, vaccination, stem cell research, genetic engineering, animal cloning etc) make me think that politicians and joournalists shouldn't be allowed to take part in any discussions or decisions involving science until they've had appropriate tuition in the subject from acknowledged scientific experts.

The Concorde experience did however give me three small joys:

1. As a reward for my efforts I was given a free trip on Concorde on one of the earliest proving flights to Gander. My co-passengers were journalists, politicians, and assorted influential business leaders who might be persuaded to use or even purchase Concorde. Naturally we were given free drinks before the flight for an hour or so in the First Class lounge at Heathrow. Naturally we were given unlimited champagne immediately we settled into our seats and then naturally we also took wines, coffee and brandy with the meal. And naturally we all needed the loo long before we reached Canada. The problem was that Concorde is constructed like a cigar, with rows of two seats on either side of a very long central gangway and since the drinks trolley was always moving slowly up and down in the very narrow aisle, it was impossible to squeeze round it. The strained look on the faces of the great and the good (not to mention the journalists) was worth seeing, especially as we neared the end of the two and a half hour flight. The obstacle race when the doors opened and they all raced or fell down the steps and then raced (staggered) towards the distant loo in the terminal building was worthy of description by Tom Sharpe (author of 'Blott on the Landscape').

PS. If you're thinking of taking a holiday in Gander, don't. It has some bungalows and a small air terminal, and is surrounded by miles and miles of conifer forest. You can drive for several hours to St. John's where there is a cinema, or you can drive even further in the opposite direction to Twillingate, where there is a whaling museum. Or you can pick berries. If they're in season.

2. The second joy provided by my Concorde experience was the story that the Minister for Aviation had visited Filton one day to see the work in progress on the Great White Elephant and he'd asked whether bird strikes would be more dangerous in a supersonic aircraft. The engineers had thought of that of course and they knew that the engines could withstand the impact of a large bird such as a seagull. This was demonstrated by firing a chicken from a sort of cannon directly into the roaring engine. The chicken was duly converted into a smear of blood and feathers.
The Minister was so impressed by this that he asked for the demonstration to be repeated, and after a short delay the cannon was fired again. But the first chicken had been fresh, the second chicken was deep-frozen. How expensive a chicken was that!

3. The third little chuckle was when I enquired about the great blast of flame which I once observed shoot out of the rear of Concorde's engine during take-off, which then caused a blaze on the tarmac which the fire engines had to extinguish. Apparently it is not a cause for alarm, it is due to petrol spewing out onto the tarmac and igniting. "It's called a 'wet take-off'" said the stewardess, blushing. The things you learn!

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