Sting. Sydney Pollack. Sting’s wife and kids. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Randy Petersen.
That’s with whom I rode the Concorde (twice!) back in the days of commercial supersonic travel. This week British Airways is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Concorde’s first commercial flight, so I thought it was time to haul out some good stuff from the archives 🙂
My first supersonic voyage was in March 1999 when I flew on British Airways’ flight 001 from Heathrow to Kennedy (in just 3 or so hours!). I was a speaker on a media panel in Berlin and part of my compensation was transport back to the U.S. via the Concorde!
Next time was in the waning days of commercial supersonic travel. In 2003, British Airways and Air France retired their Concorde jets, and British Airways invited a handful of media to cover the final flights. I was lucky enough to be one of them and flew from New York to London (at 11 miles high!) on BA 002.
Back in those days, I was writing a column for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a precursor to the blogs I write today.
So with that said, I present to you my two Trip Reports.
The first one (with pictures) is from the 2003 flight I took with my colleague Randy Petersen, founder of FlyerTalk, InsideFlyer and a frequent flyer guru extraordinaire. On the 1999 flight, I did not bring along a camera, but wrote up a really good column about the experience. Enjoy them both!
So let’s start with the 2003 flight and my column from back then. (I’ll post my story about the 1999 flight later on.)
(Sept 10 2003) No, the Concorde has not stopped flying yet, as most people seem to think. Air France put its supersonic fleet to rest last spring. But British Airways is flying the needle nose until the end of October.
At Kennedy Airport’s terminal 7 on a bright September morning, there is some confusion about where to check in for the Concorde as a more proletarian BA 777 is also departing from the same terminal at about the same time. Eventually, I find the discreet entryway to the Concorde area and stride in confidently. What’s odd is that the Concorde shares a tiny single lane TSA screening area and adjacent gates with America West, so you have all these ultra-chic, Gucci-Pucci-Fiorucci supersonic travelers muddling through security with the masses bound for their Las Vegas gambling junkets, or desert vacations on America West.
Check in at the Concorde lounge is pleasant and efficient, and I’m handed my boarding card for seat 2-A (An auspicious start as it’s veddy important to be seated in the fore versus the aft cabin! Yes, there is a hierarchy, even on the Concorde.) As I stroll down the long hallway into the bright and airy lounge, I can smell the full English breakfast buffet that awaits. Once I enter, there is a dining area to the right, with white linen tablecloths and a single white rose adorning each tabletop. To the far right is the buffet, with eggs, the rubbery version of sliced pork that the English call bacon, bowls of fresh fruit and yogurt, and a big silver bowl full of ice and three bottles of champagne, although I don’t see any takers.
To the left is a lounge area with chrome and black kid leather chairs and sofas, coffee tables and a few desks. Further ahead are larger, loungier looking chairs (I’m sure they are creations of some designer whose name I should know . . .)
I was expecting a very highbrow Concorde clientele with everyone acting cool and mostly discreet. But this crowd cuts across a wider swath of the socioeconomic spectrum. There are, of course, the “regulars” who are dressed in black and are packing an air of nonchalance along with their worn briefcases or Vuitton bags. Hollywood mogul Sydney Pollack sits off by himself checking his iPaq and talking on his cell phone. He’s wearing a nice white shirt, blue jeans, black cowboyish boots and a black leather jacket, carrying a canvas bag. There are also those of the English landed gentry who look like they are off to the horse races sporting tailored clothing, ascots, ruddy complexions and age spots, and carrying funny old BOAC travel bags that they’ve had since 1965. Then there are the big time frequent flyers who are clearly on award tickets with their spouses in tow, as well as a few ma and pa types on the trip of a lifetime.
For the first ten minutes I’m there, everyone is sitting quietly, speaking in hushed tones and acting serious. Then one brave soul stands up and takes a picture of his wife. Then someone else offers to take a picture of the two of them together. That leads to a mad rush to the camera bags and for the rest of the time everyone is taking pictures of everything—a sort of one-last-chance-to-record-this and we-are-all-in-this together mood kicks in. (The regulars are graciously obliging the picture takers; no sneers.)
I was expecting to walk from the lounge straight on to the jetway and on to the Concorde. But when the boarding call comes, we all trundle down past several America West gates to board the plane. With just 100 people, we board in no time. The seats are quite small and narrow, but comfortable once you sit down. The pitch is relatively tight—probably 35 inches, compared to the standard coach pitch of 31 or 32 inches.
After a quick taxi, we speed down the runway, faster, faster faster! It seems to take forever for this bird to lift off. When she does, it’s a slowwwwww climb skyward. A little spooky, but okay once we are out over the Long Island Sound. I’m seated next to Randy Petersen, the editor of InsideFlyer magazine and a longtime friend. The pilot is quite chatty and a little too loud on the PA system, and finally someone complains to a flight attendant, so he quits, just after telling us that we are flying at Mach 1, 860 mph (the speed of sound).
Then he turns on the afterburners, which gives us a barely detectable boost of power. We are soon sailing toward our cruising speed of about 1500 mph at an altitude of about 57,000 feet. (A normal jet travels at around 500 mph, at about 33,000 feet.) You can see all this information on a screen on the bulkhead wall.
