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The Concorde: Faster Than Sound

For the Traveler in a Hurry, 20-year-old Concorde is Still the World's Fastest Way to Fly
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

Concorde, the world's first and only supersonic airliner, looks as if it came out of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Back when Concorde was under construction it was a compliment, then a cliché, to remark that anything with a futuristic look seemed as though it had come out of Stanley Kubrick's landmark film. Now when you compare 2001 with more recent movies, such as the Star Wars trilogy, the once-futuristic motion picture seems slightly dated. Likewise, needle-sharp, shiny and sleek on the ground, Concorde, now in its third decade, still can't help appearing slightly anachronistic, trapped in the 1960s. That's a risk about the future: the present is always passing it by.

Still, when the captain of this rocket ship firewalls the throttles on takeoff, you forget about appearances. There's more noise generated by Concorde than by the encore of a Who concert, and a display of force sufficient to topple a small dictatorship. For the duration of takeoff, you are shoved with complete and utter authority into your comfortable seat, your head and shoulders pinned to its fragrant gray leather and your cheeks stretched back far enough that you look a little younger. Supersonic travel: it cuts hours off your flight time while it takes years off your face.

There are two ways to fly faster than the speed of sound. The first and more traditional way is to sign up for the Air Force or Navy for the better part of a decade and spend a few grueling years drawing slave wages while trying to survive the cuts in flight school, all while doing so well that you can garner a cream assignment to a fighter squadron. This is also the hard way.

The second method of flying faster than the speed of sound is to simply book a flight on Concorde. This method assures that someone else gets to squander his youth learning all the dangerous and technical high-skills stuff, while all you have to do is pay for the ticket, sit back in luxury and stuff yourself on lobster.

This is the easy way.

It hardly seems possible, but it has been a quarter century since Concorde (as those truly in the supersonic set know, it's never, ever the Concorde) first shot through the world's upper atmosphere at twice the speed of sound--Mach 2, in pilot parlance--in search of customers and profits. For passengers and crew alike, flying in Concorde still smacks of an event. Less auspiciously but perhaps even more significantly, Concorde remains a firm link between the future of air travel and its past.

After liftoff our captain cuts power, banks toward the Atlantic, then hits the gas again and climbs. Though we're climbing at 570 miles per hour, New York's Long Island seems to float by placidly below. Despite Concorde's postcard-size window, we have a good view of the Garden City area, where nearly 80 years ago, in May 1919, the history of transatlantic flight began. Not surprisingly, it was a big, expensive government project, involving three huge custom-built, open-cockpit, bi-winged flying boats that took 42 hours and six stops, spread out over 19 days, and resulted in the loss of two of the airplanes. Then, less than three weeks after the sole survivor limped into Plymouth, England, a two-man British expedition flew a converted First World War bomber across the gap between Newfoundland and Ireland in 17 hours nonstop (which was a necessity, since the bomber was equipped to set down only on land). There was, by the way, no formal food service on those flights.

Aboard Concorde, the digital readout at the front of the cabin proudly clicks to "Mach 1, 770 mph," the only sign that we've crossed the sound barrier. Not everyone is impressed. One passenger simply writes down "bobbysocks" on his crossword puzzle. His interest level seems to be stuck exactly where it was when the flight attendants went through the safety procedures.

By the time we blow past Mach 2, 1,420 mph, drinks and dinner are being served. In the time it takes the steward to pour a glass of Champagne, we fly 10 miles. Passengers in all of the approximately 100 seats on board receive first-class treatment; seat-back tables are covered with white linen tablecloths, and the pumpkin cannelloni from the menu is served on a tray with fresh flowers and small bits of fruit.

We're flying above 50,000 feet now, almost 10 miles high. At this altitude you're supposed to be able to discern the curvature of the earth, but for whatever reason, it's not apparent. Maybe the windows are too small or, hey, maybe that guy from the Flat Earth Research Society was right after all. It does seem to be getting dark out there, and downstairs there's a storm brewing over the North Atlantic.

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