Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Last Flight of the Concorde

Today, nearly 10 years after the crash of a Concorde supersonic jetliner in Paris that killed 113 people, a trial to assign responsibility for the accident is getting underway in France. The crash of the Air France Concorde in a plume of fire just after take-off on July 25, 2000, helped put an end to the Concorde and the era of supersonic luxury passenger service. At issue is whether carelessness by Continental Airlines workers caused debris from a Continental aircraft on the runway to puncture fuel tanks on the Concorde. Continental strongly denies the charge.

News of the trial sends my mind racing back to Concorde, the stunningly gorgeous, delta-wing, needle-nosed jetliner that flew commercially from 1976 to 2003, until lingering fears from the 2000 crash combined with recessionary post-Sept. 11 economics to ground the Concorde for good. As it happens, I was on the very last scheduled commercial flight of the Concorde, British Airways flight 002, which zoomed from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to London Heathrow International Airport on Oct. 24, 2003, carrying 100 half-smiley, half-teary, totally excited passengers. (Air France stopped its Concorde service on May 31.)

Everyone on board that day knew the likes of Concorde would not come again for a long while. Even one-way ticket prices north of $6,000 USD to cross the Atlantic didn't allow BA and Air France, the only two airlines ever to fly the Concorde, to recoup the astronomically high costs of fuel needed to operate a combined fleet of 14 Concordes. The 1970s technologies of the Concorde were very fuel-inefficient, and the ear-pounding booms when the plane broke the sound barrier prompted authorities to severely restrict how long and at what speeds the Concorde was allowed to fly over land. That, too, undermined the economics of flying the plane, which had been built with billions of taxpayers' pounds and francs.

I was in the last row of the plane when we took off shortly after sunrise, television camera crews racing in trucks along the runway at JFK to record take-off. As soon as the seatbelt signs blinked off and BA captain Michael Bannister welcomed everyone on board, passengers began popping up, taking each other's photographs in the narrow single aisle, heads bent beneath the low overhead bins, clinking flutes of Champagne as BA flight attendants wriggled past to commence the meal and beverage service. There were lobster fish cakes on the menu, and wild mushroom truffled omelets, and smoked Scottish salmon with caviar. I sipped Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill 1986, one of three Champagnes served that day.

We presslings were seated in the rear cabin of the aircraft; celebrity guests were up front in the first cabin, at safe remove from the journalists. I spotted David Frost, a regal Joan Collins, a chipper and pretty Christie Brinkley. It was a rollicking party all the way across the pond for about three and a half hours - three hours faster than normal aircraft could make the trip. As advertised, the skies were darker when we reached cruising altitude of 57,000 feet and we could see the curvature of the earth, though barely - it was a less dramatic sight than I expected. Also as advertised, the windows felt warm, almost hot, to the touch, thanks to the Mach 2 top speed: 1,350 miles per hour. I had a window seat, so I was nicely positioned to enjoy the special effects.

Captain Bannister brought the plane in low and slow down the Thames, heading east past Buckingham Palace and Big Ben before turning west toward Heathrow. Our plane was the last of three Concordes to land in quick succession, the first two having flown around Britain before returning to Heathrow. At the airport, there was a red carpet rolled out to the foot of the aircraft and scads of spectators taking photos and videos; some airport workers stood on the rooftops to have a last look at the fastest and most beautiful passenger jet ever built. At the head of the red carpet, disembarking passengers were greeted by the dignified Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge, BA's chairman. The red carpet led into a big tented area where one found abundant finger food and, of course, more Champagne. I wandered about for a bit, then headed out of the tent - there was, to my surprise, no customs or immigration inspection - and over to my car for the slow glide into London and the posh comforts of the London Ritz Hotel.

It all seems like a long time ago now. I read that assorted entrepreneurs are planning to build a new generation of supersonic passenger jets - though these will probably be private jets and fly at speeds of Mach 1. If and when that happens, it will be a back to the future moment.

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