The flight attendants are serving us cheerfully from silver trays and white linen napkins. I peer over the shoulder of the man and his wife who are seated in front of us, and can see U.S. State Department letterhead. I figure out that this is the U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. and his wife. Over to the right, sitting next to Sydney Pollack is the Deputy Treasurer of a political party in the U.K. I can tell because he’s typing a speech in large typeface on his laptop, and has no idea that we can read every word! He’s also peering discreetly sideways at the docs the Ambassador is reviewing. Pollack is reading a paperback, What Just Happened, by Art Linson.
Food: First come a mimosa garnished with an orange and cherry, and some nibblies: a scallop, a green ball that tastes like blue cheese and parsley or watercress. Then a nice cold salmon roll topped with caviar and crème fraiche. French white wine is served, which I hear passengers who know about such things oohing and ahhhing over. Nice crusty bread rolls are warm in the middle. The meals are served on elegant white bone china from Royal Doulton, made especially for British Airways. Funny thing, though: We must eat with plain white plastic utensils due to security mandates. Anyway, the meal is not over yet. Next are lovely nutty sea bass fillets wrapped in a thin leaf of Swiss chard. Gorgeous presentation. Finally, I chose a nice tarte tatin for desert instead of the cheese offering, plus a cuppa hot tea and a chocolate.
Looking out the passport-sized window, I can look down and really see the clouds whip by. On a conventional flight, clouds barely seem to move beneath you. But when you are zipping along at nearly twice the speed of sound, they aren’t in your view for long. I’m trying to see the curvature of the earth as I’ve heard you can see from 60,000 feet, but the horizon does not look that different. The window is warm, almost hot, to touch due to the friction of the wind on the outer skin of the Concorde. Engineers say the plane actually stretches a few inches in length during each flight as a result of the heat, and then shrinks back when it cools off.
Finally, after watching a steady queue of passengers take their turns posing for pictures next to the speedometer/altimeter at the front of the cabin, I get up on my mission to photograph the bathroom of the Concorde. (The Brits don’t say “the Concorde” like we do. Much like they don’t say “the hospital” like we Yanks. It’s just “Concorde.” As in, “Are you flying Concorde today?” or, “I had to put my mother in hospital.” Gotta love those quirky Brits . . .)
Anyway, I steal past the curtain to a tiny galley area where the flight attendants are busy straightening up after the meal service. I ask Crispin, one of the jolliest, to pose for me with a silver tray and a bottle of champagne. I tell him about my mission to photograph the lav, and he rushes in, fluffs up the big bouquet of red roses on the corian countertop, props the door open and invites me in. Not too different from what you’d find on any other jet, except of course for the bowl of pungent red roses.
As we approach London, the flight attendant instructs Randy and I to sit tight once we land. He’s arranged for a tour of the cockpit once the other passengers have debarked. Soon the pilot is backing off on the engines and we make our approach into Heathrow. It’s only 5:15 pm local time when we touch down. Our flight from New York to London took all of three hours and 15 minutes. As we taxi to the gate, the pilot comes on the PA one last time to tell us, rather emotionally, that the Concorde, or “the rocket” as pilots refer to it, is no longer wanted or needed these days, nor are those who fly it. He makes a few other desultory comments and signs off, and the entire plane erupts in applause. Bittersweet, as they say . . .
When we pull up to the gate, there is a caravan of bulletproof Range Rovers and a dark green Chevy Suburban with police escort outside the window. Randy and I bet it’s the welcoming party for the Ambassador and his wife. She takes several concerned glances out the window, and Randy and I conspiratorially eye each other. Ummm-hmmmm. Sure enough, once they get off, they are taken down the stairway leading from the jetway, and are whisked away quickly, lights flashing. (No wonder . . . when I check my email later that day, I’ve received an alert from the State Department warning Americans abroad to be especially cautious in light of the impending anniversary of Sept 11, and the recent release of another Osama videotape.)
After everyone is off the plane, Randy and I take a full tour, back through the central galley/lav area to the aft cabin. At 6 feet tall, my head nicks the ceiling. This is not a big plane; it’s about the size of a DC-9. Then we duck inside the cockpit and chat with the pilots. Having been inside the cockpit on much new aircraft, like Delta’s new B-777’s with colorful video screens and modern toggles, the rocket really shows her age in here—she’s nearly 30 years old. Round dials, metal levers and switches. But you can tell that the pilots really loved flying this bird on one of her last flights. Ever.
Concorde flights, all of which are now sold out, cease operations at the end of October, when they’ll fly to their final resting places at museums throughout Europe and the US.
Hope you enjoyed that walk down memory lane! Did you ever fly Concorde? Do you have any questions about my flight? Ask ’em in the comments and let’s see if I can remember back that far 🙂
NOTE: Be sure to click here to see all recent TravelSkills posts about: United packages Economy Plus with amenities + Ride-sharing firm goes out of business + Bucket list for air travelers + Useless travel gadgets + ‘Uber of the Skies’ dies