A Final Flight of Fancy on Concorde
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Wednesday, October. 22, 2003
The Moscow Times
ABOARD THE CONCORDE -- "Enjoy your ride on the rocket," Captain Adrian Thompson said, welcoming about 100 passengers on board British Airways Flight 001 for New York.
With those words, Thompson sent the Concorde roaring down a runway at Heathrow Airport and swishing into the air at 400 kilometers per hour. Passengers saw two sunsets that day. With just 3 hours and 28 minutes in the air, they arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport at 5:25 p.m. on a Thursday, about an hour earlier than they left London.
"We call it riding the rocket because that's exactly what it is, really," Thompson told passengers as he kept up his friendly banter throughout the flight.
"The system we have here is afterburners. ... Afterburners give us an extra 20 percent of thrust. We need a bit of extra urge to do that," he said, referring to breaking the sound barrier.
When Thompson flies to New York this Thursday, he will be wrapping up the era of the Concorde -- a bold technological endeavor brought back to the ground by harsh economic realities after nearly 30 years.
Thompson will move over to a Boeing 747, completing the Transatlantic flight at less than half the speed, half the altitude and twice the time.
But on that recent London-New York flight, he said he has enjoyed himself from the cockpit as much as the passengers who hopped on board to experience supersonic flight.
"I thought you might just like to know that we are now flying faster than a speeding bullet, flying on the very edge of space, flying so high that if you check, you can actually see the curvature of the Earth," Thompson said about an hour into the flight.
Some passengers agreeably followed his instructions, pressing up against the small windows and feeling the warm plastic against their cheeks. The windows heat up to a warm glow as the delta-winged jet shoots through the air at the speed of 1 kilometer every 1.5 seconds. The heat causes the plane's fuselage to stretch 20 centimeters.
"For me, it is like the closest I will ever get to experience the flight of a space shuttle to the moon," said John Clancy, a property manager returning home to California after a British vacation specifically designed to include the Concorde experience. "This aircraft is like a thrill, it's like being on the Queen Mary 2 or the Orient Express or a fighter jet."
Clancy, echoing other first-time passengers on board, said he had no regrets about paying $11,000 for a round-trip ticket to fulfill a dream.
An American lawyer who has flown the Concorde 25 times said he took his wife this time as a wedding anniversary present. He recalled that the flight used to feel like flying in a private jet, but on this trip everyone was partying and taking photos. A London project manager said he got his ticket for his 40th birthday. Also flying were seven reporters at the invitation of British Airways.
But perhaps the biggest Concorde fan onboard was rock star Sting. He was on one of the first Concordes to re-enter service after the 2000 Air France crash that killed all 109 aboard and four people on the ground. A sketch in a commemorative magazine passed out to passengers shows him pouring champagne with a broad smile.
He did not perform "Englishman in New York" on the flight, unlike the impromptu concerts once held by Paul McCartney or the singalongs of Beatles hits once led by George Harrison. As Sting sat quietly, a few businessmen in the plane's two cabins put on headphones to listen to music -- the only entertainment other than Thompson's commentary offered during the flight.
Many other passengers, meanwhile, popped out their cameras to take pictures of an in-cabin display showing the plane's speed, altitude and outside temperature as it reached cruising altitude. The machometer read: "Mach 2, 1,350 miles per hour [2,160 kilometers per hour]; 58,000 feet [17.6 kilometers]; minus 61 degrees Celsius.
Passengers then took photos of each other in a spontaneous, top-of-the-world camaraderie as flight attendants tried to squeeze food and souvenir trolleys down the narrow aisles of the cramped cabin.
The merrymaking provided a hint of the follies of the rich and famous who once flew the plane. A worried Duchess of Argyll once bashed a machometer with her handbag when it stopped working. A high-society hostess paid 2,500 pounds to have a box of her favorite chocolates rushed to a party in New York. And a singer from the pop group Madness claimed to have made the longest putt in the world, sending a golf ball 8 kilometers in 12 seconds by rolling it down the aisle.
Seated in a blue leather seat and savoring black caviar, Clancy expressed disappointment that a number of passengers were wearing jeans while he had put on a suit for the occasion.
