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Anti-Concorde Project

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Title: Anti-Concorde Project  
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Subject: Nikolaas Tinbergen, Cedric Smith (statistician), Gustav Victor Rudolf Born, John Adams (geographer), Josephine Wiggs, William Homan Thorpe
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Anti-Concorde Project

The Anti-Concorde Project, founded by Richard Wiggs, challenged the idea of supersonic passenger transport, and helped bring about a re-evaluation of Concorde's long-term commercial future. Concorde was for a time venerated as a technological and national icon, but when it entered service in 1976, not a single plane had been sold, and the state airlines of Britain and France, the countries which had developed the plane, were required to take the 14 planes that had been built.[1] For some, rather than being a prestigious triumph, Concorde was considered a white elephant.


In the late 1950s, it was proposed to build supersonic passenger aircraft to fly supersonically all over the world, into and out of every major city. It was hoped that people would become accustomed to the sonic boom, and to the planes' high noise levels at airports. But by the early 1970s, opposition led to bans on supersonic flight in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, West Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Canada and the USA, and it seemed likely to be banned in more countries. Consequently the choice of routes available to the aircraft was narrower than expected. It was also clear that the aircraft would operate at a loss, as it was costly to build, and used more fuel per passenger per kilometre than other commercial aircraft.

Research in the early '60s by aeronautics engineer B.K.O. Lundberg, Director of the Swedish Aeronautical Research Institute, showed that the aircraft's sonic boom and the noise it would make at airports would not be widely accepted, and that the cost of developing and building the aircraft would be high.

The Anti-Concorde Project was founded in 1966 by Richard Wiggs to oppose the development of supersonic passenger transport. Wiggs saw Concorde as a test case in the confrontation between concern for the environment and the development of technology.[2]


An Anglo-French Agreement to build Concorde was signed in 1962.

In 1963, The Observer newspaper published The Supersonic Threat,, based on Lundberg's study Speed and Safety In Civil Aviation.[3] The article told readers that the sonic booms generated by Concorde would produce effects varying from annoyance to physical shock, breaking windows and causing structural damage to buildings. In letters to the paper, some readers wrote that this would be an "intolerable price for ordinary citizen's to pay for the transportation of privileged business travelers"[4] A reader, Mr. D. W. Rowell, wrote that he would support an anti-Concorde movement, if only someone would organize it.[5] Public figures who wrote to newspapers expressing concern about the development of Concorde included Sir Alec Guinness, and Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Baroness Snow. A teacher from Letchworth, Hertfordshire, Richard Wiggs, wrote to The Observer inviting people to write to him. He received 80 letters the next day, and within a few months gave up teaching to become full-time organiser of the Anti-Concorde Project.

In a letter to The Times in July 1967, Wiggs wrote:

Anti-Concord Project

From Richard Wiggs

Sir, Miss Pamela Hansford and Sir Alec Guinness (July 5 and 10), and many other readers of 'The Times' may be glad to know of the existence of the Anti-Concord Project, which has been founded by a group of some hundreds of people including scientists, artists, business men, civil servants, farmers, housewives, professors, M.P.s etc. who are concerned and alarmed at the efforts being made to develop supersonic aircraft.

We see this as a clear case of a choice having to be made -- is technology to be sanely controlled or is it to be allowed increasingly to degrade and destroy our environment?

Our immediate aims are to help create in Britain a climate of public opinion in which it will be possible for the Government to terminate work upon Concord, and to press the Government to make this decision. Our further aim (in co-operation with similar movements in other countries) is to help bring about the banning of supersonic transports internationally.

We shall be glad to hear from people who agree with these aims.

Yours faithfully,


Wiggs believed there was a need to counterbalance the claims of the aerospace industry about the technical and economic viability of the Concorde program.

When the Labour Government took office in October 1964 facing a £700m annual deficit, Government-funded "prestige projects" such as the Concorde (with escalating costs and questionable economic advantages) were shortlisted for cancellation. The 1962 development estimates for Concorde were £150-170m, and had now risen to £280m. Evidence of financial mismanagement also emerged: the UK Treasury, responsible for tracking government spending, had not been involved in drawing up the Anglo-French agreement to build Concorde, and was not represented on the Concorde Finance Committee.

