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VIDEO: When Concorde first took to the skies above France 50 years ago

Here is an account of the momentous day in aviation history when the supersonic turbojet first took to the skies 50 years ago.

VIDEO: When Concorde first took to the skies above France 50 years ago
Concorde takes off from Toulouse airport on March 2nd 1969. Photo: AFP

When the misty skies cleared over southern France on the afternoon of Sunday March 2, 1969, the green light was signalled for the highly anticipated first ever flight of the Concorde.

When the misty skies cleared over southern France on the afternoon of Sunday March 2, 1969, the green light was signalled for the highly anticipated first ever flight of the Concorde.

Journalists had been alerted two days earlier that the test flight was imminent; the world had been waiting since the futuristic aircraft, with its pointed nose and triangular wings, was publicly presented in December 1967.

Here is an account, drawn from AFP reports, of the momentous day in aviation history when the supersonic turbojet first took to the skies 50 years ago.

'She flies!'

Several hundred journalists and spectators were crowded near the runway of the airport at Toulouse, where prototype 001 of the Franco-British aircraft was constructed.

With French test pilot Andre Turcat at the controls and the event aired live on television, the sleek white plane started off down the runway just after 3:30 pm.

She picked up speed, eased off the runway and then powered into the sky, straight as an arrow.

“She flies! Concorde flies at last!” exclaimed BBC commentator Raymond Baxter. AFP sent out a flash alert: “Concorde has taken off.”

Concord or Concorde?

It was a source of pride on both sides of the Channel: Britain and France had joined forces in 1962 to build an airliner capable of flying faster than the speed of sound.

In fact Concorde's maximum velocity was more than twice the speed of sound.

The coalition of two governments and two aircraft makers — British Aircraft Corporation (now BAE Systems) and Sud-Aviation, a precursor to Airbus — had encountered a series of hurdles and differences.

Even the aircraft's name, which means “agreement” in both languages, was a sticking point: English-style “Concord” or “Concorde” in French?

Britain's technology minister Tony Benn settled the dispute in 1967, keeping the “e” for “excellence”, “England”, “Europe” and “Entente cordiale”, as he said.

Proving the plane can fly

For Concorde's maiden flight, Turcat manoeuvred just a simple loop above the Garonne river at reduced speed and with the plane's landing gear out.

The aim was not to break speed records but rather to “show the plane can fly” and “return to the ground”, he would later explain.

The roar of the four powerful engines and the silhouette of the aircraft, like a bird of prey in the sky, halted traffic on a nearby highway as people across the region stopped to watch, an AFP report said.

Sweating in the cockpit

Inside the cockpit it was tense. Three of the four air-conditioning systems had broken and the temperature rose quickly.

“Under our helmets, we were soon sweating profusely,” Turcat recalled in his book “Concorde” (1977).

When the wheels hit the tarmac for the landing, thick smoke rose from the tyres and a security parachute opened at the rear to brake the 112-tonne machine.

The crowds along the runway broke into applause. 

The flight had lasted 27 minutes.

The British test flight came weeks later, on April 9, with Brian Trubshaw taking off aboard the 002 prototype built in Britain.

On October 1 Turcat would also take the jet through the sound barrier for the first time.

Just the beginning

“This first flight is not a conclusion,” Turcat told the hundreds of journalists after that first flight. “It is the beginning of our work.”

It would take another seven years and 5,500 hours of test flying before Concorde was authorised to enter into commercial service in 1976 with flights operated by Air France and British Airways.

And in the end commercial passenger services only lasted 27 years.

The gas-guzzling “great white bird” was retired on both sides of the Channel in 2003, brought down by its high costs and a dwindling market, with a 2000 crash outside Paris — in which 113 people were killed — heralding its final demise.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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