Last Flight of the Concorde

The Abbotsford News
Ron Shore

December 22, 2003

When I heard that Concorde was shutting down permanently, I knew that I had to fly on it before it was too late. In trying to book the flight, I was told that all the seats were sold out. It took almost three weeks of telephone calls, but I was finally able to land a seat.

The call from British Airways came on Sept. 9, my birthday, a pleasant surprise. They told me that one spot had opened up, but I would have to make my own way to New York City.

My response was swift and sure: Yes!

I jumped around my house as though I had won the lottery. I was going to travel at twice the speed of sound.

I was, to say the least, ecstatic.

As it is with most longtime air show volunteer, the ultimate dream is to fly in a fighter jet or to fly at supersonic speed.

I have been covering the air show for a number of years now as a freelancer for media outlets and the people who are given the seats in the fighters are always the envy of everybody - reporters. Volunteers and spectators alike.

However, this was different.

If I did not go, I would never have another opportunity.

My flight was due to leave on a Wednesday at 9 a.m. I wanted to make sure that I was going to be there at least a few days ahead of time, as I wanted to film the aircraft taking off.

After I arrived at JKF Airport, I spoke to the operations manager and was given clearance to film and do interviews on the tarmac.

He assigned me a driver to take me down to the runway and film from the dock all the way to takeoff.

I was overwhelmed by the hospitality. The drive picked me up at the front of the arrival terminal and we were off. We drove down the tarmac and rounded the corner of the British Airways terminal.

Sitting there in all its glory was Concorde. This was no just any jet: This was legendary Concord.

The moment I set my eyes on her, I swelled with pride as a Canadian. I knew that many Canadian engineers and designers were responsible for building Concorde.

James Floyd (senior designer), Colin Marshall (systems specialist) and John Morris (Chief aerodynamicist) were just some of many Canadians who engineered numerous technical innovations used in Concorde. They developed their expertise on the Canadian Avro Arrow fighter jet project of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

There were many difficulties in building Concorde. In fact, The British were going to pull out of the project, but the contract could not be cancelled. Even the name was a hotly contested issue.

The Brits wanted it named "Concord," but the French insisted on affixing the "e" at the end.

The aircraft was built in both countries. The first test flight was held on March 2, 1969. That same year, Boeing's first 747 flew, President Nixon approved the construction of two supersonic transport prototypes by Boeing (which never flew) and Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon.

I was able to take pictures of Concorde on the tarmac. It was great to see her up close. It is difficult to describe just how different this aircraft really is.

Most airplanes and jets have what are known as elevators, a smaller wing, at the back to allow the aircraft to climb or dive. On Concorde, there are no elevators. The wing is just a large triangle or "delta wing," much like you would have on a simple paper airplane.

The other interesting point is that Concorde is the only aircraft certified to fly without a rudder.

It was set to depart at 9a.m. I knew the Olympus Rolls Royce engines were supposed to be loud, but when they fired up, the decibel level was deafening.

I watched with anticipation as the aircraft was pushed back from the gat.

The airport authority driver drove right beside the aircraft as she taxied out, giving me a great vantage point from which to take pictures.

Just before takeoff, we raced down to the end of the runway to get the shot of Concorde taking off.

We waited. And waited.

As we listened to the traffic control radio, we soon learned there was a technical problem.

It would have to be fixed.

The Concorde never did leave that day, depriving me of the great photo I had planned to take.

The next morning, Wednesday, was C-day - and I was up at 5 a.m. to catch the subway to the airport.

I was told breakfast in the Concorde lounge was awesome - and it did not disappoint.

The spread was first-class.

I thought that I would meet one or two famous people on the flight, but as one of the flight attendants mentioned, most of the people flying were "sky tourists. All Concorde flights now were full so the "rich and famous" who would normally book at the last minute were grounded.

Just before boarding, I spoke wit h a member of the ground staff who had been working Concorde for a number of years.

I was interested in knowing whom she had met, and she recited a list of the who's who in business, entertainment and royalty: Donald Trump, Elton John and the Queen of England, among many, many others.

Once onboard, I noticed that Concorde is quite small inside.

The ceiling is only six feet, two inches high.

