These Are the 11 Prototypes of the Doomed Concorde

Here, decades ago, the Concorde stood in prototype form. The plane, even as a small model, was a a symbol of future travel—the way we'd all luxurious fly supersonic someday. Half a century later, that dream's dead forever.

The plane, from dream to finish, immediately captured the attention of the world—as much for its striking form as its faster-than-sound function. It's fascinating to view the design process as a sort of gradient here, as engineers continued to narrow the plane's silhouette into the lean, bird-like bullet that actually broke the sound barrier. The original, fat-headed prototype isn't without its own sort of bizarre charms, I'll admit.

Henri Perrier, an executive at Aérospatiale—creator of the Concorde—was acquitted in today in a French court, standing trial for his accused role in a horrific 2000 crash that grounded the Concorde dream for good.

But LIFE has a nostalgic gallery of the Concorde at its cultural height—a symbol of aviation's social zenith, when it seemed like supersonic travel would someday be as ubiquitous and ordinary as, well, every other kind of travel. Needless to say, this didn't happen. But the photos are a (now somewhat haunting) portrait of a world enamored with flight, unprepared for its potential to fail.

Continental Airlines will have to pay $1.3 million in damages and a $265,000 fine—which seems a bit light as compensation for the negligent deaths of over 100 people. A Continental mechanic has been handed a 15 month prison sentence as well, as it was his negligence that sent the flaming mess into motion.

The New York Times' account of the crash reminds us of just how terrible it was:

A small strip of metal that had fallen off a Continental DC-10 that took off minutes earlier had punctured a tire of the Concorde as it accelerated down the runway on July 25, 2000. The tire disintegrated in seconds, investigators said, sending shards of rubber into the fuel tanks and sending the plane crashing into a hotel near the airport, flames pouring from its undercarriage.

The mechanic in question was responsible for that crucial (and deadly) "small strip of metal," the court ruled—it was poorly attached and made out of the wrong materials.

So now, ten years later and 113 people dead, the Concorde, as an idea, might finally be dead in the public mind (nevermind the potential millions in further claims by next of kin).

These Are the 11 Prototypes of the Doomed Concorde

It might be hard to imagine, at this point, that the Concorde wasn't synonymous with tragedy, death, and litigation, but rather hope, excitement, and technological revolution.

There was something captivating about the plane. One of my earliest memories is of seeing it fly above London while I was there as a tiny little kiddo. The image of the pearly, streamlined speck above is one of the only things I remember about that trip.

These Are the 11 Prototypes of the Doomed Concorde

While in action, it ferried passengers from New York to London in only 3.5 hours. That's about as long as it takes me to go home for Thanksgiving by train. It only crashed once, but that was more than enough—the craft had been a financial migraine for all parties involved, and the ambition of supersonic flight evaporated (or perhaps more accurately, exploded horribly) into fantasy. But it's saddening to look at that lineup of gleaming prototypes and wonder what might have been. [New York Times and LIFE]