Wiggs believed that the government might have cancelled Concorde, had there been an informed lobby to counter the influence of the aerospace industry. Wiggs decided to collate and publish the scientific information available about the sonic boom, airport noise, and astronomical fuel use (Concorde used 2.5 x times the amount of fuel per passenger mile as subsonic jets). The Project would also publicize the facts about the economics of Concorde: that the plane could not be operated at a profit, and that the research and development costs, funded entirely with taxpayer's money, would never be recovered.[6]

Wiggs was tireless in his correspondence with newspaper editors and air correspondents, pointing out inaccuracies and correcting misinformation promulgated by The British Aircraft Corporation (the makers of Concorde) and also by the Government Ministers responsible for the program. But letter-writing could get the campaign only so far, and Wiggs conceived of the idea of placing advertisements in the national press, initially columns in New Scientist, New Society and the New Statesman, and later, full page advertisements in The Guardian, The Times, and The Observer. The advertisements stated in detail the case against supersonic transport, and invited people to make a contribution to pay for further advertisements. Later advertisements included the names of contributors.

Advisory Committee

Following the initial letters he wrote to the newspapers, Wiggs enlisted a group of distinguished people to serve as the Anti-Concorde Project's Advisory Committee:

  • Mr. C. B. Edwards, Lecturer in Economics, University of East Anglia, and author of Concorde - A Study In Cost Benefit Analysis, University of East Anglia, 1969
  • Dr. R. M. S. Perrin, University of Cambridge
  • Dr. Jerry Ravetz, Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds. He was also Executive Secretary for the Council for Science and Society, 1973–76
  • Professor Horace E. Rose, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Kings College, London
  • Dr. William Shurcliff, Physicist and Senior Research Associate at the Cambridge Electron Accelerator, Harvard University; Director of Citizens' League Against the Sonic Boom, author of SST and the Sonic Boom Handbook, Ballantine Books, 1970
  • Professor Cedric A. B. Smith, Professor of Biometry at the Galton Laboratory, University College, London
  • Dr. Peter J. Smith, Senior Lecturer, Department of Earth Sciences, Open University
  • Mary Stocks, Baroness Stocks, writer
  • Professor William Homan Thorpe, FRS, Professor of Ethology, University of Cambridge
  • Professor Nikolaas Tinbergen, FRS, Professor of Ethology, University of Oxford, and winner of 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology/ Medicine

International Associate:

  • Professor B. K. O. Lundberg, Director of the Aeronautical Research Institute, Sweden

Assistant Secretary:

  • Mr. Nigel Haigh, M.A.

The Case Against Supersonic Transport

The Sonic Boom

A sonic boom is a shock-wave, or pressure disturbance, caused by the movement of the plane through the air, much like the wave produced by the bow of a ship as it moves through water: just as the bow wave is produced for the entire journey of the ship, so the sonic shockwave occurs throughout the duration of a supersonic flight.[7]

In subsonic flight, the plane pushes the air ahead of it out of the way as it moves. When a plane is traveling faster than the speed of sound (i.e. faster than air molecules normally travel) the air ahead of it is not pushed out of the way: the air remains still until the plane has approached to within half an inch, at which point the air is forced aside in a few millionths of a second. This creates extreme local compression and heating, and a highly energetic shockwave spreads outwards in a cone. At ground level, this pressure wave extends approximately 25 miles either side of the flight path, and is experienced as a loud sound, with accompanying vibration severe enough to break windows and cause damage to buildings.

Concorde was developed on the assumption that the sonic boom would be accepted and that people would become accustomed to it. Money was committed to the project before sonic boom tests were conducted. Yet tests carried out in the US, using military planes, had provided that the boom would not be acceptable.

In 1961–1962, 150 flights were made over St Louis, Missouri; in 1964, Oklahoma City was subjected to 5 months of supersonic over-flights; in 1965, there was further testing over Chicago, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh; and in 1966–67 at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Residents found that sonic booms broke windows, cracked plaster, tile and brick. There were claims for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. In addition, routine exercises flown by US Air Force supersonic jets caused much damage annually: $3,800,000 in sonic boom damage claims were presented to the Air Force in a three-month period in 1967.[8]

In July 1967, the UK Ministry of Technology staged a series of supersonic tests over southern England (using Lightning fighter aircraft), totaling eleven flights. No official arrangements were made to investigate public reaction, but The Guardian newspaper commissioned a public opinion survey, reporting that: "Nearly two thirds of the population of Bristol were frightened, startled or annoyed by the sonic booms to which they were subjected to last week."[9] The Ministry received 12,000 complaints.[10]

Between 1970 and 1972, when prototype Concorde 002 made 20 flights over the Irish Sea, there were reports of damage including cracked and broken windows, slates falling from roofs, panicking farm animals and frightened children and adults. The Government had to pay £40,000 in damages.

