Needle nose up and waves of heat trailing behind, the newly modified Concorde jet took off from Heathrow Airport on Tuesday for its first supersonic test flight since the fleet was grounded last year after a crash near Paris killed 113 people.
The Concorde's four Rolls-Royce engines roared as the plane quickly gained altitude at an initial speed of 250 mph and disappeared into the clouds. A member of British Airways' staff punched the air and jumped for joy, shouting: "We've done it!"
The British Airways Concorde, which flies at about twice the speed of sound, made a three-hour-20-minute trip over the Atlantic Ocean to Iceland and back to Britain, a route intended to match the conditions of its usual New York-to-London run.
"It was absolutely fantastic. The aircraft performed brilliantly," British Air's Concorde chief pilot, Capt. Mike Bannister, said after the successful landing. "I have been flying Concorde for 22 years, but this was the best flight ever."
After the crash July 25 near Charles de Gaulle Airport, some industry analysts said the Concordes, which began commercial operations in 1976, should be retired, but British Air and Air France noted that the passenger aircraft had suffered no previous crashes and said it could be improved. The test plane was fitted with undercarriage wiring, Kevlar fuel tank liners and puncture-resistant tires.
The accident last year is believed to have been caused by a metal strip on the runway that had dropped off a Continental Airlines DC-10. The strip is believed to have shredded one of the Concorde's tires as the plane took off. Pieces of rubber pierced at least one fuel tank and leaking fuel caught fire, bringing the plane down less than 90 seconds after takeoff.
Before Tuesday's test flight, the ground crew carefully checked the runway for debris.
The British carrier says it hopes to resume use of its seven Concordes by late summer. Air France, which has conducted Concorde test flights at subsonic speeds, hopes to begin flying its five jets by fall.
The freshly painted British Airways plane took off in a drizzle heading west, flew off the coasts of Wales and Ireland and across the Atlantic to Iceland. It reached an altitude of about 60,000 feet--twice the cruising height for subsonic flights--before returning to Britain to land at the Royal Air Force's rain-soaked Brize Norton air base in Oxfordshire.
Bannister was at the controls with Civil Aviation Authority chief test pilot Jock Reid. They were accompanied by a team of engineers to test the operational effects of the modifications on fuel capacity, fuel transfer and fuel gauge readings, among other things.
The refitted fuel tanks added weight to the already fuel-hungry plane. To test fuel capacity, the crew let one of the tanks run dry toward the end of the test flight and shut down one of the four engines.
"The aircraft performed as well, if not better, than the last time I flew her," Bannister said. "Certainly there was no difference in the handling of the aircraft."
British and French civil aviation authorities will have to be convinced that the at least $25 million in modifications are sufficient to ensure safety before granting the plane an airworthiness certificate.
British Air and Air France are convinced that Concorde customers will return to supersonic air travel, which cuts an eight-hour flight from London to New York by more than half.