The Concorde: Faster Than Sound
For the Traveler in a Hurry, 20-year-old Concorde is Still the World's Fastest Way to Fly
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"And it's not reflected in my pay," Carrigan jokes.
"We fly at a block altitude of between 50 and 60,000 feet," Captain Thompson says. "It's unlikely for there to be anybody out there--unless you're watching 'The X-Files' at the moment."
Climbing over the Bristol Channel, we blow past supersonic and keep building speed; too soon, the engineer kindly recommends that I go back to my seat and enjoy my meal. "There's really nothing more to see after we reach Mach 1.7," he says, and indeed the action seems to have decreased as we've flown faster. "Come back anytime," the captain adds.
Returning to my seat, I note that a lot of seats on this flight are vacant. That is one of the longtime tender spots at British Airways. The program has been profitable from the first year, Captain Bannister had said almost defensively before the question was even asked--but rumors persist to the contrary.
"Does it make a profit? If you write off the cost of development, then it seems to," says aviation analyst Bill Wagstaff. "But I have been on a street in London when Concorde flew overhead, and people stopped in their tracks and applauded. As a symbol of national pride, I've never seen anything surpass it."
How long Concorde will enjoy this status is anybody's guess; it's possible to find airliners still flying that are 50, 60, even 70 years old. Concordes are still relatively young airplanes. And, given that each Concorde only has the miles of a three-year-old 737 and the hours of a five-year-old 747, Bannister and others say that Concorde service could foreseeably continue until 2025.
Typically, when an airliner grows too old and fatigued to fly, its owner sells it for scrap. From there, it can end up melted down into aluminum and hammered into pots, mobile homes or even new airplanes; in some instances people have bought an old fuselage and converted it into a restaurant or even a nice lakefront home.
Concorde's fate promises to be radically different. Though the French have cannibalized one to use for spare parts, the remaining few will undoubtedly end up in aviation museums such as the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. One of the pre-production prototypes has already been donated to a Royal Air Force museum.
Flying east to west, Concorde flies so fast that you arrive an hour earlier than you depart; it's like flying into the future. As for the future of mass supersonic transportation, the crystal ball remains hazy. Deciding there may be a fortune in the far-flung Pacific Rim, Boeing is once again studying the feasibility of an SST, but this time one with a range from Los Angeles to Tokyo--and in less than five hours, slicing the normal trip time in half. Concorde simply can't do that distance nonstop. A few years back, Gulfstream Aerospace announced plans to build a supersonic business jet, although that seems to have been placed on the back afterburner. And then there's Ronald Reagan's much-touted Mach 25 (18,000 mph) Orient Express, which hasn't left the artist's concept stage. The future of supersonic flight, then, rests on the gossamer wings of Concorde for a long time to come.
Phil Scott is the author of Canvas, Steel and Wire: A Documentary History of Early Flight, to be published this fall by Princeton University Press.