Airport noise

The iconic delta wing-shape of the Concorde was designed for efficiency at supersonic speed, by reducing drag. However the delta wing is less efficient for subsonic flight. To develop enough lift for take-off, Concorde needed to attain a very high speed, produced by high thrust engines with very high velocity: and the greater the jet velocity, the louder the engine noise.[11] Not only was Concorde louder than conventional aircraft on take-off, it was louder on landing approach as well: as the plane reduces speed, the delta wing actually causes increased drag, which the engines have to compensate for with increased thrust, which means increased engine noise.

People living near London's Heathrow Airport were rudely apprised of this on September 13, 1970, when, as a result of bad weather, Concorde 002 was unexpectedly diverted to Heathrow. The Times reported the following day that there had been "a wave of complaints from people under its approach path" and the airport switchboard had been jammed with calls.[12]

In 1971, the British Airports Authority released figures showing that on every count - take-off, landing, and sideline measurements - Concorde's noise level was twice, or more than twice, that of other aircraft (including the Boeing 747 when it came into service). It was clear that the operation of Concorde would exceed the noise limits introduced in 1970 for all new British aircraft: indeed Concorde was simply exempted from these limits, because it had no hope of operating within them, but as Andrew Wilson, aviation correspondent of The Observer, pointed out, "there was no reason why other countries should be so obliging."[13]

International opposition

In the autumn of 1969, the British Aircraft Corporation referred to "the assumption that supersonic flight will be allowed only over the oceans or over areas with sparse populations" as an "extremely pessimistic assumption" saying that: "Concorde's makers do not expect that its sonic boom will be unacceptable to the great majority of the public."[14]

After the appearance of the first Anti-Concorde Project advertisement in New Scientist, Professor John J. Edsell, of Harvard University, began a correspondence with Wiggs. A few months later, Edsell, together with Dr. William A. Shurcliff physicist and senior research associate at the Cambridge Electron Accelerator, founded the Citizens' League Against the Sonic Boom in March 1967.[15] Andrew Wilson wrote: The League "adopted the same propaganda techniques as the Project with astounding success."[16] In December 1970, the US Senate voted to prohibit commercial supersonic flights over the USA and to restrict SST noise levels at US airports.

Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, West Germany and Switzerland indicated that they would be unlikely to permit supersonic over-flying across their territories. Ireland had drafted legislation, and Canada prohibited supersonic over-flight.

Faced with such opposition and restrictions on routes, the makers of Concorde persisted with plans to fly super-sonically over "sparsely populated" territories such as Africa and Australia. The British Aircraft Corporation's attitude was revealed in a comment, made public by Wiggs, by their Press Chief Charles Gardner, who dismissed the possibility of opposition since it would "only affect a bunch of old Abo's." (derogatorily referring to the Australian Aborigines).[17]

The success of the campaign to ban supersonic flight over land meant that by the time the Concorde came into service in January 1976, the only routes it was able to fly were London - Bahrain, Paris - Rio and Paris - Caracas. Despite the 1970 Federal ban in the US, the plane was given permission in May 1976 to fly into Washington Dulles International Airport. When the Federal ban was lifted at JFK, New York City imposed its own ban, with local opposition organized by Carol Berman and the Emergency Coalition to Stop the SST (Wiggs visited New York to work with Berman and the Emergency Coalition). Nine months later, following a ruling by the Supreme Court, Concorde was allowed to start flying from Paris and London into JFK.

In December 1977 the plane flew a London - Singapore route a handful of times before the Malaysian government banned it from their airspace, and then it was banned from flying over India.


The Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick holds a collection of archives of the Anti-Concorde Project, comprising publicity material issued by the Project, 1967–1981, minutes and agendas of the Advisory Committee, and subject files compiled by the Secretary of the Project. The collection also includes press cuttings, reports and publications.[18]

The 2003 BBC2 documentary, Concorde - A Love Story[19] aired in the US in 2005 as a PBS Nova documentary, Supersonic Dream, and includes archival footage of Wiggs and interviews with family members. As narrator Richard Donat explains: "In Britain, Concorde's nemesis came in the guise of a retired schoolteacher, Richard Wiggs. Working from his family home, his aim was simple: to stop Concorde from flying."[20]




  • Wiggs, Richard (1970). Concorde: The Case Against Supersonic Transport, Ballantine Books/Friends of the Earth.
  • Wilson, Andrew (1973). The Concorde Fiasco, Penguin Books.

External links

  • Index to Records of the Anti-Concorde Project at Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick
  • [1] - Photograph of Dr. Bo Lundberg and Richard Wiggs
  • A Life in Science - Autobiography of Sir Nevill Francis Mott
  • SST and Sonic Boom Handbook - Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Review
  • NOVA, Supersonic Dream - Documentary
  • NOVA, Supersonic Dream - Transcript
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