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Aboard the bird that could cheat the wind

Special to The Times

Sitting comfortably in an Eames easy chair, I gaze out a rain-streaked window to admire what is arguably the world’s most recognizable aircraft -- the Concorde. Its sleek, shark-like form appears Space Age, not middle-aged, though it is 30 years old.

By November, if no airline takes the fleet under its wing, the Concorde will be grounded by the two airlines that fly it, Air France and British Airways. It will be a museum piece instead of an incredible flying machine. With the Concorde’s retirement, the world loses not just an aircraft but also a bit of the romance and adventure of travel. The Concorde is not just another aircraft forged of steel, aluminum and rubber; it is the stuff of which dreams were made. Mine certainly were.

I am about to fly in this elegant aircraft from London to New York in just 3 1/2 hours, less than half the time it takes on a Boeing 747. I can afford this only because I bought a deeply discounted ticket in conjunction with a transatlantic voyage I took last May on the Queen Elizabeth 2. At full price my seat would have cost $12,750 round trip, but I paid only $1,995 to upgrade to a one-way flight on the Concorde.

Now, before the Concorde is retired, British Airways is selling discounted tickets for $3,999 (one way on the Concorde with the return a coach-class seat on a conventional plane) if you buy before May 13 and complete travel by Aug. 31.

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If you are thinking about taking advantage of the discounted fares, come along as I find out what it feels like to take wing on one of travel’s great machines.

10:10 a.m. The aircraft is surprisingly small inside, with maybe 6 feet of headroom in the center of the aisle and only two seats per row on each side of the aisle. I must stoop to get my 6-foot-4 self into seat 12A. It’s about the same depth and width as a standard coach seat but with a deeper cushion. The legroom is adequate but does not match that of international business class on a conventional plane. The windows are maybe 6 by 4 inches.

As luck would have it, 70 people are booked for British Airways Flight 0001, but only 49 check in. With 100 seats on the Concorde, there’s a good chance that nobody will sit next to me, and, in fact, nobody does. A flight attendant walks past, taking drink orders from passengers in the row opposite me. He passes by, so I flag him down and ask whether he has forgotten me. “Pat will be taking your order,” he says in friendly tones. He is taking orders only on the opposite side of the plane.

I expect to hear “not my table” in a coffee shop, but not on the Concorde. I am bemused, thinking that if I had paid full fare I would have expected a personal flight attendant who not only would keep cocktails flowing but would massage my feet and tell me amusing stories.

Over the loudspeaker, the pilot announces that at 1 minute, 15 seconds into takeoff he will pull back from full throttle so we can take off “as quietly as possible for Concorde.” I am buckled in and ready to go, excited about taking my first -- and last -- supersonic flight.

10:30 a.m. The pilot revs the jet’s four powerful engines, which consume fuel at twice the rate of a 747. We zip down the runway, my back presses deeply into the blue leather of the seat and, at 40 seconds, we are traveling 250 mph and are airborne. At 1 minute, 15 seconds, the pilot eases back on the throttle. It feels as though the plane has a hiccup.

There are two cabins on the Concorde but only one class of service. In the front of each cabin is a display that shows Mach numbers (the ratio of airspeed to the speed of sound), altitude and speed measured in miles per hour. At seven minutes into the flight it reads: Mach .61 / Altitude 8,000 feet / 440 mph.

“This is just very cool!” I write in my notebook. Waiting for the plane’s leap into supersonic speed, I feel like a kid on a roller coaster anticipating the first big hill.

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10:44 a.m. Mach .92 / 24,000 feet / 550 mph. I take a moment to soak in my surroundings. The Concorde smells like a new car, probably because it underwent a major remodeling while it was grounded after the July 2000 crash of an Air France Concorde in Paris.

The jet’s passenger roster has included the world’s glitterati: Elton John, Mick Jagger, Joan Collins, Luciano Pavarotti, Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor, Sting, Paul McCartney. Queen Elizabeth II herself is said to favor the Concorde when she flies.

