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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

(continued from page 1)

Thoughts turn to Charles Lindbergh's storm-tossed, sleep-deprived 33 1/2-hour solo flight in 1927 between New York and Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis, a small airplane with one engine. (The aviator had little appetite during the flight, practically disregarding the four sandwiches and canteen of water he had packed.) It was little more than an impractical endurance stunt--what good is it to fly solo for a day and a half to anywhere?--yet it sparked the public imagination, which in turn fueled an era of airliner development.

The first international liners were flying boats, since airports were expensive to build and therefore nearly nonexistent, and most major cities had sprung up around harbors anyway. If an airplane lost an engine in flight, well, the pilot could safely land an unsinkable flying boat just about anywhere.

There was another way before the Second World War to cross the oceans by air: the rigid airship. Operators offered opulent service at a luxury boat's pace and price tag. Still, these tended to break apart in storms or explode mysteriously, as in the case of the Hindenburg in 1937, which spelled the end of dirigible travel.

It took the Second World War to give rise to the next great step in transatlantic travel--the development of long-range intercontinental bombers. As ominous as it sounds, take away the bombs, put in a few seats and windows, and you have a fairly modern airliner. The postwar fleets were renowned for such luxurious appointments as roomy cabins, sleeping berths (breakfast in bed!), dining rooms and cocktail lounges. Forget that the transatlantic flying time for a 1949 Lockheed Super Constellation was 14 hours. Everybody got dressed to the nines, drank Martinis, smoked cigars and had a great time.

Then the British built the Comet.

The Comet, all 36 seats of it, was the world's first jet airliner, and when it began regular service in 1952 it could cross the Atlantic in just six to seven hours. It was sleek and looked engineless, since the propellerless engines melded smoothly into the wings at the points where they attached to the fuselage. It had big square windows, too--and they proved to be the Comet's undoing. Less than a year after they were introduced, Comets began exploding and falling out of the sky. After examining the wreckage, safety officers discovered microscopic cracks in the corners of those big square windows--cracks that formed when the jet's interior was pressurized to allow passengers to ride in warm, oxygen-rich comfort while the airplane itself flew in the rarefied, subzero air of 33,000 feet.

The jet set had arrived, but without the British; the Comet never recovered its reputation. In 1955, BOAC (British Airways' predecessor) even went so far as to purchase Boeing 707 jetliners from the American aerospace manufacturer. It was the beginning of dark times for the British aerospace industry. Soon enough airline deregulation followed, and the jet set went the way of the three-Martini lunch. Flying at 30,000 feet took on all the romance of riding a Greyhound at sea level.

The captain announces that we're preparing to land, and London appears below through patches of fog. We land fast and nose-high, a characteristic common of superfast delta-wing aircraft. (If you want to land slow and shallow, book passage on something with long, narrow wings, such as a glider.) In no time, we're waiting at the baggage carousel. And waiting. And waiting. The Supersonic Age has been around for 20 years, which seems about the average wait for luggage; ground crews the world over travel at Pony Express velocity. But at least there's no jet lag, according to most passengers and pilots. There's a scientific reason for this: Concorde moves too damn fast for your brain and your body to figure out that they've just been shot across several time zones.

The next day it's a trip to British Airways' Heathrow headquarters, which occupies a newly built "stealth" building designed not to interfere with airport radar, to meet Capt. Mike Bannister, chief Concorde pilot for British Airways. A friendly-looking, round-faced chap, Bannister sits behind a desk in a small office crowded with Concorde ephemera, mostly models of varying sizes. Concorde pilots display an affection for their machine that is unlike that of any other airline pilots, and Bannister is perhaps more enthusiastic that most. "Concorde is like a fighter," he gushes like a 10-year-old after his first airplane ride, only in a deep, resonant voice reminiscent of Richard Burton's. "It's so responsive; it's such a delight to fly. I personally believe any carrier pilot would like to fly Concorde."

Bannister has been with the program since 1977, its first full year of service. Like other Concorde pilots, he worked his way up to the SST through British Airways' ranks. The drill was pretty much the same then as now. British Airways puts out the word that it needs pilots who want to fly fast; pilots apply, seeking the prestige of being one of the elite few who fly Concorde--the cutting edge of airline flying--and are chosen on the basis of seniority and flying skills. Once they're accepted into the program, they complete a transition course that takes the better part of a year. "There's more that goes into flying Concorde than in other airliners," says John Lampl, a British Airways spokesman. "It's a much more detailed, sensitive aircraft."

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