As I stand six-foot-four, I had to duck as I made my way to my seat, which was leather, lush and comfortable, as should be expected considering each seat has a price tag of about $20,000.

There are 25 rows, with two seats on either side of the aisle, bringing the maximum capacity to 100 passengers and six crew members.

Once seated, we were off. The excitement in the airplane was tangible.

The gentleman across from me was excited because his wife had bought their tickets for his birthday.

The mother and a daughter behind me had just landed at 5 a.m. that morning from London- and four hours later they were flying back to Heathrow on Concorde.

All they wanted to do was say they had been on one of the last flights.

And I thought I was crazy.

The fellow beside me, David, had seen the first flight in England as a little boy. For him this flight was the fulfillment of a 34-year dream. As he was filming the takeoff from JFK on his video camera, he began to cry - a boy's dream realized. It seemed that everyone was simply there fro the sake of saying that they had flown Concorde.

I felt right at home.

We were on the flagship of the fleet, its call sign G-BOAC.

Her first flight was in February of 1975. The pilot of the aircraft filled us with information about the plane, so many bits of information regarding records and design features that one knows intuitively that the aviation world will not be the same without Concorde in the skies.

Once rolling for take off, it seemed to take forever to get off the runway.

The acceleration was like a race car. And once the front wheel came off the ground, it felt like a rocket ship taking off - straight up.

The Concorde began to level off over the Atlantic Ocean, and the pilot explained the "re-heats" (after burners) used to accelerate past mach speed (the speed of sound).

All 100 passengers were glued to the readouts that told us our speed, altitude and speed. As we surpassed mach 1, we all let out a bit of a cheer.

Other than the speed indicator; there would be nothing to tell us that we had just gone supersonic. The ships on the ocean below would only hear the sonic boom created by our adventure.

When a plane travels faster than the speed of sound the centre of lift on the wing moves closer to the back of the wing.

If the pilot did nothing, the plane would go into a dive.

To compensate for this, the captain explained that fuel is pumped to the rear of the wing to control the balance of the aircraft. In addition, fuel is pumped through the front of the wings to cool them, as they become very hot.

The Concorde flies so fast that friction of the air heats up the entire aircraft. Unlike conventional aircraft windows, mine was now very hot to the touch. This heat causes the whole airplane to lengthen by eight inches (20 centimeters) during flight.

Of course, a truly great adventure requires great food.

We started with a crystal flute filled with champagne to toast our supersonic journey, followed by canapes and caviar: We were then presented with a fine menu detailing myriad choices.

I was hard to choose between the free-range chicken and the lobster, but I thought the chicken sounded delightful. Of course, the food was incredible.

The wine list was extensive - a full two pages in the menu. And desert was absolutely scrumptious. After dinner, everyone received a Concorde day timer as a gift.

As we dined, there was an endless line of people taking pictures of the mach speed and altitude indicators.

It was a slow acceleration on our way to mach 2, or twice the speed of sound.

Another cheer erupted when the gauge hit mach 2.

We were now traveling faster than a bullet at 2,000 feet per second, or one mile every 2.5 seconds.

We continued climbing almost all of the way to our destination.

Near the end of the flight, we reached 59,500 feet. At the highest point of the flight, we could look through the window and see the curvature of the earth. Looking upward, it was much darker than it should be for the time of day. We were on the edge of space.

I had heard that many things seem to go missing on board Concorde.

In fact, the artist Andy Warhol said that he had robbed the plane of all its china and flatware and encouraged others to do the same.

I asked for a blanket, but it "seemed" that every single blanket had been taken by the previous group of passengers.

I would have to settle for a set of six napkin rings and a china coffee cup (requested, not pilfered!).

The cutlery just was not worth taking as it was plastic, thanks to the legacy of Sept. 11, 2001

It seemed like we were just getting started when the nose of the plane started to move toward the ground. We were nearing the end of an adventure of a lifetime.

As we slowed down and the speed fell below mach 1, I felt the window again. It was cold.

We touched down in London a mere three hours and 17 minutes after leaving the Big Apple.

In talking to Londoners' about what they thought about the end of Concorde, their sentiments could be summed up by one gentleman's comment:

"It will seem like the Atlantic just got a whole lot larger."