This day, however, my fellow passengers are no more glamorous nor more famous than I. There is a heavyset American in his 30s wearing black jeans and a too-tight Hawaiian shirt. Behind him, a mousy-looking fellow with dyed hair, in gray chinos and a fleece pullover. In front of me is a man in an expensive-looking business suit. Behind me is a Japanese man wearing a white linen shirt. In my loose linen trousers and brick red polo shirt I fit in nicely.

10:48 a.m. Champagne and canapes arrive. The 1988 Taittinger is the finest I have ever tasted. One of the canapes, though, is a little gritty, so I wash it down with champagne.

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10:52 a.m. I feel a kick from the engines as we climb rapidly.

10:55 a.m. Mach 1.07 / 32,000 feet / 600 mph. We are traveling faster than the speed of sound, but I don’t feel anything different. Supersonic is rather anticlimactic, nothing like the leap to “Star Trek” warp speed that I expected.

11:04 a.m. We are moving at 1,000 mph. The wind noise is so loud it would be hard to converse with my neighbors. I squint out the tiny window and see the dark blue sky above. I watch for the curvature of Earth, though we don’t seem to be high enough yet.

11:07 a.m. Brunch menus arrive. Smoked salmon with creme fraiche and beluga caviar to start, then a choice of four entrees. I choose the grilled fillet of veal and Marsala butter with a confit of crepes. At the risk of appearing tacky, I quickly tuck the menu into my briefcase as a souvenir.

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11:11 a.m. More champagne is poured, though I have barely taken a sip. I revise my earlier impression of the cocktail service.

11:20 a.m. My appetizer is served with a red Bordeaux, Chateau Lagrange 1995, Grand Cru Classe, Saint Julien, which the menu describes as “rich and dense with a generous mouthful of black currant and a long supple finish.” It is very tasty.

11:24 a.m. The big guy in the Hawaiian shirt has turned his caviar and creme fraiche appetizer into a large sandwich and is two-handedly stuffing it in his mouth. I am considerably less self-conscious about taking the menu as a souvenir.

11:35 a.m. The flight attendant spills some champagne on my eyeglasses. “It’s awfully expensive glass cleaner,” I comment. He laughs at my joke. All is forgiven.

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11:36 a.m. Mach 1.94 / 48,500 feet / 2,720 miles to go / 1,280 mph. I think I see the curvature of Earth.

11:37 a.m. The veal arrives -- it’s a little overcooked -- with green beans, mushrooms, asparagus and roast potatoes on the side. Nothing special, a fairly typical first- or business-class meal. Still, I am nibbling on veal and drinking fine wine as I whiz through the heavens at twice the speed of sound. It seems unreal.

11:58 a.m. The wind noise does not seem as loud. Maybe I’m just getting used to it. Though it is minus 68.8 outside, the sun feels hot through the window. I draw the shade.

12:15 p.m. Good coffee is served, but the dessert -- “classic creme caramel with sultanas” -- isn’t worth the calories. I push it aside after two tastes.

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1:08 p.m. Mach 2.0 / 57,000 feet / 1,300 mph. Less than an hour left in the flight, and we are still climbing.

The curvature of Earth seems more obvious now. We are soaring along the top of the lower atmosphere just at the point where it becomes the upper atmosphere. There is a white-gray-blue chaos of clouds down to the Atlantic Ocean below. Above, the heavens melt from sky blue to ink blue to the deep blue serenity of outer space.

1:27 p.m. There is a sudden shift in altitude. The nose is pointing down, and we are beginning to lose speed for the first time since takeoff.

1:33 p.m. Mach 1.22 / 44,500 feet / 730 mph. We are in a steep descent now, dropping 12,000 feet in just six minutes. The faint odor of jet fuel, persistent since boarding, seems more noticeable.

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1:38 p.m. Mach .71 / 14,000 feet / 490 mph. I feel a jolt. We level off as the pilot announces we are 15 minutes from landing at Kennedy International Airport.

1:57 p.m. (8:57 a.m. Eastern daylight saving time). The landing is smooth, but hold on to your lunch because the brakes are firmly applied.

History may judge the Concorde as a quaint piece of technology, a toy for the rich and famous, an environmental and economic failure. But I will remember it as a thing of beauty, where form and function created a glorious -- and, in my experience, unrivaled -- travel experience.


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