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Concorde, Superstar of Skies, to Take Final Bow

The sleek symbol of a high-tech future will make its last flight Friday. Supersonic travel ends with no successor on the horizon.

October 19, 2003|Beth Gardiner | Associated Press Writer

LONDON — You can almost hear the shiver of pleasure in Christopher Orlebar's voice as he recalls what he felt each time he pushed a supersonic Concorde through the sound barrier.

On the ground, the sonic boom would have been as loud as a thunderclap. But up in the sky, the retired pilot said, "there's just the tiny burble of turbulence, just a ripple."

Rocketing upward after takeoff, he always anticipated with excitement "the magical moment you're cleared to climb and accelerate, and the air slips beneath you. You're on the threshold of space, and even the clouds, which are now tiny beneath you, seem to slip by more quickly."

Flying twice as high and more than twice as fast as a 747, a Concorde passenger looking down "might just be rewarded by the sight of a jumbo jet wending its weary way," he said.

Not for much longer.

On Friday, British Airways is retiring the last of its five operational Concordes after its final flight from New York City to London. As the world celebrates the centenary of the Wright Brothers' first controlled, powered flight, the age of supersonic commercial flights is coming to an end -- at least for now.

In the 1960s, the Concorde's British and French makers thought that their elegant, needle-nosed plane would revolutionize long-distance travel, ushering in a new era of supersonic flight. But it passes without an heir.

Concorde took wing on its first test flight in 1969, the same year man reached the moon, and looked like the sleek symbol of a hope-filled, high-tech future.

Passengers said that 11 miles up, they felt a little bit like astronauts, able to make out the curvature of the Earth. Combined with the time difference, cruising speeds of 1,350 mph meant that westbound travelers got to New York more than an hour and a half before they left Europe.

It was a narrow plane that could only carry about 100 passengers. But it was a work of engineering art, built to stretch in the air to accommodate the stresses of supersonic flight. Its revolutionary "droop nose" lowered at landing for better visibility, making an incoming Concorde resemble a giant eagle about to pounce on prey.

But the idea of supersonic travel as the next big wave in aviation failed to become reality.

Barred from setting off sonic booms over land and limited by its short range, the Concorde mostly stuck to its trans-Atlantic routes. At $9,300 for a London-New York round trip, well above the first-class fare on a Boeing 747, it remained a luxury for the wealthy few.

There are many who won't miss the Concorde.

The roar of its engines was louder than conventional jets, infuriating neighbors of airports it served and environmentalists railed against its pollution and massive fuel use -- about 95 gallons a minute, compared with 60 or less for a jumbo jet carrying up to four times more passengers.

Strong opposition in New York -- and a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled for the airlines -- meant that the Concorde wasn't cleared to land at Kennedy International Airport until 1977.

The British and French governments hoped to sell hundreds of Concordes all over the world, but only 16 were ultimately built. All went to British Airways and Air France, which grounded its fleet for good in May.

They were moneymakers for the carriers for years, but the high cost of maintaining the aging planes, dwindling ticket sales and their huge appetite for fuel eventually made them glamorous white elephants. Aviation had gone in a different direction, with enormous jets like Boeing's 747 helping make subsonic flying convenient and affordable for millions of passengers.

"In the late '60s, Europe gambled on speed, America gambled on size," said Philip Butterworth-Hayes, editor of Jane's Aircraft Component Manufacturers journal. And America won, he said. "Concorde was a technical cul-de-sac ... a dead-end street."

Is there a future for civilian supersonic flight?

Hope may lie in research into quieting the sonic boom created by the shock wave from a plane passing overhead faster than 760 mph, the speed of sound. Solving that problem could open up lucrative overland routes. But the cost of designing new supersonic planes has frightened off most aircraft manufacturers.

Last year, Boeing mothballed plans for the Sonic Cruiser, a plane that would have flown close to the speed of sound, and replaced it on the drawing board with a more conventional, fuel-efficient jet, the 7E7. Japanese engineers are working on a supersonic aircraft they hope will halve the noise of the Concorde's roaring engines, fly farther and emit less pollution. But the project suffered a setback when a scale model crashed last year during a test flight.

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