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Catching a Supersonic Flight to Nowhere

October 19, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Halfway to Hawaii, at a speed of 1,365 m.p.h., the Concorde made a U-turn. Even before the bride who had just been married 12 miles above the Pacific started her happy blubbering, the "flight to nowhere" was already heading back the way it came.

No problem, though. That's what the 95 people aboard had paid $985 for: a two-hour round trip from Las Vegas to Las Vegas, non-stop. And by the time they returned to Gate 14 at McCarran International Airport, another planeload of passengers was checking in for the second of the seven flights scheduled over the weekend.

The trip was courtesy of Randy Parihar, whose Concorde International Travel Inc. had chartered the 100-seat plane--complete with Air France crew--for two-hour "discovery flights" to nowhere. Parihar, who has organized similar ventures from Vancouver, Toronto and San Francisco, said Friday that only 50 seats remained for the seven flights out of Las Vegas.

The passengers, who ranged in age from seven to 90, weren't the fabulously wealthy (jet setters, presumably, can afford to pay $2,100 for Air France's regularly scheduled 3 1/2-hour Concorde flights between New York and Paris). The common link among this disparate group seemed to be a fascination with flight.

'This Is Adventure'

"I'd mortgage the house--do whatever it takes," said Michael Barkett, a surgeon from Salida, Colo. But the price did give him pause, he admitted: "I had to rationalize it."

"Before I check out, I want to go supersonic," explained Jill Sinclair, a retired businesswoman from Newport Beach. "This is adventure."

"He's done nothing but talk about that bird out there," Marilyn Olson said, glancing at her husband, Bernard, 65, who wore a big smile and a cap bearing an illustration of the Voyager. "He cuts out pictures of the Concorde. Years ago it used to be fire trucks. He chased 'em wherever they went."

As the plane rolled down the runway like a streamlined white mosquito, it became clear that the passengers weren't alone in their enthusiasm. On the surrounding roads, cars stopped, and hundreds of people stood in scrubby fields with cameras and binoculars directed at the plane.

"Takeoff in two seconds," an Air France representative said over the plane's P.A. system. Then, with its four Rolls Royce-Olympus engines cranking out 240,000 horsepower, the jet sprinted forward and carved a steep arch into the sky, eliciting whistles and whoops from passengers.

Within eight seconds, the Concorde had reached 270 m.p.h. Within minutes, it had reached 27,000 feet and continued climbing.

Commercial Concorde flight by British Airways and Air France was launched in January of 1976. But critics, concerned about environmental problems such as the noise the plane makes, shot down plans for commercial supersonic flights across the United States. In 1977, however, U.S. officials agreed to permit the Concorde to land and take off for trans-Atlantic flights from New York and Washington, D.C.

But the plane, which consumes just over a gallon of fuel a second at its cruising speed of twice the speed of sound, was uneconomical in the energy-crisis days of the 1970s, and only 14 of the delta-winged planes were ever built.

Of those that were, only 10 remain in operation and most avionic experts agree that, in 10 years, none may be flying.

By the time Friday's first "discovery flight" hit Mach 2, the crew had laid out individual cellophane-covered trays of caviar, pate, smoked salmon, and mousse cake on individual linen tablecloths, and was refilling glasses with French champagne and wine. As it approached the sound barrier, the plane shuddered a bit from time to time as the green digital "Mach-meters" in the cabins showed it was approaching Mach 2.

"You can just feel it!" yelped Ray Hodson, 75, a retired salesman from Redlands. "I never made a hot rod go like this."

Crossing the Barrier

"Let's go Mach 3," he shouted when the narrator announced that Mach 2 had officially been crossed. Then he raised his glass in a toast: "Here's to high-flyers.

"If I were younger I'd try to be an astronaut," he said.

As the jet whispered along through the stratosphere, it was indeed as close as most of the passengers were likely to get to space. The outside temperature at 58,000 feet was minus 52 degrees, while friction had heated the titanium nose of the plane to 257 degrees and the steel and aluminum hull to 193 degrees.

Because of heat expansion, the jet was nine inches longer than it had been on takeoff, the narrator said. And at that height, the curvature of the Earth becomes visible. The Pacific was hazy this day, but Barkett, the Colorado surgeon, thought he could see that the world is indeed round.

"I don't think it's just my imagination, although I am really romantic," said Barkett, who was in Las Vegas for a convention of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. "But that's what this is about. The romance. The people on this flight are the same people who used to watch Star Trek: 'Go where no man has ever gone.' "

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