Julie van den Bosch, Concorde's longest-serving flight attendant who flew on one of the first flights in 1976, said there has been a party atmosphere on Concorde flights since April, when British Airways announced its plans to retire the aircraft. "Because they know it's going to finish, it's quite a different feeling," she said. "People are excited to be on it and that is worth a party. [Yet] this is more like a feeling of everybody actually saying goodbye to it."
Passengers were finding many items to take as souvenirs. Those not wanting to shell out money for bracelets, cufflinks and keyrings with the Concorde logo were taking menus, commemorative in-flight magazines and safety cards.
First-timers got a Concorde photograph and a certificate signed by the captain upon completion of the flight.
"It's such a shame that this magnificent machine will end up in one month's time in a museum and probably me with it as well," said Thompson, who has flown the Concorde for eight years. "So next time you see me, I will probably be selling you a ticket to go around it on the ground.
"It is immensely sad. It does its job extremely well, considering it was designed in the 1950s and basically BA just does not want to fly it any more," he said. "They say it's too expensive to maintain."
He added: "The last six months the flights have been full. Up until then, we were only carrying 30 people."
While the 2000 crash raised concerns over the Concorde's safety, further questions about its viability were raised after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and a downturn in the airline industry.
British Airways and Air France, the only two airlines to fly the aircraft, announced in April that they could no longer support the plane. Air France grounded its fleet of five in late May, and British Airways will retire its seven planes Friday.
"This is the end of a fantastic era," British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington said at the time.
The Concorde era started in 1956 when Britain and France separately began working on a supersonic passenger jet. In 1962, they agreed to build the Concorde together, and the plane took off on its maiden flight in 1969, the year man first set foot on the Moon. The first commercial supersonic flight took place on Jan. 21, 1976.
As the British and French pushed ahead with their supersonic dream, the Americans pulled out of an attempt to develop a Mach 3 jet and opted to stick with the 400-seater subsonic Boeing 747. The Soviets built the ill-fated Tu-144 Concordsky.
British Airways' fleet of Concordes have flown almost 50,000 flights, clocking up more than 140,000 hours over 224 million kilometers. Although the planes are about 30 years old, they have taken off and landed about the same number of times as a four-year-old Boeing 737.
The Concorde's fastest Transatlantic flight was 2 hours, 52 minutes, 59 seconds from New York to London in 1996.
Some 2.5 million people have traveled on the Concorde, including rock star Phil Collins, who flew cross the Atlantic in 1985 to appear at two Live Aid concerts on the same day; Barbara Streisand, who claimed the shape of her nose had inspired Concorde designers; the Queen Mother, who celebrated her 85th birthday on board; and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who chartered it to Washington for talks with President George W. Bush. They all pale next to little-known oil magnate Fred Finn, who made his 700th flight in 1992.
A few Russians have also made the flight. Among them are Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos and Sibneft's Eugene Shvidler and Alexander Rubtsov, head if the Ilyushin Aircraft Leasing Co.
Vneshtorgbank chairman Andrei Kostin flew the Concorde four years ago when he was in a hurry to get to meetings with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in New York.
"There is less comfort on the Concorde than on a regular aircraft -- but the speed!" Kostin said. "And also you get to see the curvature of the Earth. It was quite an interesting experience for me."
Sergei Bubnov, a senior executive at Russian Aluminum, said he was not overly impressed with the plane.
"I flew on the Concorde a few times three years ago when they had promotional fares," he said. "I guess it was interesting the first time, and I did expect something extraordinary. [Yet] it was just convenient. You leave early, arrive in New York, meet people. Flying back was not that convenient as you had to stay in London overnight.
"Speed and good service aside, it was all quite ordinary. And noisy like in the Tu-134."
Bubnov complained about the plane being more cramped than other aircraft. "There you can take a stroll, stretch out a little, while in the Concorde -- and I am a big guy -- I hit the ceiling, and one has to bend over double in the toilet."
The retirement of the Concorde is the first time that a plane has been put out of service without a more advanced model waiting to replace it. In 2001, Boeing announced plans for a plane that would fly just under the speed of sound but shelved it last December due to lack of airline interest.
"There is nothing in the pipeline. I think you might see a supersonic business jet, [but we are unlikely to] see another supersonic airliner, not for a hell of a long time," Thompson said.
"It's been a privilege to fly it," he said.
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A Final Flight of Fancy on Concorde
"Enjoy your ride on the rocket," Captain Adrian Thompson said, welcoming about 100 passengers on board British Airways Flight 001 for New York.