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Aboard the bird that could cheat the wind

If no airline takes over the storied Concorde fleet, supersonic travel, with its first-rate trappings, may go the way of the dodo.

May 04, 2003|James Gilden | Special to The Times

London — 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.

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.

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.

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