Richard Branson

Come fly with me

Richard Branson reveals his plan to save Concorde for the nation

Text settings

Most Spectator readers no doubt know that this is the 100th anniversary of aviation and that the patriotic American brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, flew the world's first aeroplane. I would imagine most of the readers have also heard of Charles Lindbergh, who was the first man to fly across the Atlantic in 1927. These names, along with Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin and most recently Steve Fossett, join a host of other Americans who had 'the Right Stuff' and are etched into both the history of aviation as well as the imagination of every child enthusiast who looks up at the sky.

Sadly, virtually no one realises that this year is really the 150th anniversary of aviation. They would also be staggered to hear that the father of flight is not an American at all but a British landowner, entrepreneur and scientist called Sir George Cayley. On 5 July 1853 his loyal coachman was the first man to fly in an aircraft with a modern wing. The epic flight across Brompton Dale in Yorkshire was only one of his achievements (for example, he also founded Britain's first polytechnic, invented the caterpillar tank track and was a pioneer of modern drainage systems) but by far the most spectacular. Sir George was, in fact, the first man to identify the four aerodynamic forces of flight – weight, lift, drag and thrust – and then describe concepts and elements of the modern aeroplane before going on to explain them in engineering terms. Somewhat unusually for pioneers, the Wright brothers themselves credited Sir George with the science behind their famous Wright Flyer and even described him as the father of aviation.

Isn't it strange, then, that we are not celebrating the 150th anniversary here in Britain as opposed to the big events planned at Kittyhawk in the USA on 17 December? Is it not even stranger that more people in Britain have heard of Lindbergh than have heard of Alcock and Brown, who actually flew the Atlantic Ocean in 1919? When you think about it, it is even stranger that the closest Britain is coming to celebrating either 150 years of flight or even 100 years of powered flight is to allow a perfectly serviceable supersonic commercial aircraft to be chucked into the dustbin of history on the ostensible basis that some nasty French people won't pay for some spares.

If those excuses were not ludicrous enough, then the same people who gave us multicoloured tailfins top it all by saying that if they can't fly the plane with fare-paying passengers, then nobody else can. When I first heard this, it took a few days to sink in before the penny dropped that narrow commercial interests and petty jealousy were about to consign the image of Britain's technological achievements in aviation in the 20th century to a sad static display at the back of a museum hangar.

The millions of British people who go to air displays every year are welcome to watch a 90-year-old Sopwith Camel or a 60-year-old Spitfire or even a massive 50-year-old Cold War V-Bomber reliving its menacing trade. As things stand, if they want to see the most advanced passenger aircraft ever built, they can forget it, because our once proud national airline is not going to let anyone fly it.

Which brings me back to Sir George Cayley. He was a modest man who did not trumpet his achievements. That fact does not mean to say that we should not sing his achievements from the rooftops and galvanise ourselves before it's too late to make sure that Britain's pivotal role in the history of aviation is recognised before the end of the year.

A very small start is being made this July when a newly built replica of Sir George's original aircraft will be flown at Brompton Dale to celebrate his life; but so much more could be achieved, and I call on Britain's aviation and science communities to integrate Sir George into the mainstream. A good start would be for the Science Museum properly to acknowledge this genius and upgrade his one, sad poster with a misspelt name to a proper celebration of his life.

Virgin Atlantic is now negotiating to operate Concorde when BA takes it out of service on 31 October. We are increasing our offer from £1 to £1 million for each of the five operating planes, and asking them to throw in the two non-operational Concordes for free. We have operators ready to help us keep it flying, and would serve New York, Barbados and Dubai, a new destination for the plane. I hope we succeed but, ultimately, that ball is in BA's court. Despite the obvious savings they could make by avoiding shut-down costs, it is, sadly, increasingly difficult to see that logic will prevail.

So failing that, I would propose that all the Concordes – both BA's and Air France's – go to a new facility such as the British Aerospace factory at Filton near Bristol. A heritage trust could be formed, and all the original manufacturers and airlines involved in her life could contribute to keeping Concorde flying in a semi-commercial service. Special flights, charters and even a small number of weekly scheduled services under the auspices of a charitable structure could easily provide a contribution, backed by charitable donations to keep her flying for the nation well into the middle of the 21st century. I for one would be happy to pledge £1 million towards establishing the trust if my colleagues at BA, BAE, Rolls-Royce, Air France and Airbus agree to show the willpower to keep this beautiful aircraft flying.

I would also propose that, as this project would begin during the 100th anniversary of powered flight – and the real 150th anniversary of aviation – every Briton who reaches the age of 100 would be given a free flight on Concorde in recognition of Britain's unique and influential place in aviation history.